Academic journal article Western Folklore

Fanning the Celtic Flame: Music Patronage and Practice in Contemporary Ireland

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Fanning the Celtic Flame: Music Patronage and Practice in Contemporary Ireland

Article excerpt

In our attempts to address issues of definition and meaning in a "Celtic music" forum, it seems helpful to conduct a searching look at the places and people for whom the category "Celtic" carries any kind of currency. As the boundaries of musical communities are more tightly drawn by the work of ethnomusicologists and others, broader categories such as "Celtic" become increasingly irrelevant. Work in Irish ethnomusicology for example, is not overtly grounded in a long tradition of "Celtic music studies". There are Irish music scholars and Scottish music scholarswhose paths and interests certainly complement and cross one another'sbut I would hazard a guess that there are few if any self-designated "Celtic music" scholars (musicians seem to transgress the boundaries more easily than scholars do in this regard).

Perhaps a designation of this kind is not so much a relic of the past, however, as a possibility for the future. The acknowledgement or denial of the "existence" of Celtic music is an active dialogue that urges the study of the formation and meaning of this contentious category. If it is, as some propose, merely a marketing tool designed to attract as many consumers as possible by placing distinct musical practices and traditions into one userfriendly, world music "grab-bag," then there is room for investigation of and debate about the motivations of music marketers and consumers. Similarly, if we are to consider dismissing out of hand a "pseudo-image" of something we believe to have meaningful substance (in this case, music and its practice), then I think we shall at least have given the "other side" their say in the matter. An approach that utilizes the perspectives of both folklore and popular culture would be well-suited for exploring the Celtic music phenomenon. In this light, we could acknowledge the richness of both the individual musical traditions as well as the unity of meaning which these discrete traditions, taken together or creatively re-worked into something new, hold for others.

"Celtic" has become a prominent categorical marker of both festivals and record bins. In one sense, the category as such functions to establish the immigrant ethnic communities of Celtic speaking areas, their cultures and histories as a larger whole with deeper, yet less tangible characteristics. This type of category formation is associated with a romanticization of a "homeland" by insiders and outsiders alike and is a common feature of immigrant cultures. The circumstances of immigration and exile are acknowledged as one of the common features of the cultures presented in North American "Celtic" settings, and "Celtic" festivals that feature predominantly Irish music often embrace other traditions equally. In such instances Celtic has a currency in immigrant communities that it does not in, or that is expressed differently than that of the "indigenous Celts."

In previous work examining the construction of Celtic in music and festival contexts, I found that where it is constructed as an overt cultural or commercial strategy that it is often used interchangeably with, and/or is taken to mean, "Irish."1 Although the research for my dissertation was not focused directly on the elaboration of Celtic music by Irish music practitioners or industry personnel (although the topic is certainly ripe for inquiry), I often observed under what conditions the specter of "Celtic music" was invoked in the particular local setting I was involved with; as well as in the larger context of contemporary Irish culture. This essay attempts to give an indication of the relevance (or perhaps lack thereof) of "Celtic music" as a meaningful category in the local discourse of music and commerce in contemporary Ireland, and to provide a critical perspective on local music and culture in a Celtic country.

From this point I will undertake two tasks. First, I will briefly describe and discuss some examples of local production from a standpoint that views the idea of "Irish music" as problematic in terms of the multiplicity of practices that constitute this category in contemporary usage. …

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