This year, I am returning to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival (NIHRF) with VOCALISM. In December 2015, we hosted an event showcasing the cultural diversity of Belfast in an attempt to appreciate the cultural identities at play in Northern Ireland.
In an event titled, "Songs of the People", traditional and folk songs of this island were performed alongside less traditional musical forms. These included hip-hop and rap delivered by an 18 year-old artist of Afro-Caribbean heritage. We also had a performance of Chinese opera and a fusion of Bangladeshi guitar, Indian table drumming and a Derry fiddler. Over the evening, Donegal sean nós singer Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde performed songs from his latest album Sona do Cheird.
On Friday 18 November, I sang at the launch of the 2016 NIHRF, which took place in Belfast's Black Box in the Cathedral Quarter. I talked about the "Songs of the People" workshop series and the showcase event that takes place on Human Rights Day - 10 December 2016. It is the final official event of the Festival, and should be a great way to close a week of human rights discussions.
Building on last year's "Songs of the People" theme, the workshop series will facilitate music-making in the community and will focus particularly on songwriting. The goal is to use music as a tool for self-expression and to actively engage and participate in cultural life. The law on 'cultural rights' specifically mentions engagement in cultural activities as important to democratic citizenship. Art and other cultural practices express so much about us and it is imperative that we appreciate it, facilitate it, and celebrate it together.
This year, the workshops are a collaboration between my own VOCALISM and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). Zara Porter will represent the NIHRC as we travel to community organisations in Belfast on 4 December 2016. You can find out more on the NIHRF website by clicking here.
While our culture prides itself on ancient stories and songs, much of the communal oral tradition has been neglected today in favour of an online network that we are continuously co-creating together with a ‘global community’ of internet users.
There is something anachronistic about listening, undistracted and quiet, to a song being performed live in a room. Indeed, a formal concert is becoming quite an old-fashioned way of enjoying music. It is a ritual, protected by tradition and by imagined boundaries and customs. These rules protect the music and preserve the performance space. Performers and venues must adapt to the habits of the audience, but then again, venues and performers can choose to some degree who the attract – using publicity shots and branding to weed out the people who might just spoil the show by talking or filming throughout.
In Ireland, the traditional seisiún amhráin is a pretty out-dated scenario. Maybe it always was. However, to enjoy music and literature with nothing but the human voice is as ancient as communication itself.
It is rare for young people anywhere in Ireland to gather in a technology-free zone, absent of sound systems, televisions, or mobile phones. Therefore, there is one series of non-verbal symbols that connects all of us online: binary code. As we hack a complex combination of 0s and 1s on a daily basis, we might be excused for claiming we have mastered another, new language; one that our ancestors could fathom only as science fiction. For all the complicated mathematical systems humans have conjured, binary code has broadened the horizons of modern technology.
Against this background, anyone who participates in a traditional song session is deciding to participate in something old, absent of binary code. It could perhaps be described as primitive. It is a conscious, or subconscious, act of preservation of an ancient form of art. Maybe it could even be seen as a political act.
While driving to Malahide (where I work at Fingal Academy of Music) today, I came across Heed Fm. I didn’t understand what it was at first. I heard a candid conversation between two people, the apparent interviewee sounded like a young man in his early 20s. It was very raw, unedited, long silences, swear words. This was daytime radio.
I looked it up online: “Heed FM is a twenty-eight-day anonymous sound portrait created through one-to-one and group conversations in Dublin with people aged 18–25 and from all backgrounds.” The project is committed to creating an authentic representational portrait of a generation residing in the Greater Dublin Area. Heed FM worked with over 100 subjects, which it calls “contributors”, from all backgrounds – some are users of social services and organisations in the fields of homelessness, mental health, and addiction.
The project said: “it is important to have an accurate portrayal of how this demographic normally communicates, beyond the limited way it is currently represented through mainstream media”. Minimal editing was employed to record “the most genuine possible representation of the conversations”.
One of the questions that was raised to this young man was about his Irishness. He had moved to work in New Zealand, and he was asked how he felt about being away from Dublin and about his identity as an emigrant. It was interesting that he felt that there was nothing unique about the idea of Irishness. With the majority of media consumed by young people (arguably by anyone under the age of 50) coming from the United States of America, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that we are more influenced by American culture than by Irish culture. The vast majority of Irish citizens are presented with USA politics much more often than they may read an article about domestic policy drawn up in the Dáil.
Regarding the ridiculous Presidential race taking place in the USA this year, it is a curious time to be an English-speaker. Along with Australians, New Zealanders, Britons and Canadians, Irish people are expected to engage with the democratic process of a foreign country as if it were its own. Is that not strange? Do USA politicians exercise more power of Irish citizens than their own TDs? It is clear that power is a clear and apparent indicator of capital – whether it be political, economic, cultural or social.
Tonight, I attended a workshop in sean nós singing. We sang a song called Éamonn an Chnoic. According to the sources most readily available through Google, the song describes a man called Éamonn Ó Riain (c.1670-c.1724). He was apparently considered to be the ‘Robin Hood’ of east Limerick and west Tipperary. He was sent to France to study in pursuit of the priesthood, but instead he returned and fought for the Williamite forces. Following the confiscation of Irish catholic land in the Act of Settlement 1652 after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, many dispossessed catholic landowners took to the forests and hills of rural Ireland to wage war against the British Crown forces. They were known as “raparees”.
Storytelling – whether through song or otherwise – is a reflection of a community’s shared myths and heritage. Is there anything separating the stories, the myths, the cultures of young Americans compared to young Irish people? Of course there is.
However, the storytelling tradition in Ireland is obscured to a frightening degree by the contemporary media. The cultural appreciation of Irish literature and art is weak compared to American cultural self-appreciation. The USA is a source of wealth. Within a capitalist system, producers/creators of services or products are drawn towards wealth. So it is more economically viable to indulge in American cultural practices. Ireland has hardly any indigenous cultural capital; very little that can translate into money anyway. Ireland’s successful industries today are largely imported. The industries that remain intact and successful to some extent are inevitably exported – especially cultural products. And to where are they exported? Largely to Irish America.
If it is possible to remove the modern concept of capital from our judgment – replacing a 21st century value system with another, more traditional one – maybe it is possible to appreciate the Irish culture at a higher level. Listening to Irish voices through a project such as Heed FM might be a way for us to access ourselves, rather than tuning into foreign accents, speaking about familiar but foreign concerns. It is no surprise that the accents of young Irish people are homogenising. It is no wonder at all.
Tonight, Eithne Ní Chatháin sang Éamonn an Chnoic to a small room of listeners. Yes, there was a transaction (we paid for the class). But was there something else happening? Another transaction? Maybe Eithne’s form of storytelling – an sean nós (the old way) – arguably one of the only ‘indigenous’ art forms still active on this island – just maybe it is preserving something invaluable.
If we could view our own cultural practices in this way, as something timeless, something priceless, then we could develop an appreciation of our heritage that straddles the old and the new. Without this, money talks. And only the valuable remains in a capitalist world. And it looks like that’s where we’re headed.