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Challenging Comhaltas’ hegemony

April 11, 2016

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By Daniel Neely

Marcus Hernon is well known to fans of traditional music.  He’s a world-class flute player who also makes highly-regarded flutes, and in addition to the several lovely albums of his own, he was a featured player on “The Good Mixer,” the brilliant album from last year that documented the legendary 1980s session at the London bar of the same name. Hernon has recently released a new album called “Kindle in the Fire / Coigil an Tine,” which is a powerful and enthralling offering that not only brings listeners to Connemara in terms of sound and feel, but it’s an album that literally says something interesting about the state of traditional music.

What Hernon has done in the liner notes is openly challenge what he feels is Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s hegemony within the field of traditional music.  Specifically, Hernon sees an artistic downturn over the last 25 years, much of it having to do with how Comhaltas competitions appear to eschew the nuances of regional – and therefore, personal – style by favoring musicians who are little more than “clones” of their teachers, and by giving space to adjudicating standards that place little value on the sort of traces of musical place that Hernon argues are integral to the music’s character.

It is important to remember that whether or not you agree with Hernon, he comes to this criticism as a two-time Senior All-Ireland champion, the holder of a senior duet title with Maeve Donnelly, and multi-title winner in the junior competitions.  The feelings he expresses here are those of a player who has excelled in the Comhaltas system, but those of one who has seen real change in a relatively short timeframe under the weight of the organization’s own success.

The album’s subtitle, “Pure Connemara Ancestral Dance Music,” should tell us something, then, about the album’s direction.  Indeed, Hernon’s unflinching critical stance is reflected in the album’s musical edge: the playing is bracing throughout and punctuated by some sensitive moments that add great variety and depth and communicate a sense of terroir.  However, if we apply the didactic position of the liner notes the playing itself, it soon becomes evident that we’re not simply listening to strong playing, we’re hearing a statement being made about a sound of Connemara and where it stands in relation to other regional approaches as well as to the organization of Irish culture.

And in fact, the album is rife with outstanding tracks that express the spirit of Hernon’s ideas.  “Kindle the Fire / Strain the Spuds,” a pair of Hernon originals, are absolutely driven with great authority and spirit and the subtle drumming in the background elevates the track nicely.  “Jackie Coleman’s / …” is another really nice one that is given a distinctive wrinkle with the addition of a jaws harp or “trump” in accompaniment.  The slow air “” is another beauty.

The spirit in Hernon’s playing has very clearly been handed down through the family because one can hear it in the playing of his kids.  The way Hernon’s son Breandán’s fiddle tips along on his solo feature on “The Edenberry / …” is outstanding evidence of this.  Similarly, Hernon’s duet with his other son Proinsias on “Tell Her I Am / …” is lovely as well and shows their closeness in terms of how they approach a tune.

The album includes two songs, “Connemara My Home” from Don Stiffe and “Waterbound” by Mary Éinniú.  “Connemara” is a Stiffe original and wonderfully delivered by one of finest singers around.  “Waterbound” has something of an American old-timey feel to it.  Éinniú, who is a grandniece of sean-nós singing legend Joe Heaney, has an exquisite, bell like tone in her voice and this track is sure to draw in listeners.

“Kindle the Fire” is an album with a rugged, uncompromising beauty.  Hernon plays with great strength, but there are subtleties in his approach that show the depth of his musical heritage and that of his family.  This is a must-have album for flute players and for Connemara folks who long for the sound of home.  However, this is also a solid album filled with great music that anyone who loves traditional music will enjoy.  Recommended!

For more information about this album, Hernon’s music and his flutes, visit www.marcushernon.com.

Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.

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