The Invention of Tradition
"The Invention of Tradition"
Edited by Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger
Cambridge University Press, 1983
Cambridge, New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney
~ a recommended read…
And here to is some of the seed of worry in this ~
Discussion: Music & Musicians of South Armagh
# Posted on February 27th 2008 by tommy fegan
I’ve made what can loosely be called a Thai Duck Soup this morning, something for the ill, which is the case of my dear wife and I, caught in the chest and throat and head with some species of ‘lurgy’… I used the qualifier ‘loosely’ because I’m not Thai, this is Thailand, and I was short of a few ingredients and had to improvise. We are out of birdseye chili, so I used sweet chilies and some hot sauce. We haven’t any of the alcoholic beverages of Thailand, so I used some Spanish Sherry instead. We did have all the necessary seasonings and a decent fish sauce too, but the soy sauce was also a fudge, as I only have Japanese and only one version. Oh yeah, I did slip in a favourite, Japanese again, Tsuyu… But, for convenience sake, as it is nearer to that than anything else, I’m calling it ‘Thai Duck Soup’. I have tasted some nice Thai soups before, including duck, so I know that, ‘loosely’, it isn’t far off the mark.
Why start this discussion with a soup? I’m not altogether sure, but it seemed appropriate. Something has been bothering me, festering deep in my soul and making me feel uncomfortable every time I get reminded of it, by ear or physically, or by various media means, and that is the free flowing interpretation and tagging of things that fall under the immense umbrella of ‘Irish Tradition(s)’… That includes sweeping statements as ‘fact’ that are more B.S. than based on any in depth knowledge of the subject, more invention… Those of you who know me at least a little know that I’m not really what you could call a ‘purist’, though many of my preferences might hint that way. Yes, I prefer Con Cassidy to Lunasa, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize talent, even if I’m not particularly fond of their take on things.
I’m all for extending that shelter and support, including for the ‘new’, but sometimes it just seems like too much. There is that growing body of nonsense tunes, which are so asymmetrical in their structure, or so far out, that there’s no way you could really dance to them, not with any comfort, but they profess to fall under that venerable heading ‘dance music’. Hey, even some of those are at least fun, so I’m not into slagging off a little experimentation or some fancy or lark, but some are so obviously about the composer showing off, or the band, that your attention isn’t drawn by anything that comfortably fits even ‘loosely’ my basic gut feeling about what ‘traditonal’ means. And yet, I do realize that experimentation, failing memories, tune mutation and things ‘new’ are all part of that living breathing thing ~ ‘tradition’. Where there’s no pretense involved, well, I don’t mind it so much. I do mind, sadly, the yahoos who submit obvious compositions and then don’t bother to comment, forget to say "I made this!" Their melody (or dance choreography) clunking along so clumsily and out of synch with the greater body of tradition that it is usually obvious ~ that they haven’t a clue ~ they’re making a tune in a Yahtzee sort of way, roll the dice and string a few notes together… Hey, I don’t even mind that abuse, as long as it is admitted to. Everyone is allowed a little flutter now and then. It can be part of the education process. (That’s an example of me choosing to remain hopeful.)
So, as I ramble along here, what was it that blew a fuse this time? Well, and please, most will know, I do appreciate things ‘down south’ in the land of Oz, but I was handed notes this week for a ‘new’ dance, a new set dance that is currently being circulated amongst that relatively new ‘federation of set dancing’. I was also reminded that yet another collection of ‘new’ sets was soon to be released. The title at the top of this A4 sheet took me first, "Antrim Square Set". Huh? I had tramped around that area of Ireland and had never heard of such a beast, and I was asking. But I do realize the limitations on my time and interactions, so I continued to read, forgetting my initial grimace. Then I saw it was ‘given’ to Pat Murphy (set dance teacher) by a Des Jackson. I was told that Dez Jackson is an Australian and that his parents, at least one of them, came to Australia from Country Antrim. I then did a quick scan of the blocks of text, 3 figures. That started the bells ringing immediately ~ "competition set". You only need two figures for competition, and maybe one extra as a backup.
No, it was worse. My attention was drawn to one particularly large paragraph starting "SQUARE", and then I noticed this was in all three figures, a ‘body’? I immediately recognized the move known as "Grand Square", and which was and is still popular amongst square dancers, both old time, which is seeing a revival, and federated, you know, federated are the ones with the costumes for every holiday, cowboy boots and pearl buttons, that lot. I have referred to them in a derogatory sense as "shrooms" because of all the petticoats and them looking like demented mushrooms, like the dancing Chinese mushrooms from an old Disney animation, was it "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice"? And, returning to the count, 3 figures is the classic set for square dancing…
Now, it’s an O.K. dance as dances go, and I know the fun of the old ‘Grand Square’ figure, but there’s nothing Antrim about it except the choreographer’s parentage. That is what grates at me. Am I being unreasonable? Oh yeah, and there’s also the growing commercialization and Americanization of set dancing in Ireland in general, a behemoth mostly rising out of the 1980s. They keep inventing them, along similar lines to the likes of ‘Federated American Square Dance’ and ‘The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society’… They invent stories, build their mythology, and steps and figures and dogma, including direct borrowings from those other previously mentioned dance cadres, and worse, they get so sincere about it being a ‘traditional’ set with a long history in some old farts half baked mind, at a table with coins or invented at the computer. (there are computer programs ~ RSCDS)
Part of the motivation for creating more dances, as is also true of the RSCDS, seems to be a desire for increasingly more novel ways of dancing, something ‘cute’ or ‘challenging’. I could state that in another way ~ ‘weird’ and ‘elitist’. I think what has me riled at the moment is the gall to call this "The Antrim Square Set" when there’s really no connection other than parentage to Antrim. Why not just call it "The Des Jackson Set", that would at least be more honest and to the point. Like some tunes, name it after the choreographer, or use an Australian place name. I prefer honesty instead of pretentiousness and pomposity. And the borrowing, the ‘Grand Square’, there isn’t an old time or Federated-Western square dancer that wouldn’t recognize that figure. Yeah, maybe you picked it up from the Bush dancing down your way, but, as best I know, it isn’t part of Antrim’s tradition, as I’ve been informed by others better able to make an informed comment on the traditions of that area. They might have danced it in the big halls of Belfast. Oh yes, sorry, they have and do dance ‘Federated American Square Dance’ in the North, but I still wouldn’t call it ‘Antrim’…
This is just one extension of the myth building process. The Irish Dance Coimisiun, Coghal, Comhaltas, and other organizations, like the RSCDS, have actively categorized, standardized, manufactured, made official and condemned as alien one thing or another for ages. Why? Well, it gives them power over this thing they strive to possess and dominate and PROFIT from. They make the decisions, they decide what is and isn’t going to fit into their distillation of what is a vast and varied tradition. In all that there has also been neglect and the promotion of ignorance. Those abuses grate most with me…
So, what’s to discuss ~ my discomfort is in large part with myself, that I let this rile me so. And yes, I do realize being a sicky at the moment I’m less than what you might call reasonable. And then reading that lovely idea about the traditions of Armagh, a wealth of tradition that has suffered some neglect, including by the big organizations, my heart jumped, wonderful! ~ and then a little dread crept in as I read on and saw that two of the biggest myth builders going were taking part in it ~ An Coimisiún ;e Rincí Gaelacha and Coghal… Yes, my spirits sank, but, believing in nurturing hope over despair, I’ll remain hopeful…
I know there is likely to be a body of folk that will disagree with the premises expressed here, or at least a lot of opinions and experiences to be aired. I am always open to listening and considering, even when ill, if a bit slower with the later. Have you experienced a similar invention or ‘tradition’ that has riled you up and made you grimace, or have you been party to something ‘new’ that you’re in complete agreement with? More specifically, what do you think about tagging this dance with "Antrim", or more widely the ever growing body of ‘new’ dances? There’s yet another collection due out soon. At least this choreography, Des Jackson’s, isn’t too overly ornate or silly. I admit it, there are some nice new dances amongst the ever growing clog of new sets…but I will always prefer the old settings where you only ever did one or two sets of an evening, not a dozen on the trot, not rushed, but very laid back and with the focus on the social, with a welcome… All this invention and myth making is too reminiscent of an over chlorinated pool, sometimes you come away with your eyes smarting and feeling quite numb, pickled, with a bit of the shakes. I much prefer a lake or the sea, whatever impurities they might carry in their waters…