That’s atmosphere!

I tried to catch the tail end of the Galway Sessions today (a mini-festival of traditional music sessions), but there was a children’s day on in Eyre Square at the same time and we were led towards it. While I wondered was I missing some great traditional music, and then telling myself that I always think that and that I’m probably not, I listened instead to some teenage bands on a gig rig. ‘Hello Galway! We are Steps of Leisure and we’ve only been together a week and we’ve no bass player.’ I love this stuff. Blur’s ‘Song 2’ followed. Their friends, in a small audience, clapped.

We eventually begin to move down Shop Street towards the pubs – Tigh Cóilí’s was down as having a session – and are drawn to a trio of percussionists on the street. Darabukas and djembes, but unfortunately little direction. Not quite for me, so I peek into Tigh Cóilí’s, but the sight of three long-faced traditional musicians going through the motions drives me back out. Suddenly the overenthusiastic, percussive sparring seems not so bad. At least we can appreciate that they love what they are doing.

A new phrase popped into my mind last week: ‘the played-out traditional musician’. It’s not a derogatory term. I tend to meet quite a few. People who just aren’t moved to play out in sessions anymore, and, as traditional musicians, that tends to go against everything they know, and so they wrestle with it, trying to reason it out for themselves and for you when they talk to you. If it is a new phenomenon, it’s Celtic Tiger related I’m sure.

I overhear a mobile phone conversation: ‘Yep, I’m down on Shop Street. I rang him and he said we are to play outside the shop here.’ A session on the street organized by a call from on high. Hmm, I’m not sure that counts. I immediately think of all the dodgy gigs I’ve done in the past where I played outside hat-shops and cinemas, opticians and supermarkets, all in the name of creating some ‘atmosphere’. We sit down for a pint near the shop. There isn’t any music for a while, and then just as we rise to leave, as ever, the instruments come out. I only heard them tuning up.

Galway has atmosphere in spades, but I began to think that the excessive, orchestrated creation of ‘atmosphere’ using traditional music – is there an unpaid session left in the country? – must be having an impact on the music and the musicians, the ‘played-out’ figure being but one example.

Yet just as we are coming to the end of the street, we happen upon a Scandinavian learner of traditional fiddle who is busking two jigs, scratching and scraping, playing no ornamention, just barely getting by, but swaying and grinning as he plays. A street lady surges up to him mid tune and says, ‘Thank you so much for your music!’

Now that’s atmosphere.

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