Trad: Why the coronavirus pandemic won't mean the end of the traditional session

There might not be much live music around at the moment, but the coronavirus pandemic won't mean the end of the traditional session – as Robert McMillen explains

A trad session in full flow back in the before times
Robert McMillen

WELL, it still very quiet, isn't it? Not for a while yet will we hear the fiddle, flute, bodhrán, guitar, pipes and whatever you're having yourself animate a crowded backroom in a public bar. Has coronavirus and its deadly companion, Covid-19, killed the session? I doubt it.

The act of friends and strangers playing music together – the accomplished and the neophyte, the ones who were fond of a drink and the teetotallers – has long roots back in history but is also connected to the heavens, as Ciarán Carson wrote in his book, Last Night's Fun.

The musician-revellers in the book had been playing tunes the night before and as the afternoon light shines into a dusty pub, the atavistic urge to play swells up in them once again or maybe the music itself is something that stirs out of a slumber and demands that liberties be taken with it.

"Our talk is desultory till we think to play a tune, and we are all reluctant. Yet we start because we have to. And somehow, two bars into it, we sense each other's playing in the way the Zodiac arrives at planetary conjunctions, and we can do no more than play the pattern out.

"And though the stars, by now, are out of line with what they were two hundred years ago, we too have moved, or have been moved to know that until now we had not played this tune. We did not know its beauty, nor had we realised the marks of other hands that knew it, and had passed it on to some they hoped would eventually manage to figure out its gorgeous shape.

"We repeat this same tune many times, and about the twelfth or thirteenth time, we know it's time to stop, since we have gained a century in those few minutes of horology."

Beautiful writing from a book every music follower should read, but of course, it's hard to reach the firmament when you are at home on furlough with a wheen o weans to look after.

Being a domestic goddess/god and also a muse don't sit together very easily when you are socially distancing. However, some people are succeeding and producing material online from their homes on an individual level or as part of a bigger project.

The Duncairn Arts Centre was to the fore of that in Belfast, where their Virtual Cabaret gave artists such as Mick Flannery, Damien Dempsey, Julie Fowlis and Eamon Doorley, Ian Lynch (Lankum), Zoe Conway and John McIntyre, John Spillane, Ríoghnach Connolly and Liam Ó Maonlaí a chance to play to a large audience, albeit online, and make some money in the process (although some of the better known artists performed for free).

The Cultúrlann in Belfast ran online concerts and people such as Ríoghnach Connolly and Colm Mac an Iomaire did performances. Kathy Jordan of Dervish did a song a day from home and Dún Uladh in Omagh ran on line traditional music classes.

In the south, the RTÉ programme The Rolling Wave, commissioned 10 new tunes by 10 composers of traditional music to "reflect the solace music has given us" in the recent months of lockdown.

TG4 has created a Youtube series called Meitheal na mBan featuring Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Julie Fowlis, Lisa O'Neill, Mary Black, Bronagh Gallagher and others in a fund-raising project for Women's Aid.

The number of women reporting abuse has risen worldwide since Covid-19 restrictions were introduced. There has been a 25 per cent increase in the number of calls made to An Garda Síochána during the outbreak and the number of calls received by the Women's Aid to the National Freephone Helpline has increased by 60 per cent in recent weeks. The services of the Women's Aid have never been more acute.

It is great to see trad being utilised to such good effect at such a troubling time for everybody.

However, it goes without saying that all the big events have been cancelled. Typical of the spirit in trad music though, director of the Armagh Pipers Club says he is disappointed by the cancellation of its flagship event, the William Kennedy Piping Festival, which is always held in mid-November – but given what has been happening since March, there was no way the festival could take place.

"We had already booked all of the artists for this year's festival and the program was ready to launch when this virus took over," he said.

"We will now turn our attention to making sure the 2021 event will be the best ever, and we will of course endeavour to re-book all of these same artists."

Today, the streets of Belfast city centre should be alive with the sound of trad, but sadly Tradfest –formerly the Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music – has fallen foul of the pandemic. This year, it won't be holding the concerts, classes, workshops, talks, céilís and lectures that brought so much life to the city centre.

It was, of course, the sessions which were the lifeblood of the festival and where people got to meet, play, engage, encourage and generally have fun.

In the north, it's reported that the arts sector in the region will receive £33 million as part of the Westminster government's £1.57bn support package for the arts. It remains to be seen how much folk and traditional music get from that £33m pot, but given the huge and increasing popularity of the genre, it should hopefully be substantial and provide a kickstart to what is proving to be – given the number of people tuning in to live online gigs – a great source of mental wellbeing to a great many people.

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