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Musings about Celtic music

Posted by Tom Hanway on Thursday, September 20, 2007

I have done my fair share of playing in Irish rock, "Greengrass" and Celtic crossover bands, as the only American in the group.

I miss playing jigs and reels over thundering drums and power chords -- what a great buzz that is....  I played and drank in all the bars in Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan and environs that had Irish-rock bands in the 90s.  Dillon's Pub in Queens was my favorite Irish rock music bar outside of Manhattan.  Paddy Reilly's in Manhattan was my favorite spot, where I played some Irish rock, but led the Sunday bluegrass session and also played with Tony DeMarco on Thursday nights -- the longest-running Irish trad session in town.  Tony is one of the greatest Irish fiddlers on the planet, or any planet.  His off-the-cuff improvisations, both fiery and sensitive, and subtle creativity set him apart from all other Irish fiddling masters.  He taught me a lot of tunes (and maybe I taught him one). 

"Celtic" is a word that many traditional players avoid, because it smacks of commercialism, blatant phoniness, or horrible New Age Muzak, and it lumps local, regional and national Celtic styles into one meaningless blob.

I think it is still useful to talk of Celtic musics or Celtic styles, because there are real similarities between the musics of the six Celtic Nations, e.g., their use of certain modes (Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian), gapped scales (pentatonic and hexatonic) and familiar dance rhythms.

Linguists, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, music and cultural historians, traditional Celtic musicians and folk music journalists are generally familiar with two main branches of Celtic peoples (and languages), the Goidelic, better known as the "Gaelic" (Q-Celtic) and "Brythonic" (P-Celtic) branches," and here is a good place to begin a discussion about traditional Celtic cultures, music and song, going back to the old countries.

Actually, musicologists and linguists actually do more than divide Celtic music styles neatly into the Goidelic or Gaelic (Q-Celtic) and Brythonic (P-Celtic) branches, but this linguistic division is still useful, because it focuses us on the musics' connection to traditional language cultures, an obvious place to begin in discussing anything "Celtic".

A discussion about Celtic music can go beyond the notes, instruments, scales, themes, and into the actual people and cultural histories. We must also be careful not to fall into cultural or academic biases, superior thinking approaches, or stereotypes when we speak in English (the imperial language) about Celtic (non-English) cultures.

I will avoid getting into religion or politics here, because it's against BH Rules, but if ever where there is a place where these issues could crop up, it's in a discussion of Celtic histories and cultures in relation to English and French rule. I won't go there except to say that languages are important in understanding a culture, and Celtic languages can tell us things about Celtic cultures that dominant European languages cannot. 

Similarly, we can learn more about Celtic musics by listening to how traditional Celtic musicians play in their own styles, as opposed to listening to how Classical or jazz musicians interpret Celtic music forms.  Getting to the source material is essential in understanding and playing in a Celtic style.

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