|GEARÓID O hALLMHURÁIN and PATRICK OURCEAU – “Tracin’ – Traditional Music from the West of Ireland” – Celtic Crossings, 1999|
|Tracing the Oral Tradition of Irish Music
IRISH VOICE (Feb.24-March 2,1999)
Old-time Irish dance music is an oral tradition. There are, to be sure, many printed collections of reels, jigs and other tunes, but most traditional musicians still learn the bulk of their repertoire by ear. Many highly respected Irish fiddlers, pipers, accordionists and other instrumentalists don’t read music at all, which doesn’t seem to have done them much harm. Information does get lost in the oral transmission of tunes from musician to musician.
Listeners new to Irish traditional music are often amazed to discover that many players don’t seem to know the names of the tunes they play or even whether a particular piece of music was composed last month or 200 years ago. It is not all as haphazard as it seems, however, and there are musicians who really do care about the names, settings and history of the tunes.
Clare concertina player Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin and New York fiddler Patrick Ourceau are two such players. Tracin’, their just-released recording, takes its name from what Ó hAllmhuráin calls “a natural talent borne by most Irish people.” Irish conversation, according to Ó hAllmhuráin’s liner notes, “is as much an art of remembering as a means of communication.”
Such tracing, he writes, “can unravel a mosaic of family genealogies, as well as recall a throng of forgotten exiles, political conspiracies, local poets and sporting heroes.” It can also root out the real history of traditional musicians and the tunes they play. What Ó hAllmhuráin and Ourceau are tracing on their superb duet disc is music played and sometimes composed by older master musicians of Clare and east Galway.
Among the Clare players whose tunes are borrowed for this recording are fiddle legends Paddy Canny and Bobby Casey, uilleann piper Willie Clancy and Ó hAllmhuráin’s concertina mentor, Paddy Murphy.
From the east Galway side, they draw on the repertoire of fiddlers Lucy Farr, Paddy Kelly and Paddy Fahy; flute players Jack Coen, Eddie Moloney, Stephen Moloney, Tommy Whelan and Jack Coughlan; and button accordionist Joe Burke.
All these musicians are enshrined in the pantheon of Irish traditional music heroes, and most younger musicians at least know their names. Not all, however, are interested in keeping alive their old-time tunes and styles.
Even in traditionalist strongholds like Clare and east Galway, the usually illusory lure of commercial success has tempted many of today’s best young players to “modernize” their music by playing at breakneck tempos, performing with bass and drums and generally acting like rock-and-rollers.
It’s not possible, or even desirable, for Irish traditional music to stand still. But without some degree of respect for and continuity with the style of the old masters, Irish music could all too easily escape from its roots in the way that commercialized American country music has lost touch with its own down-home folks heritage.
Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin and Patrick Ourceau know this, and their duets on Tracin’ are a salutary reminder of the timeless charms of genuine, old-time traditional music. They are not mere slavish imitators, and occasionally branch out to include newly composed Irish tunes or pieces from Quebec and Cape Breton Island.
Whatever Ó hAllmhuráin and Ourceau play, however, they honor their musical forebears by sticking with the relaxed tempos and lower-pitched tuning preferred by many older musicians, and by preserving unchanged the original settings of classic tunes.
Ó hAllmhuráin, originally from Ennis, County Clare, is a professor at the University of San Francisco. Ourceau, born in Paris, France, now lives in New York City, where he performs and teaches music. Despite this physical separation, they perform frequently in places as far afield as Alaska and France.
They have been playing together, in fact, since 1985, when Ó hAllmhuráin was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. These years of musical partnership allow them to play in tandem with almost telepathic sensitivity, producing duets in which fiddle and concertina blend into one seamless stream of sound.
Tracin’ includes tasteful and harmonious backing from accompanists who include New Yorker Brendan Dolan and Cape Breton Islander Barbara Magone on the piano, San Francisco harpist Margaret Davis and Dublin-born New York guitarist Eamon O’Leary. New York flute player Linda Hickman also contributes to a couple of lovely trio selections.
There are also tracks, notably the jig selection “Jack Coughlan’s/Lady Gordon’s” and the reels “The Maids of Mitchelstown/The Bunch of Keys,” on which Ó hAllmhuráin and Ourceau are gloriously unaccompanied.
–Don Meade, ON THE FIDDLE