In the unique career situation I have stumbled into these last few years, here are some of the most common questions I am asked at my workplace, in no particular order — ‘Wait, you’re Australian?’; ‘Are your parents Irish?’; ‘What made you play this music?’.
Outside of the job, my friends, family and acquaintances have their own variations on such queries — ‘I mean that’s great, good for you, but I don’t get it’; ‘When are we gonna have a jam like the old days?’; ‘Hang on a sec, weren’t you gunning for a PhD?’. Not to forget my personal favourite, common to both groups — ‘So… you play banjo for a living?!’.
Of course, most of these people get a kick out of hearing about someone that has an interesting career, but on reflection, I understand the place where the surprise or incredulity comes from. The world that myself and my like–minded musical peers inhabit can be hard to fathom from the outside: foreign and familiar, arcane and welcoming, reverent and raucous.
So, the drift is, I’m an Australian who plays and lives traditional Irish music, and a proper explanation is overdue.
After years of waxing lyrical in rowdy pubs between sets, I’ve honed my elevator speech down to something like this: a jobbing bass guitarist, capable enough to fill in at short notice for a few gigs, more gigs arise, appreciation for the music increases, the offer of more work if a traditional instrument was learnt, appreciation skyrockets via the new vessel (the noble tenor banjo). That, however, is a story unto itself, the story of the band that took me to where I am now and where I will continue to go.
The less tangible qualities of the music’s full meaning to me are the things that fill the gaps between the gigs and general ego–reinforcement.
One Monday night a few weeks ago, after many other musicians had left a busy seisúin (more on this later), myself and a few others found ourselves gathered around an older gentleman playing the fiddle. He played tune after tune, imparting little nuggets of their particular stories between the music. He played a piece his father taught him 50 or 60 years ago that he had only remembered in the last month, and at that point the small but rapt audience exchanged a little grin of acknowledgement — this was folk music.
It’s there in so many things we listen to, be it the way that the blues and jazz evolved from African traditions, in turn shaping pop, rock and urban music from their inception to the present day, or the way new songs sprang out of re-imagined material in the American folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s, or the nationalistic movement in classical music through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw great composers drawing on the historic themes of their native lands to create so many enduring masterpieces.
But it’s all a bit distant from the actual thing.
Simpler, more traditional origins boil underneath the multitude of forms music presents itself in, or at the very least are exploited for their ability to furnish the music with a ready-made sentimentality. The evocative power folk music has when leveraged within other styles was obvious to a certain budding composer, who swore he would engage with as many facets of musical expression as possible. Indeed, after time, this ‘resource’ seemed too powerful, and to his increasingly cynical and critical artistic sensibility, it seemed false or trite to engage in any traditional culture without irony or frivolity. Yes, my friends — I believed for a long time that I had no place in any culture, and that there was no point in making music unless its purpose was to sail gloriously into the future!
Being futuristic can be exhausting and very often disappointing. On its own, it requires a serious amount of optimistic self–belief that few people can sustain. Don’t get me wrong, the years spent in a state of tortuous wonderment were brilliant and incredibly rewarding and, as many times before, I have made a solemn vow to return to the future, at some appropriate time in the future.
So anyway, said the rambling man, sometimes we need a distraction. And sometimes the distraction becomes the thing. Before the experience with the fiddler, there were many more of its kind, and so I’ll share a few more moments in which I was superbly distracted by Irish folk music.
The first session, after an earnest few months practicing on borrowed banjos. Without being too strictly musicological, the session (seisúin) is where Irish musicians gather together informally to play instrumental music based around the different dance forms of the culture, and, if it’s the right kind of mood, sing a song or two. It blew my mind. Marvellous, intricate melodies played with bubbling ornamentations, often on instruments I’d never heard in person, all in a rhythmic feel so joyful that I felt that I knew the language right away. Of course, this is how good musicians make lesser musicians feel, especially when they encourage your participation. After six years of trying to speak this language, I know I was out of my league on that night, but it certainly kicked things off.
We’ll play some tunes, and then maybe a song. Aren’t they the same thing? Nope, jigs, reels, polkas and hornpipes are tunes. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ is a song. And then, in a different setting, the classic Irish chant at the end of a rowdy pub gig: ‘One more tune! One more tune!’ ‘What do ya wanna hear?’ ‘Fields of Athenry!’. That took a while to adjust to…
‘The Pub With No Beer’ – in Ireland. As a reluctant country Australian boy who bolted for the city and its sophistication at the first opportunity, I always thought that Slim Dusty was pretty crap (or most other Australian folk singers, for that matter). Twenty years later, during in my own personal 60’s folk revival, I heard this song sung by my new favourite singer, Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners. I thought, ‘wow, he sings that so much better that Slim, he’s a magician.’ Which he is, but it took his rendition to bring my gaze back to Australia, and to realise that in fact Slim is a bona fide magician too. I sing many more of his tunes — sorry, songs — these days, and I was undoubtedly a proud little Vegemite to perform this bittersweet lament to cheerful faces in so many Irish pubs, so far from home.
‘My dad played that song to me when I was a boy. I haven’t heard it since.’ That’s a powerful thing to hear, and in many ways could be a mission statement for the folk singer. I believe the song I’m thinking of was Rathlin Island, which was learnt at the request of someone else’s dad visiting from Scotland. To access these hidden gems through someone’s personal history, rather than a YouTube or Spotify algorithm, is incredibly special to the musician and listener alike. It adds precious layers to the story of the song, to think of the path the ballad has worn to get to you every time it springs to mind.
Back to the bush. Righto, so Slim’s a legend. Ronnie Drew’s a legend. Irish country pubs are unreal. Keeping old songs alive is great. In the back of my head there a few cracker Aussie songs that aren’t played much in pubs. Aussie country pubs are great. They like Irish music out there often enough. Kev Carmody, the great Aboriginal balladeer, well, his last name is Carmody. Sounds pretty Irish to me. There’s a ripper story in that. People love a story, if you tell it well. There’s something there, I’ll get back to ya…
The session, again: How are all of these people in the same room, doing the same thing? 15 year olds, 80 year olds, welders, doctors, mums, dads, scholars, drifters, Vivaldi fiends, what-note-is-that? freewheelers — and often, where we are, you’ll witness a mix of cultural backgrounds almost as diverse as the town itself. And they are all doing the same thing, all understanding the appeal in this way of communicating.
My admiration for Irish traditional music is satisfying on purely musical and cerebral grounds, and this is how I came to it. I listen to so much of this music that I will likely never play, because the conditions I am surrounded by are different to those that it was created in. But through the shared history of the people I play with, we create our own unique condition that surely keeps the undercurrent of a broader community’s history flowing.
Folk music – you can sample it, put it in your concerto or under your fancy hat, but in the end it’s about the folk.
Ben Christiansen is a Western Australian musician who has performed, studied, composed and taught music across a wide variety of genres for the past 20 years. Having begun his career as a self-taught electric bassist, his musical curiosity led him to study jazz at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where exposure to 20th century avant-garde concert music cemented his desire to compose. In the period following, Ben worked as a professional jazz performer, co-founded the instrumental hip-hop and EDM group The Claps, and founded and directed the choral group The Choir of Chance. Ben returned to WAAPA in 2013 to study composition. He is currently taking a very long time off to study and perform Irish traditional music, regularly delighting and disappointing the good people of Perth in the folk duo, The Broken Pokers.