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IRISH & IRISH-AMERICAN MUSIC IN THE LATE 20TH CENTURY
INTRODUCTIONThe past forty years of the twentieth century witnessed an increasing commercialization and globalization of Irish music and dance, and a range of responses from Irish and Irish American musicians. Established award winning group Cherish the Ladies are preservationists, innovating within the tradition, while others such as Clannad invent a mystical Celtic brand. Michael Hayes has brought elements of jazz and minimalism into his compositions. Irish dance competitions and festivals take place in the U.S. and around the world, and the instantaneous access to cultural products through the Internet has brought Irish music and dance forms to millions. Irish dance has also expanded far beyond its traditional forms and institutional social settings, becoming a worldwide brand.
PRESERVATION / INNOVATIONThe longest-running and most successful of Irish-American traditional bands is Cherish the Ladies, an all women band brought together in 1983 and sponsored by the Ethnic Folk Arts Center and the National Endowment for the Arts. The group is led by the award-winning Bronx-born flute and whistle player Joanie Madden. Cherish the Ladies has played all over the world and have worked with various symphony orchestras. With fourteen albums, the band "occupies a highly symbolic role in Irish-American cultural life: at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, they represented Irish music and culture at the Cultural Olympiad, their work was nominated as a top Album of the Year by The New York Times, Washington Post, The Village Voice and other U.S. media outlets." They have made numerous TV and radio broadcasts on mainstream shows, and on national public radios shows in the United States, Ireland, and England. [Vallely]
♦♦♦Clannad was an Irish New Age group of five family members. (One sister, Enya, was with the band for a short time before pursuing a career as an immensely popular New Age solo artist.) Clannad debuted shortly after the Irish folk music revival, at first playing traditional instruments and singing Irish folk songs. The group broke records in 1983 with the now-legendary "Theme from Harry's Game" written for a fictional BBC drama depicting The Troubles. The song entered the British charts at #5, and remains the only hit single sung entirely in Irish. Its qualities are those usually associated with New Age music: breathy, quivering, emotionally restrained vocals, simple melody, sweet hymn-like harmony, lush synthesizer accompaniment, and slow tempo. The recording swims in a sea of electronically produced reverberation that makes the music sound distant both in time and space, accentuating its meditative, spiritual mood. The lyrics, adapted from an old Irish song, with lovely ambiguity add to the sense of melacholia and consolation reminiscent of an Irish slow air. Clannad's U.S. debut album, Anam received extensive video exposure. Of Clannad's 16 studio albums and 17 compilation albums, five peaked on Billboard's World Music album chart at #1 (Banba and Lore), #2, #3, or #4.
♦♦♦The Gloaming is a group formed by composer and famed Irish fiddler Martin Hayes. This video is the finale of their brilliant performance at a sold-out concert at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2014. Hayes maintains the burning energy of Irish reels but stretches the symmetric structure of Irish dance music. He is able to build extended forms with familiar-sounding but syncopated musical phrases repeated cyclically, at times as a background drone for improvised solos in jazz tradition.
The phenomenon that is Riverdance changed the world of Irish dance and music in 1995 when Irish-American dance champions Michael Flatley and Jean Butler created a full-length show of Irish-inspired choreography. Riverdance has been touring non-stop ever since by companies throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and South Africa. The show has been seen by over 100 million people, and earned its producers hundreds of millions of dollars. [Cathy Hayes, "Amazing Facts about the Irish Dance Phenomenon 'Riverdance'" Irish Central, January, 2015] [independent.ie]
COMMERCIALIZATION AND GLOBALIZATION OF IRISH DANCE AND DANCE MUSIC
While Flatley may have broken conventions and demonstrated astonishing techniques in Irish step dance, Bill Whelan's score was disconnected from traditional Irish music. And reactions were not uniformly positive. A reviewer for the Irish Times asked whether the Irish media view Flatley "as an American who has taken a single element of Irish culture and commercialised it, glamorised it, bastardised it, without having any appreciation of the culture from which he draws his inspiration? Has the man brought a Big Mac bun attitude and wrapped it around one of Ireland's sacred cultural cows?"
On the other hand, Flatley's breakaway production Lord of the Dance "took Irish music and dance to unprecedented theatrical heights" in 1996.
Using a dizzling display of cinematographic effects and a precarious composite of mythological motifs, Lord of the Dance featured a battalion of step dancers, with Flatley dancing as well as playing concert flute. Unlike its precursor, this production incorporated genuine dance music and figure dances from the living tradition.
Riverdance and Lord of the Dance have both generated a paradigm shift in Irish step dancing. Since 1994, this formulaic bastion of national dance has changed from an old competitive world of medals and feaseanna [festivals], to a new commercial milieu of theatrical extravaganza. In the resulting cocktail of Celtic twilight and Broadway panache, Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, Irish musicians and dancers, like their vaudevillian predecessors, are retailoring their art for a radically new and intensely competitive international stage.
[Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, O'Brien's Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music]
Flately's shows brought on an explosion of interest in Irish step dance in the U.S. and worldwide. In 2017 Chicago native Peter Dziak made history as three-time consecutive champion in the Irish Dance Worlds Competition.
An estimated 50,000 Americans participate in local, regional, national, regional, and international Irish step dance competitions, culminating in the World Competition. This 2012 documentary follows the six top contestants from the United States:
Fusion Fighters are a dance crew rooted in traditional Irish step dance whose 30-plus members are skilled in other dance forms as well, including "Tap, Contemporary, and Body Percussion." Composer/Producer/Pianist Brian McGrane's music likewise mixes the traditional fiddling of Benedict Morris and Aisling Parslow with more contemporary genres. Altogether, over twenty musicians are associated with the crew.
In 2010, [artistic director] Chris [Naish] branched away from what had become the typical Irish Dance show experience and co-created an experimental street level project called ‘Sneaky Steppers’, a public ambush crew that would break into several styles of spontaneous dance for unsuspecting audiences. Notable achievements include co-organising a Flash mob in Sydney Central Station with Tourism Ireland (20+ Million Views) and providing entertainment for the 2012 London Olympics. When taking breaks from the touring shows, Chris spent his time living in New York City and began to choreograph for various dance projects and collaborations including dance crew Hammerstep.
He was also invited to be a choreographer for ‘Studio2Stage’ in New Jersey for a cast of more than 80 dancers and teaching over 600 dancers at the original Irish Dance Camp 'Camp Rince Ceol'. [fusionfightersdance.com] ["Irish Dance Group Make Music with Their Feet" The Irish World, February 2015]