The Mid-Atlantic U.S. Fleadh Cheoil took place last weekend at the spacious Hilton Hotel in Parsippany, New Jersey. And it was superb.
This was a qualifying competition for performers of Irish traditional instrumental and vocal music. The first- and second-place winners in each category are entitled to compete in the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann — the All-Ireland traditional music championships that bring thousands of musicians and a quarter million onlookers from around the world to a small town in Ireland each August.
Beyond the competitive aspect showcasing the talents of some astonishing young musicians, a local fleadh serves as a barometer of the music’s overall health. The polished, recital-level performances testify to the skill and dedication of teachers and students; competitors and visiting players from possibly anywhere on the planet commingle in impromptu sessions throughout the hotel all weekend.
A good local fleadh can get you feeling pretty optimistic about the future of Irish Traditional Music.
A miracle of sorts, considering I’d been playing the music just under two years. In addition to qualifying for that summer’s All-Ireland contest, I received a trophy (pictured right) — a true modern marvel of Neo-Constructivist Kitsch Deco styling that, sadly, has not survived the decades.
But I have retained my participant copy of the Official Adjudication Sheet with scoring filled out by the Official Music Adjudicator. Who on that particular day was the even-then legendary Clare fiddler Seamus Connolly, now the distinguished Sullivan Artist-in-Residence at Boston College.
1) Jig: good traditional style; make sure to end tune properly.
2) Slow Air: nicely played; phrasing not at all times correct.
3) Reel: nicely played; watch the rhythm & phrasing when ornamenting!!
4) Hornpipe: very well played; best tune; lovely ornamentation.
I still look at these comments from time to time. Because they’re as good advice now as they were then, no matter how long you’ve been playing.
And because I vainly wish to believe I can still render a hornpipe as well as I did 37 years ago.
Of course, when I’d started playing ITM, competing was the furthest thing from my mind. Hadn’t thought much about performing the music in public beyond learning enough tunes to credibly participate in a general session and have something to offer musicians kind enough to share their time and knowledge.
I was, after all, merely a budding ethnomusicologist whose mission was to analyze and describe this unique musical culture to the non-Hibernian world. The idea of putting myself forward as a musical equal to established players from the roots tradition was inconceivable.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the fleadh … restrained academicism got banjaxed by unfettered passion.
During the previous few months, I’d been privileged to meet half a hundred veteran players in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. All had graciously shared books, tapes, records, stories – whatever might help an outsider better understand the music that occupied such a central role in their lives.
Yet it became clear that fact-founded analysis alone would never suffice to tell the full story of this tradition. To convey even an iota of what it might mean emotionally to its exponents, I would need to become as passionate and devoted a player as the musicians I was chronicling.
Total objectivity could only be attained from total subjective immersion.
After a few weeks of intense woodshedding, I entered that first fleadh just to see how far I was off the beam. Winning wouldn’t mean I was a real Irish traditional musician; on that one day playing those particular tunes, my performance had simply sounded okay enough to translate into points along a sliding grade matrix. Like weighing a stack of lunchmeat on a scale … visible quantity but no clue to the intangibles of taste or quality.
What it really did mean wouldn’t sink in until the post-fleadh céilí at Hibernian Hall on W. 63rd Street. The weekly Irish Hour radio broadcast hosted by Martin Fahey, Sr. on WOPA-AM had just concluded, and dancers were gathering on the floor.
Through the crowd noise, someone called my name. I turned and saw Seamus Connolly approaching.
My first thought was: Yikes! They realized they made a scoring mistake, and I have to give back my beloved Neo-Constructivist Kitsch Deco Over-18 Tinwhistle Trophy.
He shook my hand and spoke in a serious but friendly tone. “You played well. You’ve got a good traditional feel.”
I stammered out a surprised thank-you. Then, awkward, congealing silence. “Umm… is there anything else I should do?”
He smiled and beckoned toward the bandstand. “Play some tunes for the céilí.”
Probably the best ITM wisdom I ever received.
Some might think a local fleadh is an ordinary thing. This committee does that, that committee does this, etc., just a mundane myriad of details to grind out the task of processing a few dozen musicians to the next level of competition.
But when I walk through a local fleadh, it tells me the music is Alive in a Big Way. Because of all the people who care about it enough to make it happen — competitors, organizers, adjudicators, volunteers and especially the audience.
People who realize the seeds of tradition don’t get planted by themselves. Who show their respect for heritage by making it possible for neophytes to excel and grow into master musicians. Who understand the power these humble melodies have in making our world a more joy-filled, more humane place.
Because of you mighty fleadh-mongers, the 2011 Mid-Atlantic U.S. Fleadh Cheoil is History.
And a vital part of the Future.
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Check here for info on other North American regions: U.S. Northeast, U.S. Southern, U.S. Western, Canada East, Canada West.
** The 2011 All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil is in Cavan, Aug. 13-22.