Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

From what I know (correct me please if I am wrong - I’ve only been doing this for 19 years), the only real "traditional" instrument in Irish music is the harp and the flute.

This came up because complained that the 5 string banjo is not a traditional instrument. I know that the bouzouki came to Irish music in 1966, and the guitar, which came to the music in the 1970s.

Thoughts?

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

this site does have a search function.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Banjo ITM began
In 1963 (which was rather late for me)
Between the release of the Clancy Brothers’
And the Dubliners’ first LP

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

"this site does have a search function."

Splendid Insulation - I don’t think celticgent is looking for the answer to the question. He/she is looking for stimulating discourse.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

BTW, I’m spoon posting as mousemusic.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

What is this strange instrument called the "harp and the flute"?

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

It’s only my opinion, but I think that an instrument can qualify as "traditional Irish" if enough people who really know the music choose to play it. The fiddle is certainly considered traditional now, even if it was a novelty at one time, because so many good Irish musicians played it. Tenor banjo, bouzouki, and guitar have now gained wide acceptance the same way. All part of a living tradition.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Then there’s always the good ol’ slayer guitar…

But yeah, I’d say the fiddle is definitely trad now

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Its funny, when I bring the bouzouki to a session, punters always ask questions about it, seemingly expecting that its some ancient Irish instrument. I think an instrument is likely to be adopted if it can handle the ornamentation and keys.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

what is a " Punter " .
When did the Botton Box come into it ?

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

I think I hear Bodhran Bliss coming.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

The vibe from most posters seems point to the music being traditional and not the instruments that play it… would this be correct?

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

ITM is a constantly evolving tradition.

Any instrument can in theory be used in an ensemble to perform traditional irish music as long as the performers know what they are doing. I’ve seen ITM played on all manner of instruments to varying degrees of success.

To answer the original question on whether flute and harp are the only real ‘traditional’ instruments in Irish music please give me a date for when traditional Irish music began and ended, because without that you cannot say that flute and harp are the only real trad instruments, besides this - have you never heard of the Uillean Pipes?!!!

Also the voice is an instrument and many airs began as songs.

As for the dance music you might like to consider the fact that many of the standard tunes commonly played today were clearly composed by musicians who played Uilleann Pipes, Fiddle, Accordion, Banjo etc. etc, so therefore to call the harp and flute the only real ‘traditional’ Irish instruments is just wrong. The bodhrán is older than the hills too.

Finally the guitar did not just come to the music in the 1970’s!! Listen to Michael Coleman’s recording of Lord Gordon’s Reel made in 1934, whats that instrument you hear backing him, is it a plinky plonky piano? NO, it’s a GUITAR! If guitar backing was traditional enough for Michael Coleman then it sure as hell is traditional enough for me!

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Traditional Banjo

By the way, regarding the banjo and ITM read the following from Mick Moloney on this page http://www.standingstones.com/banjo.html

‘the banjo in all probability was first introduced to Ireland, when the Virginia Minstrels toured in England, Ireland and France in 1843, 1844 and 1845

‘This leads to the question of what kind of banjo was initially introduced to Ireland. The overwhelming likelihood is that it was the 5-string banjo’

‘Undoubtedly, the first Irish banjo player to record commercially was Mike Flanagan, born in County Waterford in 1898’

‘Before 1960, a number of styles and instruments co-existed in the modest fraternity of banjo players in Ireland. Some players favoured the 5-string banjo, some the banjo-mandolin, while others favoured varieties of the 4-string instrument. Some players used a pick, while others used a thimble.’

All these facts would lead me to conclude that 5-String Banjo and Banjo Mandolin are just as traditional as Tenor Banjo and that the banjo certainly didn’t just enter the tradition in 1963!

People should really do their research before posting things on this site! All you have to do is search the internet.

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

"an instrument can qualify as "traditional Irish" if enough people who really know the music choose to play it." mickray’s yardstick is about the best I’ve ever heard.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

I’m no expert , I read and grew up hearing folks talk about the Feadan, as opposed to a Feadog ( not what you’d think it is ) and we were stroried on how the poor folks of old would take an oat straw and whittle it into a little TW. Other stories - which I later found to be true - would relate how Pipers would take a bouhalawn limb and make bits for the Uilleann Pipes, Another great one is the tale of Mc Crone’s Chanter being made from a charmed tree limb, and so on.

It is without any doubt that the Fiddle (many today are trying to deny this fact) and TW was present in Ireland during the days of the High King, for there are written records of Fairs describing these instruments.The Pipes also are repoted over and over by comentators on events Irish since the earlies records were made.

Next on several occasions there have been found bone flutes of one kind or another.

Next the first Harp in Ireland is supposed to have been KInd David’s.

And so on.

Now it is also true that ITM as reels, jigs and the rest is a fairly recent addition, since every form except the Slide and some set dances are imports.

But you can be absolutely certain that none or any of the instruments I mentioned could or were used to play the now almost unknow Clan Marches and tunes/songs.

I suppose you can state that modern Irtrad was developed mostly on wind instruments but that the earlier forms were mostly string or vocal forms.

I have no idea what is or isn’t a traditional instrument in this context, but a I do know you cant play ITM on some instruments.

So no, it wasn’t any particular instrument

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

I heard flute was invented in China.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

very interesting to hear that the 5 string banjo is more "traditional" than the tenor banjo, the bouzouki, the button accordion AND the flute!

I read in wikipedia that the harp has been around since the 10th century, so I guess that’s pretty traditional…

does anybody know what the actual instrument was that Turloch O’Carolan was to have played/composed on? Are there pictures of it? I read somewhere that he was a contemporary of Vivaldi’s is that true?

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Im not positive, and somebody may know better, but I think he played a wire strung lap harp, much smaller than the nylon strung ones common today, and plucked with the nails rather than the pads of the fingers.

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"Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?
ITM is a constantly evolving tradition."
No, It’s not constantly evolving. It barely changes and that is what the word "traditional" means. It just isn’t "constantly evolving " and that’s the truth. Rock music used to constantly evolve and even THat isn’t true anymore. Much retro stagnation. I hear the recordings of Michael Coleman and the recordings of Frankie Gavin and I don’t hear an Evolution! Unless you include Afro Celt SoundSystem in which case we have nothing further to say to one another…

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

I think we’re talking about a much longer time frame than from, say, 1950 to 2006. At some time in distant past, it probably was just wooden flute and harp. Then other instruments were added, other forms (polkas, etc.) adopted, and eventually became accepted as "traditional."

But I agree with you on Afro-Celt. Not going to be a major contribution to The Music, I think.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

"I heard flute was invented in China"
I believe you’re thinking of gunpowder, slainte.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

I was in the middle of a post … and it disappeared! (boo hoo)

Try again - bodhran: "The bodhrán is older than the hills too." I have always been slightly puzzled by the fact that you don;t hear bodhrán in any of the older recordings, so I did a little search. According to anywhere I can get on the net, including Wikipedia, Ceoltas and some bodhrán fan sites, the bodhrán was only introduced into ITM in the 1960s. Prior to that, it was not used as a musical instrument at all, apparently, not that I understand that … But it does fit for me - my old friend Peter Kennedy (RIP) made a huge archive of recordings from all over the British Isles in the 40s and 50s, and there doesn’t seem to be a trace of a bodhrán in it …

Fiddle on the other hand, has almost never been a "novelty". It is one of the three ancient ITM instruments - fiddle, flute, pipes (NOT in that order) and it, or one or other of its predecessors, has been around the whole of the trad scene in the UK and Ireland for an enormous length of time. As far as I can tell, from the net, my own knowledge gained many years ago whilst doing my music degree, and from knowledge passed to from others, the instrument, or its ancestors, first appeared in dance music in the British Isles around the 9th or 10th century. It’s kind of old.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

"Prior to that, it was not used as a musical instrument at all"

What was it used as? Maybe we can suggest bodhran players go back to the ‘traditional use’ instead of this new fangled "hit it and call it a musical instrument" deal ;)

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Frisbee:
“People should really do their research before posting things
on this site! All you have to do is search the internet.”

Excellent..so eventually we could just all use google and we
can close this site down once and for all, because let’s face it folks all the answers to everything are on the internet and are
101% accurate.

Anyone doing their research can find this site and find out
once and for all that the didgeridoo has been part of Irish
music since the middle of the 4th century, brough to fame by
the playing of Fionn McCool And the McCools – doesn’t get
more tradional than that !

Acually didn’t flute came into Irish music around the middle
from the 19th centuryas classical musicians moved from
using wooden simple system to Boehm system ?

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Farr: you obviously haven’t heard of Orgel’s Second Rule: Evolution is cleverer than you are. Of course it’s evolving. But you don’t know which direction it’s evolving in.

What’s changed since Coleman? Well, not the instrments, since button boxes were around in Fick Muck Hugh’s day, bouzoukis (from booze OK, they used to be made out of Guinness tins and whiskey bottles) since Saint Patrick, the beann seo since wimmin were invented. The piano accordeon was originally an instrument of torture.

The big thing that has evolved is the gramophone. This must be the most traditional instrument of them all, otherwise how could any of the musicians have llearned the chunes? But first the music got faster and faster when they brung out those big plastic records, and now my old Victrola windup makes an awful hash of playing these newfangled "cassettes" and "CDs" so I haven’t learned any new tunes since 1985.

By the way, china flutes aren’t much good, they break when you poke the bodhran player in the nose.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

In Mediaeval Ireland it was reported that men went into battle to the sound of bagpipes - these would then presumably have been mouth-blown. They seem to have vanished.

Whistles etc. made out of oat straw occur in Classical pastoral poetry, e.g. that of Virgil, so that idea’s been around for a long time. Has anybody tried it?

How on earth did those early Celts manage to make the metal wires for their harps? Their skill must have been pretty advanced.

The hurdy-gurdy must have got over to Ireland in its time though, complicated and costly, it would never have been an instrument of the masses. - Funny that all the hoo-ha about the legitimacy of the bouzouki in and after the 70s didn’t seem to surround Andy Irvine’s use of the h-g in ITM.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Frisbee - Thanks for the C&P from Mick Moloney. Now I suggest you do some research on "Philip Larkin" and "Annus Mirabilis"

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

I dunno about whistles but ‘Irish Flutes’ - conical wooden suckers tuned in D and blown transverse - were developed in England in the first 1/2 of the 19th century and imported later. (Although there were a few ‘English style’ flute makers in Dublin to satisfy the Anglo-Irish demand for casual classical music)

I remember reading somewhere in the dark days of my youth that UP’s "acquired their modern form" in Philadelphia, of all places. Can anybody confirm/deny?

To futher a bunch of dubious propositions, it was my impression that by Carolan’s time the harps were still wire-string but much larger - actual floor harps - than the kind found on the guinness bottle. the harper didn;t carry his instrument around with him - He expected his patrons to have a harp in their mansions.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

BegF - I loved your conclusion to Frisbee’s statement that
"all you have to do is search the internet" instead of posting
redundant information here. I’m afraid an entire generation is
being duped into believing anything they read just because a link to it shows up on the first page of any query through a popular search engine.

I just can’t wait to read somewhere else how the didgeridoo
was introduced to Irish music in the 4th century by Fionn McCool. Someone somewhere will find your posting and
cut and paste it into their "research" assignment, which will then be posted on another "authoritative website" on Irish music. Come to think of it, did you cut and paste this yourself?
Wait, maybe you’re not even kidding?
While you’re at it, I was wondering about the place of the kazoo
in ITM. I read on Wikipedia that "leprechauns introduced the kazoo to Saint Patrick in the year 450 and his mastery of the instrument actually scared the snakes out of Ireland."
Can you confirm this for me? I read it on the internet so it must be true, but now I’m starting to wonder.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Please don’t misquote me, I said Fionn McCool AND the McCools.

While you’re right about Kazoo being introduced by the Leprechauns to Saint Patrick, it was his enormous willy that scared the snakes.

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Hi Nicholas.
These "Oaten pipes" are erroneously referred to as whistles, as their sound producing mechanism is generally that of the double reed. I’ve messed around with instruments of this kind made from various natural and synthetic materials and all you have to do is flatten an inch or so at one end of the tube to produce the two blades of the reed and cut some holes in the remaining bit.
In ancient times double reeds were made this way all be it in a more sophisticated way.
These reeds work very well and I’ve got one that I made for my Bombard that is pretty good.

PP

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

As usual, some people come on here and mouth off not knowing what they’re talking about. The Flanagan Brothers played Banjo, way back in the 1920’s. More than one of them played Banjo and not just accompanying their Vaudville style of Irish ballads:
http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/flanagan.htm

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

It’s already complicated enough, but let’s throw in another aspect: time. The harp was played back in the mistakes of time, but mostly stopped being played between the time of Carolan and the time of Bunting due to the decline of the Irish gentry and the penal laws (which meant rapid anglicisation and protestantisation of the gentry). Bunting’s famous gathering of the few remaining harpers was a sad affair indeed, and as the instrument passed from the tradition to the parlour and stage, the traditional style was forgotten.

The same seems to have happened with the 5 string banjax, if it ever really entered the tradition (it arrived at an awkward time, when the people most likely to play it were too busy trying to find spuds or get to Amerikey in one piece).

There have always been players of odd instruments drifting in and out of sessions, I remember one guy with a flutina whatever that may be, and I know a few duet concertina players who make a very good sound, though as far as I know it’s never been considered an "ITM instrument". Mick Burke used to play a great continental chromatic accordion in Manchester, Sean Healey in Buxton plays 5 string fiddle (which seems to be slowly becoming popular now), there have always been players of recorders hanging round the edges, though to little purpose.

One that pops up now and again and thankfully never takes root is the saxophone. Horrible things in sessions.

And of course not considering the plague of miscellaneous percussed instruments.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Thanks for clarifying that about the oat stalks, reeds etc., pied piper - it had never occurred to me that the shepherds etc. of Classical poetry were making proper reed instruments out of them! I’d not really thought about it, and assumed they were making some kind of puny whistle things!

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Strange exercise in ethnomusicology. THe session things that are currently done probably wouldn’t count as ITM if one strictly defined it. ITM would be vocal tradition-a capella, maybe with some sort of drum, maybe a block flute.

I’ve read that session style and instruments are in the "modern style" anyway.

Someone asked about button box. The current instrument and it’s melodian predecessors came in (I am told) late 19th centry coinciding with the great migrations. Light enough to cary, loud enough to provide dance music in industrial centers that drew many Irish emmigrants.

I think what makes ITM are the tunes and how fathfully they are communicated. Instruments change from time to time. Hate to say it, How many generations to go before the button box becomes a museum piece? (no jokes…I already have a big collection of them!)

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Hi Celticagent,

Maybe you should go back to the start. You said your question came up because somebody complained that a particular instrument isn’t "traditional". Well first of all you need to ask them what their definition of "traditional" is. Then suppose they come with a definition that says only flutes and harps are traditional. What are you or they going to do about it? Personally I wouldn’t take much notice of such ideas. There isn’t a single watertight definition of what constitutes traditional music, never has been, never will be.

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Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Let’s take a minute to define "traditional"

If taken literally from the latin, traditio, which translates as "to hand down", then one would suppose that any musical instrument would qualify, as long as it is used to play the melodies that are handed down over the years.

I also read elsewhere that the saxaphone is considered more of an authentic original instrument than people realize

I appreciate the humor in this discussion. It is rather a silly concept that any instrument would be considered "traditional".

Last night at rehearsal we had a fierce discussion about the topic. The banjo player was quite interested to hear the 1843-45 reference.

Thank you for making that…

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Celticagent

I draw the line at synthesized instruments. Even translated from the Latin, they don’t count.

We went to Chicago’s Celtic fest last summer. One of the featured groups on the main stage had a Korg synth doing its accordion and some back up instruments. Heresy.

But they were from Kansas City………

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Agree with zippy, when you plug it in at a session, you have crossed the line. And while I accept some amplification in concert settings, I prefer the basic acoustic sound made louder, no electronic tricks.
I have run into people who think that the trap drums played in ceilidhe bands are "not traditional," when they preceed many of the instruments, such as bouzoukis, that many people have given the traditional label to.
I hestitated for years from playing harmonica in our local session, even though it was one of the first instruments I ever learned, and remains a favorite. But now I play it frequently, and have gotten pretty much universal positive response. I think in the old days, people played music on whatever instruments they could get their hands on………..

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Al

I am Irish by marriage, as it were. I came from a Polish family where the piano accordion was placed in the basinette when I was wheeled out of the hospital delivery room.

So trying to play ITM, I feel I have a greater obligation to preserving the integrity of music.

I truly loath synthesized music….. Even in beer commercials…..

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Well now! Mr Ben Hall is closest to the truth than anyone else.

Mr O’Carolan played a full sized harp with bronze strings on it.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

from Al Brown: "in the old days, people played music on whatever instruments they could get their hands on……….."

I think you’ve come up with the best definition of traditional yet. Thank you!

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

As to the bodhran question. You got it half right. The bodhran was introduced to ITM , some would say re-introduced, by Sean O’Riada in the late 50’s or early 60’s. It has been around a lot longer than that but was mainly used by the Mummers or Wren Boys. I have heard recordings from the early 20th century where a bodhran was used, albeit with "jingles" on the rim, similar to a tambourine. And what about the bones….

Jeremy

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Not only that, I have seen ancient photos of the Irish equivalent of a lagerphone ie a stick with jingles on it, so there!

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Ancient photo’s?

The Irish truly were ahead of their time in Western Civilization!

Just kidding. It’s early this morning….

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Bt have wrecked my computer, hence my silence until I noticed Michael telling a piper to "make the effort to learn an instrument". Seems to have fixed the computer that quote.

Bodhran would be the oldest instrument, although not widespread in ITM until the 1960s. Whistle would be my favourite, especially as you can be a virtuoso at the cost of £4. Flute, pipes, fiddle and harp.
Nowadays tenor banjo, bazooki, and mandolin are acceptable.
Guitars as backing instrument thankfully replaced the piano.

Mind you, there is no "sacred book" containing a list of traditional instruments.

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

What do you think of the harmonica? I kow it is a strongly American instrument but I have heard a bunch of Irish songs with it (ex. Gaelic Storm) and besides, it sound really cool when played right.

Anyway, could the harmonica be concidered traditional?

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

the harp and flute aren’t irish. they were bought over to ireland.

the traditional music in ireland was all done with the vocol chords, then the bodhran, then what ever any one could fashion themselves, or what ever was bought over.

the banjo came in way before the 60’s, as did the guitar. the lute was also big in traditional music. the pipes were bought over from somewhere around india.

i’m doing a dissertation on the evolution of irish music, and the only real traditional music was lilting and banging what is now the bodhran, as with all peasant folk music. people didnt have money for instruments, and if they did, they played what ever they could get or make. the fiddle, flute, pipes and harps became readily available and so became key to traditional music as we know it today, but they were never irish instruments

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

Bodhran is not a musical instrument.. it is a drum.. percussion.. it does not produce melody.. in the context of the tunes it cannot stand alone..therfore to suggest the Bodhran was one of the earliest instruments is absurd cuz sure it cant play tunes so how could it have carried the tradition.. if anything more than a glorified grain sieve, the tradition carried it

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Well, I tried anyway. The link’s there you gotta scroll down a little and click on the tune ‘Paddy in London’. Sounds like a tenor to me and very much before the 60’s

Re: Instrumentation: what’s "traditional" in an Irish ensemble?

I don’t hear anyone mentioning piano! It’s on a lot of old recordings. Frankie Gavin( I think) used it on an album called Fierce Tradition. I herd it years ago and I liked it a lot. I’m a cheap bastard so I never baught it. I think piano is more shunned than the poor old bodhran! I give one vote for piano and throw out the guitar! Too many people playing them. Too many complicated chord structures. Too many boring intros JUST PLAY THE TUNE!!!!