THE LEITRIM EQUATION
THE LÚNASA TRADITIONAL MUSIC RESIDENCY
Leitrim County Council’s 2007 – 2009 Traditional Music Residency with Lúnasa
Take one of the world’s leading traditional music bands and give them time and resources to work and interact with local musicians over a period of eighteen months. If that sounds like a bold and visionary project, it is only the start. Multiply that by three and you have a serious commitment to traditional arts development over a five year period. The signs are that its long term impact will be substantial and potentially a watershed moment in the music of the area.
The Lúnasa residency is the first of three traditional music residencies, organised as part of Leitrim County Council's Arts Strategy, with the aim of promoting and developing traditional music both in Leitrim and of Leitrim. This unique initiative saw Lúnasa visit the county eight times for three days duration over 18 months, during which time they were exposed to all that Leitrim has to offer.
Kevin Crawford, Lúnasa’s flute player and charismatic front man, enthused about the experience. “We heard great stories of the history of Leitrim music in the homes of Ben Lennon and Michael McNamara and saw at first hand how this local tradition is being maintained, developed and passed on to future generations in wonderful music classes all across the county. We visited hospitals, community centres and schools where everyone seemed to have a song or story for us and we also played countless sessions in halls, homes and public houses where the interaction between young and old was a real pleasure to witness.”
From the outset Lúnasa were very committed to the idea and had a deep understanding and interest in the traditions and musicians from the area. Their professionalism and the standards they set for themselves meant that they made the most of each visit to the county, demonstrating enormous respect for the tradition and for the people. Cillian Vallely summed up the initial feeling of the band. “Given that we spend most of the year touring abroad, we were initially attracted to the idea of not just performing in Leitrim but interacting with Leitrim’s tradition and with the local community and from the outset, the hospitality and welcome we received made the residency a very special experience” .
‘ … The timing for us as a band was massively important. It allowed us to touch base again with the grass roots.’
That initial enthusiasm was well founded and all the band members have been totally enthused by what has happened so far. “In Leitrim, we discovered a humble place, at ease with its rich tradition but not taking it for granted as far as the future is concerned. We heard great stories of the history of Leitrim music in the homes of Ben Lennon and Michael McNamara, and saw at first hand how this local tradition is being maintained, developed and passed on to future generations in wonderful music classes all across the county. We visited hospitals, community centres and schools where everyone seemed to have a song or story for us and we also played countless sessions in halls, homes and public houses where the interaction between young and old was a real pleasure to witness.”
Lunasa at Celtic Connections 2007
Kevin Crawford recognises the positive impact of the residency on Lúnasa. “The timing for us as a band was massively important. It allowed us to touch base again with the grass roots. The band has been touring for 12 years and when you get home from a tour you tend to retreat back into your own world. Our time in Leitrim reminded us of the Ireland we all love. Leitrim hasn't lost it.”
“We were supposed to do eight or nine visits but ended up doing far more. We fell in love with the Leitrim people and am I now going back there socially and taking my family there. The respect we have gained for Leitrim, its music and its people will stay with us for a long time. Looking back, this residency exceeded all our expectations and has become an important and very enjoyable chapter in the life of Lúnasa. We’ve made new friends and we’ve learned a lot. It was important to us - it was a real recharging of our batteries. It was an honour to be a part of this.”
‘ … We have over 100 hours of video and audio which has been added to the archive. This is a huge contribution to the world of traditional music which will only be enhanced over time.’
Leitrim’s Traditional Music Residency is certainly impressive and probably unique at this time. The most significant thing about the residency was the time it gave Lúnasa to develop relationships. They made a series of visits to Leitrim, each one typically lasting for three days. “We worked hard - all the time recording and documenting people we met. As a professional band, gigs in Ireland hardly feature on the radar in a commercial sense. Most of our work is in America or Europe. I'd love it to be different. This project allowed us to spend sensible chunks of time working in Ireland and we were able to make serious attempts at documenting traditions. No other project that we know about is as substantial as this. We have over 100 hours of video and audio which has been added to the archive. We uncovered some wonderful gems - people who have been overlooked. Some of them have passed on since the residency started. We have captured them, their story is there to be told and heard. This is a huge contribution to the world of traditional music which will only be enhanced over time.”
Leitrim’s choice of using high profile professional musicians for the residency is an unusual one, although the logic is similar to the choice, increasingly being made by organisations teaching traditional music, to use experienced traditional musicians as tutors. Kevin felt that it did need to be led by a high-profile band. “To get to national awareness it needed a high profile and having us involved made it easier for the organisers to approach singers and players in the community. When the project organisers approached people asking ‘Can we bring Lúnasa to see you?’ our profile opened doors and generated a buzz of excitement.”
This view was reinforced by Jackie Maguire, County Manager. “In approaching Lúnasa to take on the first residency, we appreciated what they had to offer. They are highly regarded musicians with a distinctive collective sound. Their professionalism and the standards they set for themselves meant that they made the most of each visit to our county, demonstrating enormous respect for the tradition and for the people.”
“We were equally clear about what Leitrim has to offer to artists in residence (or to anyone else for that matter); a county that values the local and has a strong sense of the real; a county that still has the capacity to offer generosity and curiosity in equal measure; a county with a vibrant music tradition that warrants serious attention.”
This residency could not have happened as it did without the support of people (musicians, singers, dancers, fishermen, teachers, children, home-owners, boat-owners, business people, historians, healthcare workers, arts workers, gardeners, miners, community groups, chefs and others) throughout the length and breadth of the county, who not only offered a great welcome to Lúnasa, but also made the journeys worthwhile.
Whilst Kevin enthuses about the approach and success of the project, he is not sure if it is a model that would translate without some modification. “Leitrim people were very open to outsiders coming in. I'm not sure it would translate to other counties because they may think ‘what can you bring to us that we don't already have’. County Clare, Sligo, Mayo, and Donegal are well-known and are seen as the superpowers in traditional music terms. Leitrim has always been the poor relation.”
What Kevin knows will translate, is the commitment to teaching and the achievements that will follow when there is that commitment – and Kevin is passionate about teaching!” He is a regular tutor at the Swannanoa Gathering in America. Swannanoa, in North Carolina, is one of the longer established summer schools projects in America. Kevin has taught there for the last four years and it has reached the point where the band doesn't take work in the first two weeks of July so that he can continue to teach there.
To outsiders, Ireland has been seen as a country that has valued its traditions and the assumption has been that there has been strong support for the traditional arts from government and the Arts Council. The reality has been that within the funding establishment that has been as similar priority given to what are seen as the ‘high arts’ – opera, ballet and classical music – as has been given in the UK. “For a long time in Ireland funding for the traditional arts has been the poor relation. As recently as five or six years ago some people got together to approach the Arts Council to promote the traditional arts. The result has been a massive injection of life and people are now coming up with great projects.”
‘ … The next generation of composers in the Leitrim tradition has emerged and this represents a great investment in the future of traditional music in the county.’
The Leitrim project had twin aims of promoting and developing traditional music in Leitrim and of Leitrim. The ‘in’ and the ‘of’ are important. Through this statement they acknowledge the broad context of traditional music making today but also the importance of local traditions, distinct styles and traditional music making in a local setting. One of the underlying aims of the residency was to have new Leitrim tunes composed. Kevin Crawford proposed establishing a regular ‘new tunes workshop’ which would hopefully encourage a group of players to explore the world of composition following in the footsteps of established Leitrim composers such as Charlie Lennon, Joe Liddy, Brian Rooney and Maurice Lennon.
Kevin led this initiative along with Paul Meehan and during these workshops he and Paul worked with a group of six Leitrim musicians, teasing out various snippets, ideas or phrases they might have, shaping them into the outline of a tune. Over the course of these sessions a body of work was created out of which nine tunes were selected and explored in full, at which stage Lúnasa members Seán Smyth, Cillian Vallely and Trevor Hutchinson were brought in to add their touch and sound to these. These tunes were then recorded for a CD ‘The Leitrim Equation’, featuring Lúnasa and some of the Leitrim musicians that they had worked with during the residency and which was one of the milestone markers in this remarkable long term project.
In Kevin’s opinion the combination of teaching and new writing lays firm foundations for the future. “The next generation of composers in the Leitrim tradition has emerged and this represents a great investment in the future of traditional music in the county.” Some time ago the schools in the county decided to bring in traditional musicians to teach and there are lots of great young players coming out of these music classes. “America is leading the way in putting workshops alongside concerts. Leitrim is doing something as productive. It was great for these local musicians to play and share a stage with Lunasa. Some of the young musicians are now being encouraged to write tunes and to form bands. Their growth in confidence over 18 months was phenomenal.”
When you see something successful and working well, it is easy to underestimate the hard work behind the scenes needed to bring it to that point. Kevin understands where credit is due but singled out three individuals for special mention, Caoimbin Corrigan, Soibhan O’Malley and Maureen Carty. “Without a shadow of doubt it was skill, knowledge and understanding of the team behind the project which was a major reason for its success. Thankfully there are visionary people in the arts office.” The project has already proved to be a big springboard for the County and the success of the venture can already be measured through the media attention it has attracted. This has included a full page feature in the Irish Times, a Céili House recording in the original homestead of the great flute player John McKenna and a Geantraí programme in Leitrim. What is yet to be revealed is the long-term impact of a unique initiative which brings together traditional musicians based in the community with traditional musicians who have taken this music to some of the major concert platforms of the world. The signs are that its long term impact will be substantial and potentially a watershed moment in the music of the area.
Groups taking the music of Ireland around the world clearly have an economic benefit in terms of tourism and an unquantifiable contribution to the feel good factor that any country strives for. As well as promoting the music of Ireland, Lúnasa will now be taking something of Leitrim with them wherever they go.
The end of the first of Leitrim’s three Traditional Music Residencies was marked by a CD and a special concert in Temple Bar, Dublin, featuring Lúnasa and some of the Leitrim musicians that they had worked with during the residency. The CD, ‘The Leitrim Equation’, is a combination of new tunes by local musicians, Lúnasa playing Leitrim tunes and traditional tunes played by Leitrim musicians accompanied by the various members of Lúnasa.
Leitrim County Council’s new traditional musicians in residence, Dervish, are now ready to begin their tenure for another 18 months. For more information on the Leitrim County Council traditional music residency visit Leitrim County Council
To buy Lunasa CDs see The Listening Post
Photographer: James Molloy
Location: Kilgar Day Centre, Kiltyclogher, Leitrim (Kiltyclogher is the village in Leitrim where Ben and Charlie Lennon grew up)
Ben Lennon’s house, Rossinver, Leitrim