Finding a place in the tradition. Irish Times. July 5 2006

The Blas Summer School of Irish Traditional Music and Dance is all about helping people to explore their own individual voice, writes Siobhán Long

It has long been the victim of scathing press coverage, but Limerick has been pulling itself up by its boot straps, carving a reputation for itself, in particular in the arts. Can it be a coincidence that the city has become a fulcrum for activity in dance, design and in traditional music? Can sheer happenstance account for the presence of Daghdha Contemporary Dance Company, Limerick Institute of Technology's School of Art and Design, the Belltable Arts Centre and the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance within spitting distance of one another, all in a city of fewer than 90,000 people? All those smart-ass taglines about the city being best viewed through a rear-view mirror might just be put to bed by the plethora of artistic activity Shannonside these days.

The University of Limerick's Irish World Academy of Music and Dance will celebrate the opening of the 10th Blas Summer School of Irish Traditional Music and Dance with no small hint of satisfaction that it has been one of the driving forces behind the arts rejuvenation which has beset Limerick in earnest in the past five years.

Cúl Aodha sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird is both a graduate of UL's Musicology Masters Programme and an occasional tutor on the postgraduate programme in the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. He's also a tutor on the Blas Summer School.

Ó Lionáird is sanguine about the impact that the academic environment can have on traditional music, and on the tradition itself. While he is unequivocal about the "teachability" of sean-nós singing, he is less certain that university can ever replace the petri dish that is the community in which the music, song and dance have flourished for generations.

"Yes, it's possible to teach someone to sing in a sean-nós style," he says. "It's almost a photocopying exercise, and is commonplace. What's more difficult to imagine is that you'll hear an original voice emerging. It's ironic that the great voices in our archives border on the iconoclastic and idiosyncratic. They have a very unique and personal stamp on the tradition. It's all too easy to learn sean nós and it's all too difficult to sing it. I would prefer if people sang less well - but sang with more individuality."

Ó Lionáird still hears genius lurking in the undergrowth, however. "I had the great pleasure recently of hearing Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh playing," he says. "He's the most creative player I've heard. It's like you give him a little penknife and a stick, and you say: 'now cut a tune out of that for me.' He hears the shape of things properly. I can't predict what he's going to play in the next phrase, let alone the next tune, even though the tune is familiar to me.

He continues: "this is regarded as normal in sean nós. A certain unpredictability was part of its code, but that's not very prevalent any more: always being able to find new pathways inside the old language. The interior language of the tune is given a slight bump here and there, utterly in keeping with the lexicon but totally unexpected. It takes an enormous amount of talent to do that successfully. The thing is, you'll always hear it. It's kind of lo-fi. That's true for the best rock and pop music, too. If you just listen to Nina Simone: she too had an amazing ability to be so creative within the song."

English piano accordionist Karen Tweed has tested and tasted much of what academia has to offer folk music, as a tutor in the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, in Finland's Sibelius Academy, in Sweden's Hovra Spelmanstamma and on Newcastle University's folk music degree course.

"I think anything that questions is a really good thing," she declares, by way of explaining her enthusiasm for formalising elements of folk music in an academic environment. "I'm a big believer in having the whole amount of knowledge at your fingertips. My role as a tutor is not to say 'this is how it is', but to say 'this is my slant on folk music or Irish music'. Education is all about promoting 'the enquiring mind'. It's always good to have choice. Even if I choose to play The Bucks of Oranmore for the rest of my life, exactly the way that Tony MacMahon plays it, it's my choice, but it's an informed choice. And that's what education is about for me."

Tweed is unperturbed about the impact that university status might accord traditional music. "I remember an old friend of mine, the late Tom Meehan, a member of the Pipers' Club," she recalls. "He once said to me that he found it very interesting that there were 'folk police' who really didn't want the tradition to change. For him, traditional music was like a train. It's been going for generations, and it stops at stations along the way, and on pops the academics or on pops the newfangled chromatic mental jazz version of The Flogging Reel, and if that's good enough or strong enough for the tradition, it carries on the train and never gets off. If it's not, it'll drop off in two stops' time."

Former Riverdance lead Colin Dunne first went to Limerick as a dancer in residence, and as a student in 2001, when he enrolled in the Masters programme in Contemporary Dance.

"My relationship with dance is complex," he admits. "It's a marriage, it's love and it's hate, and I go through various stages with it. At that time, I was bored with myself, and frustrated with the performance models that were available, in terms of big productions. I just wanted to spend time investigating what more was there in it, and what more was in me. I wanted to examine the whole traditional dance from outside the box, from a different perspective."

Dunne felt he needed a tool kit if he were to continue to dance. "As an Irish dancer, there is no history of dance-making," he notes. "The musician plays the tune and you dance along. You're really just reliant on your own inspiration, so when that fails, you have nothing. So to be able to study the craft of choreography, the basics of time, space and energy, was invaluable."

Did Dunne feel that his decision to pursue a Dance Masters forced him into reverse gear, moving from the global success of Riverdance to the pinprick precision of university life - in Limerick, far from the madding crowds of New York, Sydney or Beijing?

"It really suited me at the time," he says. "I came out with more questions than when I went in, but I felt more rounded as a dancer. I also learned a hell of a lot more about it, both physically in my own body and in terms of approaches to making dance theatre. I teach now in a completely different, less fundamentalist way, because I know the physical body so much better. It's about teaching the body, rather than just inflicting this bizarre form of dance upon a dancer."

Ultimately what all three artists agree on is that it's the individuality of the creative voice that's crucial to the success of any academic programme. "I think what UL is encouraging is a sense of the dancer exploring their own voice," Colin Dunne suggests. "It's about the individual locating themselves within the tradition. Seeing the emergence of different voices in dance, particularly after the past 10 years when dance has become fairly homogeneous, is great. Our perception of the dance has become very one dimensional, but now I know there are alternatives to that."

The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick hosts its 10th annual Blas Summer School of Irish Traditional Music and Dance from July 10th to 21st. Tutors include fiddlers John Carty and Jesse Smith, guitarist Steve Cooney, singers Iarla Ó Lionáird and Deirdre Scanlan, and flute players Harry Bradley and Niall Keegan. For further information see or call: 061-202917.
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© 2006 The Irish Times