As many of us this past weekend and Monday embarked on our yearly celebration involving wearing a color we normally do not wear; we may have seen one of the many Irish shows on TV, went to a parade, went to a concert, or went to a pub. At some point during this time of year (when we are all Irish), we got to hear some music. As Irish music is near and dear to my heart, I thought I would post a little FAQ on the whole thing so next time you hear the music you can impress someone with saying “I really liked how the set began with a slide and ended with reels.”
Basically you can group Irish music into two main categories: music with singing and music without singing.
The most well known songs are pub tunes and ballads, many of which overlap or are both used in group performances. Pub tunes are moderate to fast-tempo, usually about having a good time or telling a tall tale of some sort, and often have crowd participation during the rollicking songs. Ballads are stories generally sung slowly and about sad topics such as love lost, death, war, troubles. Ballads have migrated from their sources on the British Isles over to America where we start to recognize them in bluegrass and country music. Both songs can be sung an Gaelige (in the Gaelic language), but generally the songs are in English so everyone can share in the craic (pronounced like crack and means having a good time). A very specific style of singing from Ireland is called Sean Nos (meaning “old style”), which is characterized by acapella singing often in Gaelic with difficult vocal ornamentation, breath control including glottal stops and glides, and melodic variation; sean nos also migrated to America where it influenced shape-note singing and the ‘high lonesome sound’ of old-time and bluegrass music (think “O, Brother Where Art Thou?“).
The instrumental music played by old and new bands, the stuff heard in any Irish movie, Riverdance, a certain scene in Titanic, and pretty much anything Irish has that music dancing around in the background is all considered traditional, trad, or folk music. These tunes were originally used for dancing at a ceili (big Irish dance party) or step-dancing (Riverdance style), so the songs tend to be played pretty fast and bouncy. The tunes can be divided into different types depending on time signatures (beats per measure), tempos, and rhythmic emphasis. The main types of tunes are reels, polkas, hornpipes, jigs, slides, and airs. When played, the highly ornamented melodies can be changed slightly depending on the musicians style so it sounds different when the same short 2/3 phrases are repeated to complete the tune. Tunes are usually played in sets of 3 or 4 of the same type (ie: 3 jigs or 4 polkas) but as with many aspects of playing this style of music, there are no hard and fast rules. Instruments used in the playing of Irish music are: fiddle, flute or whistle, Uilleann pipes, harp, accordion or concertina, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, and percussion in the form of a bodhran (Irish goat skin frame drum) but other kinds of drums and spoons or bones (two pieces of wood that make clacking sounds) are also used. Like other styles of folk music, Irish traditional is an evolving style with lots of room for different interpretations but with a firm basis in the thousands of similar tunes passed down for hundreds of years.
Some musicians to get you started include: Planxty, Lunasa, Dervish, Gaelic Storm, Solas, Altan, Cherish the Ladies, and of course the Chieftains.
More info on the web?
Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann– The large global organization promoting Irish music and culture.
The Session– Clearinghouse of tunes, discussions of music, and lists of sessions worldwide.
–This will be my final post on DCPLive, and I thank everyone for reading my posts!