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Mark Evans

Dance tunes, tradition vs. inovation?

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The banjo!!?? The banjo! Arrgh! If there is one instrument completely, utterly and totally unsuited to Irish music the banjo is it. I would honestly rather sit in a session with 24 alpenhorns, ten sets of bongoes and 400 piano accordions than be machine-gunned to death by a banjo.

 

That's fine, Mayofiddler! :rolleyes: there are some people I know who don't like raisins in cakes and scones - but that's their loss!

 

Just because some folk-singers decided to accompany themselves on banjo and then took to bashing out the odd jig or reel at the end of their songs, it deluded a horde of...of... people into thinking it was OK to play Irish music on the banjo.

 

Let's get this right: If you're going to sing to the banjo, then your weapon of choice has got to be the 5-string, as played by Margaret Barry, Luke Kelly, Tommy Makem or - ahem! - me. If you're gong to bash out jigs and reels like Barney McKenna, then you'd better choose a tenor banjo, which has a fifths tuning akin to the fiddle, and thus lends itself to fiddle music.

 

So I don't buy the scenario of a singer bashing out dance music on his banjo. :P

 

As a banjoist, I regard the tenor as an upstart - a hybrid devised so that viola players could get a banjo sound when the banjo sound was the sound to have in popular music.

The 5-string banjo was the instrument of the serious amateur musician of the banjo era, and of the professional banjoists who were his role models. When the classic banjo era ended in the early 20th century, there were unused 5-strings lying about in Ireland (as elsewhere), so the earliest Irish folk banjoists took them over. As others of their ilk did with the Anglo-German concertinas left over from the era of the concertina's popularity.

So historically, the 5-string banjo is just as "legitimate" (if we have to use that word) as the Anglo concertina in Irish music. The 5-string banjo is not so popular these days, having been thrust aside by those obnoxious, ubiquitous, American dreadnought guitars. :angry:

 

Cheers,

John (who enjoys a good Alphorn, but never really warms to the bongoes ...)

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Exactly! That's how a tradition works, by filtering out the things that don't work. Innovations in Irish music like the concertina, or more recently the bouzouki, work and have been accepted.

 

I don't know who has accepted the bouzouki except the pop-bands playing Irish tunes and pretending to be traditional. Same goes for mandolins, guitars or any other pointless and useless "accompanying" instrument.

OK, the banjo, then. Or the bodhran. Or, for that matter, those new-fangled fiddles, flutes and pipes, which must have been innovations once.

 

The banjo!!?? The banjo! Arrgh! If there is one instrument completely, utterly and totally unsuited to Irish music the banjo is it. I would honestly rather sit in a session with 24 alpenhorns, ten sets of bongoes and 400 piano accordions than be machine-gunned to death by a banjo. Just because some folk-singers decided to accompany themselves on banjo and then took to bashing out the odd jig or reel at the end of their songs, it deluded a horde of...of... people into thinking it was OK to play Irish music on the banjo. Thank god it's mostly restricted to Comhaltas children in Ireland who usually grow out of it, with one or two exceptions. Come back bouzoukis, all is forgiven...

 

i think a banjo played well in irish music is an amazing thing. my grandma's cousin (i think she's about 65) grew up in the good old days in roscommon and she says her favorite instrument is the banjo. i dont know... she doesnt take a lot of nonsense in her musical tastes (she told me willie clancy must have had too much time on his hands to make things so fancy), and if she isnt offended by it, i trust her judgement.

 

i would agree, though, that i prefer melody instruments at sessions for the most part, but that doesnt always hold true for me. one time i was at a pub with a visiting accordion player from clare, and he and i played a bunch of good old clare tunes, with 3 (or was it 4?) guitarists--no other melody players. all the guitarists were very good (professionals, if that means anything). the sound enveloped me and the accordion player in our little corner of the pub, and it was just about perfect. the accordion player was amazing as well, so it felt like i was playing INSIDE of a CD, if that makes any sense. i suppose the only reason it worked is cuz he was playing accordion and i guitar, so we both could fit inside of eachother's sound very well and not get overpowered by the guitarists.

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You guys are too tolerant, I expect to get at least one lambasting for each post I make but you all seem to humour me :blink:

 

I think the banjo sounds great in some forms of American music, I really enjoy it. I don't know enough about bluegrass or anything else to tell if that's a stupid thing to say, but in my ignorance I like the sound. However it is an abusive, clanging intrusion in Irish dance music. There's is no subtlety to it at all, no beauty no matter how it is played, and please don't tell me there are players who can play it well enough to blend in with a session. I imagine WWII or Vietnam Vets automatically dive for cover under a table when a banjo starts up and start patting themselves down looking for grenades to throw back.

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You guys are too tolerant, I expect to get at least one lambasting for each post I make but you all seem to humour me :blink:

 

I think the banjo sounds great in some forms of American music, I really enjoy it. I don't know enough about bluegrass or anything else to tell if that's a stupid thing to say, but in my ignorance I like the sound. However it is an abusive, clanging intrusion in Irish dance music. There's is no subtlety to it at all, no beauty no matter how it is played, and please don't tell me there are players who can play it well enough to blend in with a session. I imagine WWII or Vietnam Vets automatically dive for cover under a table when a banjo starts up and start patting themselves down looking for grenades to throw back.

 

Before I get ankle deep in alligators here at the job site I must reply: What a lovely thread diversion! The freakin' banjo. I play one...oh about 30 years and it is without a doubt an illusive beauty that tickles the senses promising more delight if you just chase her a bit, or a monstrous Harpy whoose hiddious voice can rend stone in twain.

 

The jackass pluckin' the freakin' strings is the one who chooses between the two. Simple, very simple.

 

My experience with tenor banjos in Irish Trad is limitied. Claudine Langille's playing with Touchstone was magnificent, as is the playing of me chum Brian Herbert. Both are extremely subtile and (here's the key) play open back banjos. Brian perhaps takes it too far by jamming an athletic sock between the truss rod and the head, but it is mellow and classy other than a lingering question about cleanliness of that odd sock .

 

The resonator is the dangerous bit with a banjo and it is the tenor we have to blame for this. The predominant rhythm instrument for early jazz bands....hello, loud brass instruments...it needed amplification. The builders, prime amongst them Gibson, brought their A game, and low and behold a banjo that can atomize sapling pine trees at 30 paces or sound like a bubbling brook meandering through the same stand of pines arose from their workshop to become an plague. :ph34r:

 

Friday on the way to a yearly St. P's gig I do with Kinvara, I was "treated" a CD of a band from Ireland. Ain't gonna name names 'cause I don't fancy the mule headed lunk pounding the beejeezus otta that resonator tenor coming after me.

 

It was horrible! You couldn't hear the backer on the guitar, or the fiddler or the flute most of the time. The lunk was techincally very good with swift tempi and drive for miles. I compliment the repeated triplets as crisp and in time, but this person was into domination only. Me Kinvara chums were waiting to see my response and my howls of dissaproval resulted in some very grim grins. They had played with the lunk and the lunk was not to be messed with. :unsure:

 

As to 5 or four string....we know the history as it developed here in the states. Perhaps the souls of Africans inslaved and brought to these shores might have something to say on that subject?

 

I have heard a few folks who play jigs and reels on the five string open back banjo...very nice indeed. To do it I would need say three instruments in different tunings and that is beyond my pocket book, interest and intellegince level.

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Mark, some of that was very funny and I understand the love for your instrument bubbling underneath the humour. Some of the American players are astonishingly good and create a beautiful melodic sound around modern scales. But the sound just does not fit with Irish music. The staccato clanging sound, whether quiet or loud just changes the whole "feel" of the music. The point of most Irish dance music is a lift and strong rhythm wrapped in a smooth and gentle flow. Volume is not necessarily the culprit with a banjo (although it often is) it's the lack of smoothness and the almost robotic and monotonous rhythm it imparts. It's in the nature of the instrument and I wouldn't blame the players for it, it's just an unsuitable instrument.

 

It's incredibly hard to describe, I can only fall back on Peter Laban's aesthetics comment, which in itself is a wishy-washy explanation unless you are already there and can grok what he says.

Edited by Mayofiddler

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Mark, some of that was very funny and I understand the love for your instrument bubbling underneath the humour. Some of the American players are astonishingly good and create a beautiful melodic sound around modern scales. But the sound just does not fit with Irish music. The staccato clanging sound, whether quiet or loud just changes the whole "feel" of the music. The point of most Irish dance music is a lift and strong rhythm wrapped in a smooth and gentle flow. Volume is not necessarily the culprit with a banjo (although it often is) it's the lack of smoothness and the almost robotic and monotonous rhythm it imparts. It's in the nature of the instrument and I wouldn't blame the players for it, it's just an unsuitable instrument.

 

 

An unequivocal opinion; hard to discuss that. Have 'em myself. The bodhran and the piccolo are two of those subjects. :angry:

 

I would like clarification of your statement about "American players" being astonishingly good creating beautiful melodic sound around modern scales. But the sound just not fitting with Irish music. That leaves me scratchin' my head. A tenor banjo is almost as bound to a tempered scale as the concertina. There is no historical question that ancient Celtic scales did not conform to a tempered or even untempered scale and had smaller increments of pitch between our modern half step, but why would your statement be reserved for banjo players and Americans in specific?

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My local radio station featured an interview with several people at the local Irish dance school describing Irish dance as a competitive athletic event. I noticed that the music in the background (played on piano acordion--almost certainly a recording) was being almost completely ignored by the dancers, whose hard shoes were beating out a ryhthm having next to nothing to do with the recording. Perhaps the loss of conncetion between the dance and the session music in the Irish American scene goes both ways.

 

On Sunday I had the chance to dance (rather than play) for a change at my ECD group. The fiddler in the band grew up a bit north of Peoria and I've danced to her music since she was about 8. She's now working on a doctorate in music performance at one of the conservatories in New York City. She's very good on the instrument and has kept the feel for dance that she grew up with.

 

The (semi-say within 100 miles) local traditional dance scene uses live music for contra, ECD, and barn dances held in community halls and the occasional barn. The dancing is better for the tradition of live music and the music is (I think) better for the regular chance to play for dancers.

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I would like clarification of your statement about "American players" being astonishingly good creating beautiful melodic sound around modern scales. But the sound just not fitting with Irish music. That leaves me scratchin' my head. A tenor banjo is almost as bound to a tempered scale as the concertina. There is no historical question that ancient Celtic scales did not conform to a tempered or even untempered scale and had smaller increments of pitch between our modern half step, but why would your statement be reserved for banjo players and Americans in specific?

 

Sorry I was talking about American musicians playing (say) bluegrass. You see that my ignorance in that area has led me astray already with loose terminology. In bluegrass and (I think it's called) old timey music, the banjo music seems to be arranged around notes that hang in the air and keep a smooth cascade of sound going, so that the staccato effect is lost to some extent. In a similar way good concertina players arrange their music much the same, with hops between many "fill in" notes that cover what would be gaps and give a staccato effect, but the fill-in notes are appropriate to Irish trad in their case.

 

However when banjo players play Irish music they seem to try to play "The Tune" as picked up from notation or from a CD of a fiddle player or flute player or whatever. However, despite their good intentions to stick with a trad version of the tune, they end up with a clangy sounding staccato effect because the version of the tune doesn't suit the instrument. Mayhap if they learnt a good concertina version of the tune it would sit on the instrument better and not sound so bad? I don't know. Does that make any more sense (in terms of explanation anyway even if you disagree)?

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Sorry I was talking about American musicians playing (say) bluegrass. You see that my ignorance in that area has led me astray already with loose terminology. In bluegrass and (I think it's called) old timey music, the banjo music seems to be arranged around notes that hang in the air and keep a smooth cascade of sound going, so that the staccato effect is lost to some extent. In a similar way good concertina players arrange their music much the same, with hops between many "fill in" notes that cover what would be gaps and give a staccato effect, but the fill-in notes are appropriate to Irish trad in their case.

 

Okay...Nice discription by the way "a smooth cascade of sound". My long suffering wife so hates the sound of the banjo, I would retreat to the porch and abuse the neighbors. After a few years she went to one of my concerts with Obi's Boys. Aftewards she had this great smile on her face. "It finaly makes sense! Your banjo is like a little creek rippling through the music...it holds it all together." I was so happy, I shed a little tear. She just couldn't take me going over a passage 10 or 15 times in a row. Can't really blame her for that. She actually jams with us once in a while and is an excellent fiddler particularly on those hot back up licks! Who would have guessed.

 

You might get yourself in a hot, oiled skillet with our old time players here. Not many of these lads want anything to do with bluegrass, because of the bluegrass banjo <_< . Their clawhammer, open back instrument does the same thing for that genre, with quite a bit less from the steriod department.

 

If you don't like banjo in trad, you don't like it. What can one say? The staccato bit...I hear waht you are saying. That from my edge of the woods may have much more to do with the plecturm used. If they dig a thick heavey pick, there is no cure that does not involve the death of the player.

 

I think most bodhran players should be registered with the police and closely monitored and required to wear an ankle bracelet that can be zapped with a strong electric current when they go rogue...which they all will given the least opportunity. No amount of talking me down will change that.

Edited by Mark Evans

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Hey Mayo Fiddler, How about the sax in At the Racket? Hate that too? Jeez, good thing you wasn't around when the concertina came here from Germany or wherever. And you gonna tell Jerry O'Connor that he doesn't fit in? Sure Jerry, yr welcome at the session- but just leave yr banjo at home, ok?

 

To tell you the truth, the banjo isn't my favorite instrument. But neither is the pipes. Or the piano accordion.* Saying that, however, doesn't mean that there isn't a place for them in the tradition, or that the tradition is so narrow that it will be fixed now, as it is, for the rest of time. You and I may not fancy certain instruments but the tradition is wide enough to accommodate lots of things we might not like - such as people singing cowboy songs in Gaelic. Yech. Gross. I'll take a piano accordion any day over that stuff. But it's (Country-Gaelic) on Radio Na Gaeltacht and it seems to have found a place in the hearts of native speakers, so who am I to complain?

 

Edited to add: Or the English concertina, which is entirely too legato for dancing, which some people think is really the heart of the tradition. But then what do you do with O'Carolan?

Edited by David Levine

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Ooh, reminds me of a song: Gershwin forgive me, but since you've been so badly used anyway...

 

You say staccato and I say legato...let's call the whole thing off...an' go get blatto!

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Hey Mayo Fiddler, How about the sax in At the Racket? Hate that too? Jeez, good thing you wasn't around when the concertina came here from Germany or wherever. And you gonna tell Jerry O'Connor that he doesn't fit in? Sure Jerry, yr welcome at the session- but just leave yr banjo at home, ok?

 

 

there isn't a place for them in the tradition, or that the tradition is so narrow that it will be fixed now, as it is, for the rest of time. You and I may not fancy certain instruments but the tradition is wide enough to accommodate lots of things we might not like - such as people singing cowboy songs in Gaelic. Yech. Gross. I'll take a piano accordion any day over that stuff. But it's (Country-Gaelic) on Radio Na Gaeltacht and it seems to have found a place in the hearts of native speakers, so who am I to complain?

 

Edited to add: Or the English concertina, which is entirely too legato for dancing, which some people think is really the heart of the tradition. But then what do you do with O'Carolan?

 

Sax in trad? Well there is such a gulf between your idea of trad music and mine that I don't think we can even discuss this. Ne'er the twain shall meet. At The Racket are a racket all right, just because one eejit decides to use an instrument to play trad tunes doesn't make it trad. John Carty has so many American influences on his fiddling from his banjo playing that he absolutely isn't trad, not to mention the Irish music he plays is English-Irish. They're just lucky Tansey hasn't got on to them yet :-)

 

And yes, I'd say Jerry O'Connor doesn't fit in any more than any other banjo player. There is no special boot-licking allowed just because someone has made some money from the tradition. In fact most of the musicians who have made real money from Irish trad have done it through gimmicky band setups or fusion-arrangements to pander to foreign markets.

 

The tradition *isn't* wide enough to accommodate lots of things, those "lots of things" are far outside the tradition. It doesn't accommodate them, it's people who know nothing about the tradition, or who care more about making money, that accommodate them.

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Mayofiddler,

 

I used to think exactly like you about the banjo in Irish music, but then - over a period of 30 years - I relaxed my ring muscles.

 

No you can't play an air on a banjo. No you can't sustain a note, or bend a note, or play an in-between note, or change the pitch of a note (for practical purposes).

 

Yes - as I used to say scornfully from my elevated position as a fiddle player - all you can do is go bonk, bonk-bonk, or bonkety-bonk.

 

But guess what? People like banjos. Really like them. People who like traditional music I mean. Even I like them now - played by the right player, when I'm in the mood.

 

Banjos make people feel happy. They aren't going away. We can all like what we like and dislike what we don't, but the tradition goes, by and large, where people who are playing the music want it to.

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"Banjos make people feel happy." Has a nice ring to it.....

 

LOL, how about "Banjos make SOME people feel happy"? Or "Banjos make your ears ring"?

 

Ah well, we're discussing innovation etc. so it's bound to be a fraught thread. At least nobody has fallen out with anyone else yet. Good that we're all free to speak our minds, parade our opinions or whatever!

Edited by Mayofiddler

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Guest Peter Laban

It's the day for parading just about anything I'd think _irishman__by_Smidy.gif

 

dancing_hat_by_sleepinglynx.gif

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It's the day for parading just about anything I'd think

 

 

Just remember...you started it :lol:

 

post-7364-1237313451.gif

Edited by Mayofiddler

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