Buying into the mystic

Within the swirling mists of 'Celtic' music, a struggle is now taking place between tradition and the forces of sound business sense.
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The Independent Culture
This week Riverdance hits London for the second time in the course of a hugely lucrative ricochet around the world. The show was written by Bill Whelan on the back of his 1994 Eurovision Song Contest interval piece and its success, which is emblematic of the current boom in all things "Celtic", is bigger than anyone involved in it, as its original star, Michael Flatley, discovered. Indeed, the brief controversy over Flatley's departure last year (something about money and artistic integrity) was but a hiccup in the grinding wheels of the Irish traditional music scene, which are Byzantine in their workings and complex in their disharmony.

The scene is presided over by a handful of key players: Shaun Davey has for years been a maverick genius who could have written Riverdance, but didn't; Bill Whelan was the relatively obscure man who did; Philip King is a minor musician turned media mogul who has invented and cornered a market for grandiose TV series on Irish music; the composer Michael O'Suillebhan fronted the last one (the five-part River of Sound); Donal Lunny, a former member of Planxty, the Bothy Band and a guest player/ producer on just about every album that leaves the shores of Ireland, fronts the next series (this one's in 13 parts). Between them, they are the mandarins of Irish music, and they are collectively embroiled, whether they like it or not, in a cultural debate that kicked in with the TV shows and will probably keep the purists and academics occupied for years.

Who are these people? Why are there suddenly shelves in record shops collapsing under the weight of swirly-patterned compilations with the word "Celtic" in the title? Will Riverdance become The Mousetrap of its generation and, most importantly, at what point does all this media saturation start to damage the balance of an ancient and hitherto durable tradition?

Brooks Williams, an American bluesman anomalously signed to a leading US Celtic music label, visited Belfast recently. Traditional Irish music, he told me, was the blues of Europe: the timings are different, the structure is different, but the feeling is exactly the same, and it's just as ripe for exploitation in adverts, films and TV-advertised compilation albums as its black American cousin was five years ago. It's already happening. This generation's Irish flag-wavers are Altan. They've just released Blackwater, the first fruit of a cash-heavy deal with Virgin, and Virgin's managing director, Paul Conroy, has no doubt where the marketing strategy goes from here: "The important thing is to find them a vehicle," he says, "a film, a commercial, a BBC series ..."

Somewhere along the line Irish music became Celtic. Nobody involved in it knows what it means - and only a buffoon would call themselves a Celt within shouting distance of anyone with half a brain in Ireland - but America loves it. Clannad must accept some of the blame. From 1973 they peddled albums with unpronounceable titles, stone circles and Book of Kells lettering on the sleeves, and now even Clannad are squirming. "It's a bandwagon," says Ciaran Brennan, the group's apologist in chief. "It's flooding the market. Everywhere you go in America it's Celtic this, Celtic that - it's embarrassing." And only 15 years ago their "Theme to Harry's Game" - a sonorous anthem to a bleak Northern Irish drama - broke all sorts of ground in sneaking Gaelic on to Top of the Pops. Now the same song is selling Vauxhall cars on US TV ads while the group's manager, David Cavanagh, has set up shop with his U2 counterpart, Paul McGuinness, in fronting an Ireland-America export record label entitled Celtic Heartbeat. Their first release was, of course, Riverdance: The Album.

It is a tangled web, but if there is anyone who has contributed to something that can realistically be called a Celtic tradition, it is the composer Shaun Davey. The pioneering success of his Brendan Voyage suite in 1980 opened the door for Whelan, O'Suillebhan, et al. Whelan took the Davey blueprint, had a bizarre idea involving tap dancers and all but undanceable Balkan time-signatures, and turned the whole thing into gold-dust. And if O'Suillebhan has yet to find the precise recipe for alchemy, it's not for lack of trying. He at least gets the consolation prize of irritating the trad establishment on Philip King's TV marathons and writing the programme notes for Riverdance. Davey, recently nominated for a Bafta and currently scoring Trevor Nunn's film version of Twelfth Night, remains unimpressed. He has moved assuredly from the world of advertising jingles to the international concert stage with a succession of increasingly brilliant trad/ orchestral fusion works. His magnum opus, The Pilgrim, involves a cast of 200 - from the traditions of Europe's seven Celtic nations. He maintains a stoical attitude towards the Celtic boom: "I have mixed feelings. I suppose, objectively, that it's very good for the Irish music industry. I'd be sorry to miss out on something good - and I suspect I probably am - although the record company has put one of my tracks on a couple of compilations recently and I've noticed that it's done rather well in terms of royalties."

The lure of lucre is clearly a soother of doubts. Eamon McElholm, the leader of Stockton's Wing - whose current album Letting Go was brilliantly produced by Davey - is a little less equivocal. "It's fashionable now to be Celtic," he says. "But I don't think any musician really thinks about it. It's a marketing thing. But if there's a load of work coming out of it, then fair enough!"

And work there is. The Riverdance stage band, for a start, features a revolving pool of the best trad players around, including the awesome Eileen Ivers on fiddle.

Ivers, an Irish-American, is quite happy to leave the academics and purists to it. "All this debate," she says. "I don't really see what the problem is. It's great that all of a sudden people are into the music - although obviously there's a lot of bad albums out there." Indeed there are. Taking Ivers for a stroll around the record shops of Belfast, let alone Boston, revealed a mountain of dubious product, the most ludicrous of which was entitled Celtic Pan Pipes. It's a bandwagon that's out of control and even the mandarins themselves are finding it hard to resist jumping on board.

"Inevitably there is a process of selection for these people who are making television programmes about Irish music," says Shaun Davey; "and, with that, an element of judging is involved. And when it's presented on television, somehow the judgement comes across as being final, and that is not desirable."

So, has he met the grand judge? "I've met O'Suillebhan once. However, my business is to do what I do myself and not inspect what other people are doing. But always one has to separate the transient and fashionable from what is genuine and good. I think that, by and large, everybody you've mentioned - Donal Lunny, Philip King, Michael O'Suillebhan, myself - all try to do what we know we're good at better as time goes on. That's the most important thing, and a search for mandarin figures, in the sense of people manipulating others, is not useful."

But who needs to search? The names are rising to the surface regardless, and while the common cause of the tradition is all well and good, the private agendas of those involved cannot be ignored. O'Suillebhan, Professor of Irish music at Limerick University, needs profile to attract students and funding to his courses; Shaun Davey has a reputation to carve out in the massively competitive international soundtrack scene; Donal Lunny's recorded ubiquity is becoming self-perpetuating; King, rumour has it, has aspirations to sign up in management deals the cream of his contacts with a view to "manufacturing" a supergroup. The idea is wrong, but the time is right: Irish musicians can make a professional living now where their predecessors in the genuine supergroups of the Seventies - even Clannad - had to struggle.

But Irish music has a self-preservation instinct. You can put the stuff on ads, release vacuous compilations and give big-buck deals to the best- looking prospects, but supergroups will always just happen, and all but the most acceptable fusions fall by the wayside.

Riverdance is a fusion phenomenon with an assembled supergroup providing the music for a global audience. It's a great show, but it's a one-off. There will be no Broadway tradition coming out of it, and where Irish music and its audience stand at the end of it all will be interesting to see. Interesting enough, no doubt, for someone to make a TV series and say, once again, "Irish music: where to next?"