Neil Alasdair McEwan wrote:
> The article below is from the latest (Spring 1997) issue of "Am
> Braighe". Some of you may have already met the author on Gaelic-L.
> Celtic Connections or Celtic Pretensions? by Michael Newton
Thank you for sending this along Neil. It is very interesting
to hear the perspective from the other side.
> "A radio commentator speaking about the American country-folk singer
> Iris De Ment, who gave a Glasgow performance, said that she must surely
> have Scottish ancestry; and, anyway, country music was Celtic in origin.
Funny, there is nothing I've seen in her performances here that
reminded me of anything even vaguely Celtic. However, the two performances
I've seen (on Austin City Limits) were entirely different in style.
Perhaps she is very good at moving from one style to another as the
> "The recent invention of "Celtic music" has been doubtlessly
> triggered by consumer demand, especially from the massive English-
> speaking market. While the label "Celtic" is useful in many ways, it
> can't be applied with any precision to cover or describe the musical
> traditions of several peoples developing independently under different
> influences, each with their own distinct musical idioms.
I wonder if he includes English-speaking people from Ireland
and the U.K. in this group or just the folk across the oceans? There
is no doubt that there is great temptation to appeal to the wider
market, especially for those who would like to make a living in music.
> "It is no surprise, given parallels in the oral traditions of other
> peoples, that musical tradition is rooted in language [surely not! --N.Mc.E.]
> The human voice is after all the universal instrument, and research in
> Gaelic music supports the assertion that the Gaelic musical idiom has
> grown out of the rhythms, cadences and characteristics of the Gaelic
> language. It follows that any attempt to understand and develop the
> musical heritage of the Gaels hinges upon the health of the language
In Scotland, this principle has recently been revived in the
interpretation of piobardreach, the traditional music of the Highland
bagpipe. For the past few decades, the method of playing this form
of music, especially in the piping competitions, was based on the
descriptions of an English speaking person who wrote a book on the
subject. This book became a virtual Bible of piobardreach and as time
went on, the art form became more and more stylized and separated from
its roots. The old way of playing has survived in some of the more
remote Hebridean islands (where, interestingly enough, Gaelic has also
survived) and now pipers from other places have become interested in
the old way, have adopted it for themselves, and are teaching it.
> "When aiming for a wide consumer market, unacquainted with Gaelic
> culture and tradition, the information content and other traditional
> aesthetic considerations are de-emphasized in order to "bring the product
> to the widest possible market". In other words, particular elements are
> drawn out and used only if they can be readily assimilated into
> mainstream Western music and consumed by a market looking for exotica.
> "Musicians are praised according to how effectively they can perform
> the cultural asset-stripping necessary to create new commodities. In
> accordance with the modernist myths of "progress", importance is placed
> on "absorbing influences", "pushing back boundaries", "doing newer and
> bigger things". Musicians are seldom celebrated for their virtuosity
> within traditional idioms, and those who are conerned with understanding
> and respecting tradition styles on their own grounds and merits are
> dismissed as "purists".
In Glasgow last August, as part of the Glasgow International Folk
Festival, I attended two performances of Celtic music. One was the group
Capercaillie and the other a collection of more traditional Gaelic artists,
mostly not well known, performing waulking songs, mouth music, and other
traditional song forms. Which one do you think drew the larger audience?
Capercaillie played to a nearly full house. The more traditional program
played to a virtually empty house.
> "After all, Gaelic music has only survived for culture vultures to
> rip apart because some people had enough respect for it to resist
> institutionss which attempted to either "improve" it or wipe it out. If
> the genuine tradition is absorbed into mainstream Western music and loses
> its basis as a distinctive idiom, then it will no longer be able to make
> a unique contribution to the world's music, let alone be pillaged for
Nevertheless, even during the "hayday" of traditional music, there
was change over time. No art form can be completely stable and still be
alive. At one time, traditional music was all there was. Today it
competes with music from all over the world and there is no doubt that
the young people of both the U.K. and Ireland prefer rock music to
traditional music. There are groups, such as Runrig, which have combined
Gaelic elements and rock elements. These groups have an appeal for
younger people. A handful of Runrig's fans will become so absorbed in
the Gaelic idiom that they will develop an interest in the more traditional
forms of this music. As even the most remote areas of Ireland and the
U.K. are taken over by world pop culture, traditional art forms will
have an even tougher time to survive and unless the interest of the young
can be captured in some way, these art forms will die.