[2 March 2011]
When does traditional music cease to be traditional? It’s an interesting question, because as musicians struggle with notions of purity and respect for material from the past, they also must find a way to make the music a reflection of their own artistry. Playing a tune from 200 years ago might well reflect something true about the musician who plays it, but the inevitable changes—in instrumentation, in technology, even in aesthetics—will affect changes on the music itself, intentional or not.
Such questions come to mind when listening to a record like Six Days in Down, a collaboration between Irish traditional musicians John McSherry and Dónal O’Connor and American jazz guitarist Bob Brozman. McSherry, a virtuouso of the tricky uilleann pipes, and fiddle player O’Connor are established young musicians whose roots are planted firmly in trad-folk soil. Brozman, an exponent of slide guitar, is something of an ethno-musicologist, and has recorded music around the world.
That said, Six Days in Down is genre-bending, but hardly genre-smashing—there are no electrified jigs and reels a la Fairport Convention, say, and no synth beats or samples. Nonetheless, Brozman’s presence adds a new color to the traditional palette, subtly yet distinctly coloring these tunes in new and surprising ways.
This distinct flavor is present in the opening tune, “Hardiman the Fiddler”, with its straightforward fiddling and piping livened up by Brozman’s jazzy chords. Other tunes in the set, notably “Portaferry Swing” and “Pota Mór Fatai”, also benefit—though some purists might suggest that “suffer” is a more accurate word—from this shading. In particular, the twanging slide accents throughout “Pota Mór Fatai” lend a refreshing mood to what could have been an overly familiar tune.
Vocals are rare on this record, but they are outstanding when they do crop up, and one of the few criticisms I can offer here is that there are not enough songs. Stephanie Makem’s voice is lilting and ethereal—she sounds something like a hundred-year-old child, if that makes any sense—and it suits the mood perfectly. “A Mháire Bruineall” and “Bean An Fhir Ruaidh” are both standout cuts as a result—the former with its its gently throbbing undercurrent, and the latter with its gentle tune and piercing, almost sitar-like guitar stylings. As with much of this album, it’s an unlikely mix that works well. But why does Makem appear only twice?
“Beer Belly Dancing” is a good example of how these musicians extend the tropes and conventions of traditional music into new areas, having fun in the process. Marrying the off-kilter rhythms of Middle Eastern music with the frenetic fingerwork of traditional Irish tunes might sound like a recipe for disaster, but the tune works surprisingly well. McSherry’s smooth yet frenetic pipes and O’Connor’s rhythmic, trance-inducing fiddle work in concert with Brozman’s springy guitar to create a song that is not a pure reflection of either tradition, but a lively, engaging and fun synthesis of the two. It might be the perfect representation of the album as a whole: a set of serious musicians who are uninterested in taking themselves too seriously.