From Polka to Polska: Olov Johansson, Tom Morrow, Gerry O’Beirne and Conor Byrne

I am looking at another wretched economic chart in the newspaper, a numerical history of the Celtic Tiger, full of nine-zero figures, rises and falls, if onlys, told you sos and excuses, when my eye reaches the summer of 2006. What an intense period that was, the graph line almost hitting the top of the chart. After that, things aren’t so spectacular. Never mind. Here’s something more interesting than economics: did you know that around 2006 there was a minor migration of musicians, composers and artists away from the heart of Celtic Tiger Dublin? Call it artist’s instinct, or the spread of broadband, or economics, but it happened. They headed to the west coast and to other parts of the country, quite independently and all at around the same time. The numbers were small, but because I was one I couldn’t help noticing the pattern. One often imagines one is acting alone, but we are inevitably part of collective movements, migrations and shifts.

Cultural shifts such as this are sometimes part of something even larger. In the 60s and 70s in Ireland, there was a particularly intense example when people were moving to the west, often to the Irish-speaking areas, looking for their roots, escaping from the nascent consumerism. These migrants could only have been slightly aware that similar movements were happening all over Western Europe. In Electric Eden, Rob Young’s recent book on British folk music, he explores the ‘inward exodus’, the ‘search for eden’ that was happening in Britain in the late 1960s and 70s and the impact this had on music. In Brittany in Northern France, a similar return to roots was under way. This Music Network tour reminds us that in Sweden an equally seminal shift was taking place: the Gröna vågen, or ‘green wave’ – ‘green’ as in the land. It is to this Gröna vågen – this return to the land and a new appreciation of native culture –that we owe the re-emergence of the Swedish national instrument, the nyckelharpa, in the 1970s, and why Olov Johansson, its modern master, started playing in the first place.

The nyckelharpa, like the uilleann pipes in Ireland, had a mere 50 players or so in the mid-twentieth century, with a corresponding tiny number of makers of the instrument. And as with the establishment of Na Píobairí Uilleann by a group of pipers in 1968, in the 1970s a group of concerned enthusiasts asked a leading nyckelharpa exponent of the time, Eric Sahlström, who Johansson describes as a ‘bright shining star’, to begin a series of night-classes where people could learn to make and play their own instrument. Many nyckelharpas were made – of varying quality – but the practice of making and playing became extremely popular. As Johansson explains, ‘I still get this question from older people when I’m touring around Sweden – did you make it yourself?’ Sahlström ended up teaching nyckelharpa throughout Uppland on the east coast of the country, and then throughout Sweden, and gradually the number of exponents reached critical mass.

Today the number of nyckelharpa players is in the thousands and there is even an American Nyckelharpa Association. Translated as ‘keyed harp’, it has been played in Sweden, in one form or another, for over 650 years. The modern chromatic instrument has 16 strings and about 37 wooden keys arranged to slide under the strings. It has a three-octave range, beginning from the same low G as the fiddle, and like the latter is played with a bow. (For context, I should mention that the Swedish-Irish connection in this tour resonates with a growing interest among Irish traditional musicians in the repertoire and instrumentation of the Nordic countries, probably because of the strong fiddle traditions – Irish fiddle-players such as Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh now also perform on Norway’s hardingfele, or hardanger fiddle.)

It was Conor Byrne who suggested that Olov Johansson join himself, Tom Morrow and Gerry O’Beirne on this tour. Conscious of the longstanding connection between Dervish, of which Morrow is a member, and Johansson’s group Väsen (the bands have toured and recorded together, with a particularly memorable result – ‘Josefin’s Waltz’– on Dervish’s 1996 album At the End of the Day), it was the ideal, imaginative twist to the venture, and yet it’s a new departure for all four to work together. Like more and more musical collaborations today, the digital visual telephone service Skype has played a key role in rehearsals, allowing the musicians to swap tunes and discuss repertoire, emailing MP3s of tunes in order to learn and develop arrangements. While flute-player Byrne from Dublin and fiddler Morrow from Leitrim have been playing together since their teenage years, Johansson has been ‘trying to find the flow, energy and drive that I hear in their playing using my instrument and my playing technique, and the possibilities I have with those. I’m trying to pick up a few things that are new to me from their playing, and also add things from my experience.’ As a musical collaborator, Johansson has form. His recent CD with Scottish harpist Catriona McKay, Foogy, is a striking example of how he can stretch his aesthetic. For this tour he has also composed some new pieces, including one called ‘Going Green’.

Conor Byrne and Tom Morrow are also composers in their own right – the latter’s ‘Siesta’ set of tunes is now an established part of Dervish’s set, while Byrne’s 2003 duet album with fiddler Méabh O’Hare, Bavan, is enriched by a range of his compositions. I have yet to have the opportunity to hear Morrow and Byrne perform as a duet, but listening to them solo, one can imagine the affinity that exists between their playing. They are bound by a precision, passion and intensity that creates sharp, keen lines of melody – it means any diversion, any subtle step to the right or left of the tune, can have a multiplier effect on the intensity of the performance. And the exploratory nature of the tour means their ensemble will inevitably develop over the seven concert stops, their familiarity with eachother’s playing reimagined in the new light of Johansson and Gerry O’Beirne.

Gerry O’Beirne is well placed to push the music in different directions. A true original as a songwriter, singer and musician, his contribution to traditional music as a record producer, including Promenade, the 1979 groundbreaking duet album by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, has been a regular spark in traditional music over four decades. O’Beirne’s approach to lyrics and way with melody give him a distinct aesthetic within traditional Irish music, and yet he has somehow merged it into the genre. His setting of Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Free Soul’ on his album with the fiddle-player Rosie Shipley, Yesterday I Saw the Earth Beautiful, is an inspired journey through the poet’s words, O’Beirne’s floating melody and delivery finding their way around the message with intelligence and restraint.

Given the reference to travelling west at the beginning, one has to mention that O’Beirne has written the definitive song on this impulse, ‘Western Highway’, made famous by Maura O’Connell in the 1980s and more recently recorded by TG4 singer of the year, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh. As O’Beirne has written, ‘It’s a love song, a travelling song’ and every migrant, whether in Ireland, Britain or Uppland, can connect with the words, for it captures what they are always looking for: ‘I am a driver on a western highway / From the mountains and to the sea / And there’s a song on the western highway / Saying I will be free.’

Notes for a Music Network traditional music tour with Olov Johansson, nyckelharpa; Tom Morrow, fiddle, viola; Gerry O’Beirne, guitars, ukulele & vocals; and Conor Byrne, flutes, guitar & vocals. 12–19 May 2011.

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