Trad Life

They call the type of music I was playing in New Orleans "Trad." Hence: the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band. It signifies an older repertoire of songs and style of playing, like you'd hear on early Louis Armstrong or King Oliver recordings. It's getting popular again in New Orleans and beyond, young people are coming to the Crescent City to play the music in droves and you can find Trad Jazz sessions in cities across the country. I'm grateful to have formed the Swamp Donkeys, a band that really rode the crest of the resurgence of the music's popularity.  

They call the type of music I'm learning in Ireland "Trad" as well. Many old and young people are playing it here. You see signs for Trad sessions at countless bars across the country, especially here in County Clare where I am staying. Like New Orleans, people playing this music know many of the same songs-- They draw on a shared repertoire of jigs, reels, and dances. Many of the songs are 100 years old. Having a common vocabulary is crucial to how the music continues to be created and sustained. Perhaps I am drawn to Traditional music because these are the last few places where a musical language of common songs is preserved in the same organic environment they were born: the bars and streets of the cities we live, not some stuffy classrooms. Not much has changed since back then, in this light.  

Of course there are crucial difference between these types of Trad. In Ireland, you clap on the first and third beats. In New Orleans Trad, and jazz in general, you clap on the second and fourth beats. When I would tour with the Donkeys, the band would get surprised when the audience clapped on 1 and 3, saying stuff like "these Europeans are so square" or "check out this video of Harry connick Jr. flipping the beat back over while the audience keeps their steady clap going." Really they're just used to a different kind of music.  Still, you should know where you're at... It wouldn't be wise to show up in America and start driving on the left-hand side of the street! 

The instruments are different as well. In Irish music, typically the lead melody is played by flute, whistle, or fiddle, and doubled by Accordian or concertina. Sometimes there is an Irish tenor banjo in there. A guitar or bazouki player often provides chordal accompaniment, if there is any at all. Sometimes someone will be playing beats on the Bodhran. If you are really lucky, someone will have Uielienn pipes, which can create a whole band sound on their own.   

I love how, after playing a few jigs, the session leader will ask one of the musicians or even bar attendees to sing a song. Sometimes a weathered old Irishman will rise from the bar and deliver a stirring ballad, acapella, as the entire crowd quiets down in attention. These were also some of the moments where I was able to share my original music, blues, and New Orleans Jazz with the audience and the local musicians. The combination of these types of music with the traditional Irish sound made for some very memorable evenings. It blended so seamlessly, in fact, that I've been encouraged by many to stay in Ireland or return, because they'd surely have a place for my music and my voice here. Who knows what the future will bring?  

Christy taught me my first jig yesterday, called Willie Coleman's jig. I'll play it for you sometime. He just called it Coleman's. It reminded me of how we call Paul Barbarin's second line just "Barbarin." I picked it up quickly because it was so rooted in pentatonic scales which are already the basis of my playing. I'm excited to learn more jigs and reels, because I've always been hung up on the best way to practice scales or pentatonics, and the combinations and rhythms you find in these songs are so visceral and natural.  

I'm incredibly lucky to have met Christy Barry and to have him as a host and mentor for this trip. He really is quintessentially county Clare, a local legend here. He used to partake in too much drinking and revelry and he even lost a gig with the Chieftains because he drunkenly told Paddy Moloney he couldn't play pipes when they came to McGann's searching him out as the best flute player around. But thank god he sobered up, quit drinking, and can now be an indispensable hub of the music community here. He and Sheila set up Doolin Music House as part of the mission of preserving the music of Doolin and County Clare, and remembering the musicians from the older generation, many of whom have passed now. His pearls of wisdom and the humor and freshness of the perspective he brings to music and life in general are a beautiful thing. As someone at the festival remarked to me "I'd trade a month in Dublin for a day in Doolin with Christy Barry." 

Before I continue on to discuss the Doolin Music House, I want to say a few words about New Orlean's own favorite local celebrity, James Andrews. James is quintessentially New Orleans, raised in the Treme, totally off the wall, with a unquenchable spirit at live performances that can be rivaled by none. The "Big Boss with the Hot Sauce," "Satchmo of the ghetto." He never had the global success of his younger brother Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, and perhaps he never wanted it...he'd prefer to party at local gigs and events instead of pulling it together for clean cut corporate performances, although he still will play at the Superdome if you ask him. I'll never forget the morning his whole band was set to play the New Orleans morning news and he just never showed up. We played without him. In between shots he called the anchor saying "my time is fucked up! I'll be there in five." When the newscasters came back on air one of them said "James said he'll be here shortly." The other one said "you must not know James." Only in New Orleans. He will still get the gig again. All of his craziness aside, I'm very grateful to have played my first few Jazzfests with James, and lucky to have met all the phenomenal musicians in the bands he puts together, a who's who of New Orleans music. Even when it seemed like a gig couldn't possibly work out ok, he would make it happen through sheer willpower and energy, and by the end he would be second lining in the middle of the crowd with some Mardi Gras Indians he brought along for the event. Although he never became a true mentor to me in terms of showing me music and taking me under his wing, we always had a special connection and understanding, and I'll always look to him as the musician from New Orleans who was truest to the city's character. And I could care less about the several hundred dollars he still owes me (and probably most of the musicians in New Orleans). 

Back to Ireland, I'd like to close with some words about Doolin Music House. In the past year or two, Christy and Sheila decided to host Traditional music sessions three nights a week in their living room to show people the atmosphere of music making at home, a big part of the older tradition. This Monday, Christy related the story of how he learned to play spoons. As a young child, Christy would crouch under the table of his house, copying the rhythms of the dancing feet around him, dancing that would continue all through the night. He said before the days of modern psychiatry, this was how people would take a load off after work, through music, a "way to get along when you don't have anything." Christy related a vision of his father changing to work clothes from dancing cloths at 6 am, standing in front of the house, drinking a bottle of Guinness before going to work all day. He also noted how spoons most effectively show the old dancing rhythms and how the Bodhran drum only became popular in the 1970s and changed the style of music then. Christy peppered the Music House sessions with these sorts of anecdotes and they really made the music and history come alive in a way you might not get from a typical bar-room session. Each night, at a certain point, he'd point to the drawings of local musicians he had hung up on the walls of their living room, relating the stories of these lads who "carried the can." There was Willie Clancy, the great piper-- but "they only said that he was great after he died," he didn't make much money during his life and drank much of it away. There was Tommy People's on fiddle. Michelene Conlon on Accordian and concertina. Patty kiloughery on fiddle. The Russell brothers. Christy related stories about each of these musicians, some humorous, some touching, some speaking to that particular musicians importance in the passing down of Irish music. Back then, Doolin was a music college of sorts, and Michael Russell, a "hero" of Doolin, "the whistling ambassador," helped bring the music to greater Ireland. Nowadays, everybody knows Doolin as a famed music town and these men were the reason. Christy says the reason he hosts these sessions and relates this history is because he's the oldest guy around who knows the old generation and the history of it. "If you know someone else who [knows it] as well, please send them my way."  

As I continue on my own journey through music, I am incredibly blessed that my path has brought me into contact with people like James Andrews and Christy Barry. At a time when modern music can be so devoid of the meaning and history that music was once imbued with, I have been drawn to these windows into the past. These are some of the richest living musical traditions I've encountered and I'm glad that they can inspire me and my writing, and I'm glad I can learn all the same tunes and play them in the same bars that people were playing them in a hundred years ago. 

Leave a comment

    Add comment