Orientalist discourse


The Pure drop and the Mongrel

         As this research focusses on musical collaborations within a framework of Irish traditional and North Indian Classical music, I am inevitably drawn into developing a working characterization of these musical systems.  For as Stockhammer argues, “every aim to transcend borders starts with the acknowledgement of those borders, confirming the existence of what needs to be overcome” (2012, p.2).  Yet to define the borders of Irish traditional music is difficult as it represents different things to different people in different places.  For some, Irish traditional music is very much a 'folk' music, “a product of a musical tradition of a community or region which has evolved through a process of oral transmission...the music of the people played by the people and transmitted orally from one generation to the next” (Curtis, 1994, p. 8).

 The above definition of the Irish tradition is connected to the notion of the 'pure drop', which is a “euphemism for uncut implying undiluted and unpolluted” (Vallely, 2011, p. 555).  The ‘pure drop’ orientation in Irish traditional music focuses on the art of the solo performer which harkens back to a perception of an authentic past. As a musical reference, the pure drop often refers to a nuanced unaccompanied melodic performance where personal style and expression is valued over technical virtuosity.    This view of traditional music honours a lineage of great performers and composers, the solo and melodic basis of the music and the spiritual efficacy of unadulterated performance.  Accordion player and broadcaster, Tony McMahon, who in fact named his seminal television programme on traditional music The Pure Drop, describes that, “this music of ours possess the power of magic: it can put us in touch with ourselves in ways no other Irish art form can do.  It can touch the pulse of ancestral memory, allowing us to redefine our dreams of what it is to be Irish...It is a gift of nature” (1996, p. 116).

The notion of the pure drop in Irish traditional music is also connected to the conept of the purist, a often negative description, about someone who seeks to maintain the artistic integrity of the tradition against ‘outside’ influence.  The purist “abhor[s] commercialism, fusion, and borrowing between music genres, adulteration of the centrality of the melodic line” (Vallely, 2011, p. 555).  McMahon is often held up as the archetypal purist in traditional music discourse, one who is conservative and suspicious of changes to this traditional format and especially of inter-cultural collaborations. He describes how in appropriating other musical genres tradition is “mangled...beaten into multi-cultural rhythmic patterns… developed and damaged” (1996, p. 116).  As we saw in Chapter 1, Seamus Tansey, has derided cultural mixing and the presence of the mongrel in traditional music.  He describes how Irish traditional music comes from the soil and spirit of the land and that,

if you dilute, impose, cross-pollinate or orchestrate foreign cultures with that which is native and part of the soul of this country you will kill or else will smother the very essence of our music and the environmental source from which it has sprung and the telepathic message our fathers sent us through history and we to future generations (1996, p. 212).


The vehement defence of the borders of Irish traditional music by some musicians, is to some degree understandable.  The defensiveness is perhaps a reflection of the close relationship that traditional music with Irish nationalism and cultural identity.  Since its early revival years, traditional music has been hijacked as part of a nationalist publicity machine, this coupling of traditional music and cultural nationalism has its origins in the emergence of the Irish state but continues to be exploited in the age of world music (White, 1998; Taylor, 2007; Smyth, 2008; O’ Shea, 2008; O’ Flynn, 2009).   On one hand traditional music is the authentic folk expression of native Irish culture, on the other hand it is, as Ó Súilleabháin concedes, something of a “green package... inherently dishonest, trying to contain culture within an ideological message” (in interview).  Or as Valelly (2013) even more cynically asserts, Irish traditional music has become “the cuddly toy of the Celtic Tiger in a rallying Irish identity” (2013).

Likewise, while being a nationalist ‘folk’ music, Irish traditional music is also a successful global concert music, “a trans-national cultural form and a commodity consumed by vast audiences worldwide” (O' Shea, 2008, p.2).  Due to the global and professional nature of Irish traditional music, musicians are increasingly intermingling with new instrumentation, musical cultures and forms in the quest for artistic expression and commercial viability: this is the flip side of the commercial ‘world music’ reality of Irish traditional music.  Yet Ó Súilleabháin argues that, “purity is not what it’s all about...the history of Irish music is one of fusion” (in interview, 2013).  While instruments such as the pipes, fiddle and flute are often referred to as the ‘holy trinity’ of traditional music, a hundred and fifty years ago, there were no “accordions, or concertinas, or banjos or guitars in Irish music, not to mention bouzoukis.  Go back 300 years and you don't have any fiddles as we know them, or flutes or uilleann pipes, or any reels or hornpipes” (Carolan, 1996, p. 52).  Well respected traditional musician and singer, Andy Irvine, has argued that the tradition itself “isn't going to accept anything unworthy of it.  So, I think it is perfectly acceptable to experiment” (in Munnely, 1996, p. 142).  Perhaps, the debate of “purist vs innovation is meaningless within the parameters of the traditional dissemination itself” (Munelly, 1996, p. 140).

The complexities of what Irish music means to different people highlights that “traditional music defines not a single community but multiple communities with overlapping senses of identity” (Stokes & Bohlman, 2003, p. 146).  Perhaps, it is difficult to settle on a single definition of Irish traditional music as one of its primary features “is its capacity for absorption, retention and change” (Carson, 1986, p. 5).  The Irish Traditional music archive echoes this view that it “is impossible to give a simple definition[...]as traditional culture changes traditional music changes also, showing varying features at varying times” (ITMA, 1991).  O'hAllmhuráin suggests that there “is no iron-clad definition of Irish traditional music” and that “it is best understood as a broad-based system which accommodates a complex process of musical convergence, coalescence and innovation over time” (1998, p. 5).  It becomes “difficult to define and analyse the basic elements of traditional music in Ireland…The only certainty is that if they are to remain in that tradition they will henceforth be subject to a process of continuous change” (O Cannain, 1978, p. 1).   

The difficulty of defining Irish traditional music is compounded by the fact that it can only be traced back historically with any authority several centuries.  The form and history of Irish traditional music before the 1600's and the fall of the old Irish aristocracy is open to a great deal of inference and mythos, as this is “Irish music prehistory, a long mysterious period with few hard facts, but plenty of opportunity for speculation” (Carolan, 1996, p. 53).  More detailed accounts of the historical and cultural development of Irish traditional music have been covered at length elsewhere (Breathnach, 1977; O' Boyle, 1976; O' Canainn; Vallely, 1999; Skinner Sawyers, 2000; Wallis and Wilson, 2001; O'hAllmhuráin, 1998; White, 1998) and need not be repeated here. 

Other interesting perspectives on Irish music and identity are contained in (Smyth, 2004; O' Connor, 2001; Flynn, 2009).  In particular, Flynn has explored how “the perceived otherness of traditional and traditional-derived genres of Irish music continues to influence many peoples’ beliefs” (2009, p.28). More innovative process-orientated reflections on Irish traditional music include, but are not limited to, explorations of the poetic phenomenology of the seisún Carson's (1996) Last Night's Fun, the romantic biographical (Vallely, 1998;Curtis, 1994), the ethnographic (Kaul, 2009;Basegmez, 2005) and explorations of musicians’ metaphorical language (Keegan, 2012; Keegan, 2010).

While the cultural history of Irish traditional music is difficult to situate accurately, there are basic musical parameters which are important to define modern instrumental traditional music.  Irish traditional music today is performed in an ever increasing array of settings and contexts, by more people in Ireland and across the world than in the history of the tradition.  From a ‘rough guide’ perspective, Irish music could be described under several main categories such as:

1)         Sean-nós (unaccompanied song in Irish)

2)         Instrumental Airs

3)         Songs in English

4)         Harp tradition

5)         Instrumental dance music.

(Bakan, 2007, p. 162)

A modern performance of Irish traditional music may include any of the above categories in an infinite variety of permutations.  An exploration of defining the complex parameters of the modern traditional music lexicon has been suggested by O' Snodaigh (in Kíla, 2011), who argues for expanding traditional music categories to include “Pure Trad” (the solo tradition), “Trad Bands” (ensemble playing) and “Nua Trad” (hybrids or fusions).  This principle has been entertainingly extended further through the analogy of Irish traditional music and the humble potato.  Both he argues, are staple diets of the Irish people, imported from overseas, the potato from South America and “the rhythmic structure of Irish tunes from Europe via court and folk dances.  Such was the national appetite for spuds and tunes that we created our own breeds” (2011, p. 134).  From “Pure Boiled Trad.”, to the homely comforting mash of “Sunday Gravy Trad”, the “frozen, bleached, steam-dried, hydrolised, over-sweetened potato powder” of“Mc Trad” and the globally spiced “Trad. Hotpot”.  O Snodaigh has through his unique humour and insight created a tasty cross section of the possible definitions of modern traditional music ( 2011, p. 134). 

While cognisant of the interconnected nature of the tradition and its various modern forms, this research is primarily focussed on instrumental dance music.  The main melodic basis of Irish traditional music, the tune, has primarily evolved from a dance tradition.  Music and dance have historically been intrinsically linked and part of the structure of the musicking and social structure of performance and has shaped Irish cultural identity.  As Ó Súilleabháin explains, “music with its twin tradition of dance, runs like an underground river along bedrock of our cultural thought” (1999, p. 86).  However, Irish traditional music also “is now a sophisticated listening music, and no longer a medium only for dancing” (Vallely, 1999, p. xv).  Yet the dancing and music still are inextricably linked, even if it is played as a listening music as is evident in its structure and what Ó Súilleabháin describes as the music’s inherent “lift” or “invitation to dance” (1990, p. 123).  The dance heritage of Irish traditional music is exemplified by the fact that tune types all, with the exception of the slow air, originate from dance forms.[1] 

The tunes themselves, regardless of which dance form they are connected with, are still, with very few exceptions, “constructed from basic eight bar units” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1981, p. 117).  The tunes are relatively short melodic phrases fixed in two or more parts.  These 'parts' are musical units which are perceived by musicians “through the feeling of eight main rhythmic pulses and through the melodic framework pointed by tonal cadences” (1981, p. 118).  Breathnach describes that in “the vast majority of tunes each part is made up of two phrases...the common pattern is a single phrase repeated with slight modification...the first making, as it were, an assertion to which the second is the response” (1977, p. 56).  The cyclical combination and slight variation of short melodic phrases or the 'round' is “at the heart of the Irish dance music tradition” (Ó Súilleabháin, 2004, p. 3).  Amongst musicians, the round is described by the 'tune' and the second response of the 'turn'.  Interestingly, the 'round' is linked with the idea of 'turning a tune' and its peculiar 'setting' which if all the factors work out will contribute to the 'lift'.  (Ó Súilleabháin,1981, p. 118-122). 

This lift is an interesting term and simple definition of the intention of Irish traditional music as an invitation to dance and yet Ó Súilleabháin suggests that it also may allude to a more metaphysical dance “which could be taken synonymously with the creative process itself” (1990, p. 119).  As Ó Súilleabháin explains, “the musical essence is within the form rather than being the form itself” (1981, p. 120). It exists in “tension between the inaudible and the audible within music” (1981, p. 130).  In this way perhaps we can begin to “view Irish music and dance as more than entertainment, another form of reality itself” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1998, p. 74).  This essence of traditional music is ephemeral and “emphasizes the playing of music (and playing with music) rather than focussing solely on its structure” (Kaul, 2009, p.1). An ultimate understanding of what constitutes Irish traditional music is best found with the players and in performance rather than structural analysis.  We need to understand Irish traditional music removed from its national, cultural and geographical limits. In the music itself, the utterances of the tradition are revealed.


North Indian Classical music - a hybrid history

In terms of a documented historical development, North Indian Classical and Irish traditional music couldn't be more different.  While the modern form of North Indian music can be traced back to the 14th or 15th century it is often suggested that its real origins lie in the ancient Vedas from around 1500BC.[2]  It is important to note that the early history of the music did not feature many of the arguably essential elements of modern Classical performance such as the drone, improvisation and pure instrumental music.  Rather “the theory and practice of early Indian music moved gradually in the direction of increasing freedom and spontaneity, providing ever-increasing performance options while at the same time maintaining certain controls” (Rowell, 1998, p. 12).  Rowell (1998) outlines that there were originally two streams of music in ancient India:  a classical ritualized theatre music (marga) alongside a more vernacular regional based improvisational model (desi).  Both of these streams merged into what could be understood as early raga theory somewhere around 12th or 13th century.  This development was also heavily influenced by a Persian influence from Muslim invasions in the North, which makes its music distinct from Southern Indian or Carnatic music, folk music traditions and later even by western influences such as the introduction of the harmonium and violin (Farrell, 1990).

The above is an extremely brief outline of the development of North Indian Classical music.  Yet this outline is relevant to our discussion, firstly in stark comparison to the historical development of the Irish tradition but secondly because it challenges some pre-conceptions about the ancient unbroken lineage of modern North Indian classical music.  While certainly Hindustani music, as it is currently performed, is recognisable in form from around the 15th or 16th century, there have also been significant changes in the music.  Though there is a co-relation between the development of philosophical treatises and modern day Indian Classical performance, it is misleading to read this in terms of a linear developmental model. 

I would suggest that it is more accurate to contemplate the Indian Classical tradition as a hybrid history of amalgamation, absorption and adaptation between a main cultural pool and several intervening musical forms.  Van de Meer has explained that a “spaghetti model of evolution and hybridization” is the most appropriate way to understand Indian Classical music (2006, p. 22).[3]  The argument that this is a continuous unbroken link with an ancient culture, which by its definition achieves its glory in the past, is problematic and should be kept pertinent in all readings of Indian music history.  As Neuman explains, “there is...not only a past which moulds and personifies the "tradition" but also a tradition representing a past which, however unreachable, is always available as a model for the present” (1980, p. 231).  The word 'time' in Sanskrit is kal which can be also translated as 'black', 'death', or 'decay'.  In this sense, the concept of time relates to the decreasing value or inherent purity of things.  If time is decay, then whatever is in the past must be better.  This antiquarianism, or 'temporal skew' permeates the rhetoric about the history and future of Indian Classical music.  Jaizrabhoy describes this as an “Indo-Occidentalism” or an attempt to antiquate modern practice and assimilate them to fit with ancient texts, sometimes inventing features of ancient musical theory which have a “supposed relevance to contemporary practice” (2008, p. 225).  In practice, many performers discredit scholarly treatises on Indian music, yet the discourse that Indian Classical music is a quantifiable and systematized spiritual music connected to antiquity remains.

The stages of development of Indian music, distinguished from modern day classical music have been excellently documented in (Rowell, 1992; Prajnananda, 1963), more poetically but nonetheless diligently (Holryde, 1972), situated ethnographically (Ruckert, 2004), sociologically (Neuman, 1990), musicologically (Jaizrabhoy, 1971), and systematically (Kaufman, 1968; Danielou, 1980).  I shall not be so bold as to attempt to add any new analysis to this grand linage of Indian music scholarship and endeavour to not repeat what may be found out in greater detail elsewhere.  There are also a wealth of encyclopaedic attempts, both from western and Indian scholars, explaining and defining the elements of North Indian Classical music (Strangeways, 1914; Van De Meer, 1980; Widdess, 1995; Bagchee, 1998, 2006; (Ruckert & Khan, 2004) However, rather than utilising an unnecessarily digressive and lengthy summary of the many sources of Hindustani music theory, I prefer to use Jairazbhoy's model of a broad outline to create a working model of the four main processes at work in North Indian Classical performance (2011, p.28):

1)         Main melodic line is carried by the solo instrument or voice.
2)         Drone- usually played on tanpuras tuned to the tonic and a fifth or fourth depending on the raga.  Also the drone strings on melodic instruments themselves carry this as well.  In performance of shennai (reed instrument) the drone is usually carried by an ensemble of other shennais.
3)         Accompanying melody line- this is particularly in vocal music which is accompanied by harmonium or sarangi (stringed instrument).  Sometimes another vocalist will also accompany the main melodic line.
4)         Percussive line- The rhythmic accompaniment, usually tabla, supports the melodic unravelling of raga and gives a form for improvisation to take shape.  In dhrupad[4] the pakhawaj is preferred.  Rhythm cycles may vary from 2 beats to 128 depending on compositions, the instrumentalist or vocalist’s preference.

The main melodic line, to which Jaizrabhoy refers, is informed by the theory of raga. Importantly, he argues that “rag has no counterpart in Western musical theory” (2011, p.28).  Holryde has described, rather poetically, the importance of this complex melodic principle in every aspect of Indian Classical music.

All Indian music is concerned with the development of a single melodic line, its rising and descending scale structure, its exposition through reiteration which is continuously applying itself-so expressing the many-faceted aspects of the flashing prism of each single note in relation to the next-and finally linking together this linear development within the density of complex syncopation, the rigid tall or rhythmic framework that climaxes unfolding of any raga (1972, p. 54).

While every raga “consists of a fixed and unchangeable set of notes, presented in the form of an ascending and descending must be remembered that the raga is also something more than these...the raga is a total tonal complex” (Bagchee, 1998, p.38-39).  Although “some rags are broad in their possibilities for melodic elasticity and expansion...others are quite narrow and restrictive” (Ruckert, p. 55).  All ragas have a fixed scale which often has an ascending (aroh) and descending (avaroh) pattern which highlights how the melody may move.  While the mechanics of raga are increasingly broken down to account for the complexity and evolution of the Indian classical tradition, it is important to realise that in performance rag is much more than the sum of its parts.  Rag is “a scientific, subtle, precise and aesthetic melodic form” (Shankar in Taraq, 2012) yet it also possesses numerous extra-musical characteristics.  Often ragas are ascribed an appropriate season and specific time of day for performance, while some rags are believed to represent a sonic manifestation of various Hindu deities. 

Every raga “has its own characteristic mood (rasa)” which informs a performers approach to the possible musical material (Kaufman, 1968, p. vi).  It is also a large part of the anecdotal evidence of the tradition that, many ragas, “if performed correctly, are believed to possess magic powers” (Kaufman, 1968, p. v) such as the bringing of rain or the creation of fire.  The efficacy of rag is based on the concept “that certain characteristic patterns of notes evoke a heightened state of emotion. Indeed, the word rag is derived from the Sanskrit root ranj or raj=to colour or tine (with emotion)” (Jaizrabhoy, 2011, p. 28).  It cannot be underestimated, the powerful emotive affect of raga performance, both as a musician and as a listener.  While the concept of raga is very elusive, it is clear that the music is a vehicle not just for personal emotional expression but for communion with a greater force than the ordinary self.   For Ali Akbar Khan, “the real music, the real ragas, are food for your soul” (in Lavezzoli, 2006, p. 75). 

In reference to Jaizraibhoy's model cited earlier (2008), I will explore the use of drones further in a more practice based discussion, but at this point, an extra note should also be said about the percussive accompaniment of tabla and the use of tala.  Musical, historical and technical descriptions of Indian rhythms abound (Clayton, 2000; Kippen, 2005) and I shall not repeat them here for fear of redundancy.  However, the importance of tala, and perhaps more importantly laya cannot be underestimated both in its musical function and in its supporting role in bringing raga to life.  In North Indian music, the percussionist does “much more than accent the pulse; s/he plays a fundamental role in the intricate counterpoint of the rag's performance” (Khan in Rucket, 2002, p. 215). Tala is a complex onomatopoeic mathematical language which is translated into different patterns on a variety of drums.  The term, tal could be simply translated as time measure and is “conceived as a cycle” (Jaizrabhoy, 2011, p. 29).  Yet it is “a disciplined intellectual exercise as demanding as a Bach fugue and an appeal to the excitability of the audience's emotion” (Holryde, 1972, p. 200).  Another important concept is that of laya which is more related to groove than rhythm. “Laya leaves its imprint on the is the syncopation and the sway, the pull which draws even upon our own bodies when we first hear it” (Holryde, 1972, p. 199).  Indian rhythm is often the phenomenological entry point for a first time listener of Hindustani music as it provides something of a recognisable structure in the complex incarnation of each raga.  As Ali Akbar Khan argues, “[r]hythm is like your skeleton...and the notes are like our flesh” (Khan & Ruckert, 2009, p. 223).

The philosophy of time in Indian thought is crucial in creating this efficacy through rhythm and in particular the cyclical nature of its exposition.  Importantly, the rhythm structure gives the music its unique non-linear form as it moves through “successive cycles [which] generally increase in intensity, thereby creating the effect of an upward spiral” (Jaizrabhoy, 2011, p. 31).  This spiralling effect, in which melody and rhythm are intertwined, is what allows for the possibility of the listener and musician to enter into higher states of consciousness.  The physical construction of rhythm can be considered a ritual action due to its links to gesture of ancient theatre and mudras or symbolic hand gestures (Clayton, 2000).  The physical gestures of the different stages of the rhythm cycle from the all-important Sam or first beat through to the kali or empty beat, represent not only iconic symbols for the vocalist or instrumentalist to know where they are in time, but also have deeper significance.  For “the Indian musician controls time by actions...[through] two temporal streams of gesture and breath...with the gestures of tala he regulates the illusion of outer time...while with the controlled emission of vocal sounds he manifests the true, continuous, inner time” (Rowell, 1992, p. 186).

Yet, there is a problem with assuming that the ritual, philosophical and spiritual nature of Indian classical music is a given universal amongst all modern musicians.  Likewise, it is misleading to think that the modern presentation of an Indian classical concert is an exact replica from the ancient past.  Since the “great sitar explosion” of the 1960’s (Farell, 1997), Indian classical music has spread East and West and in many subtle ways has globally begun to modify “radically our general perception of music” as well as being modified itself in the process (Aubert, 2007, p. 79).  Indeed, the modern format of alap-jhor-gat structure which “Westerners are most familiar with through the work of Ravi Shankar is strictly a 20th century hybridization” (Lavezzoli, 2007, p. 436).   Due, in no small part, to the cult of personality, figures such as Ravi Shankar, North Indian music has become a commercially successful ‘world’ music which has been modified to suit the modern concert environment.  Many high profile performers travel an international circuit and are sponsored by big businesses for large scale concerts in India.  The Indian classical “musician must insure himself to travelling frequently and packaging his musical product for an audience not always sure of what it is seeking” (Ruckert, 2004, p. 82).

The impact of Indian music on the West and its exotification has been well documented elsewhere (Farrell, 2007; Lavezzoli, 2007; Noone, 2013). It is also beyond the scope or intention of this research to produce an exhaustive list of modern Indian Classical hybrid musical examples.  However, it is important to put into context how the current hybridisation of Indian Classical music pushes the boundaries of the tradition, especially in relation to ideas of purity.  Some performers of Indian music lament that in the modern era, musicians “are watering-down the music, trying to make it easy for simple-minded and fickle audiences...[and] the idea of purity in the old music is fading” (in Ruckert, 2004, p. 82).  Yet at the same time, esteemed performers in the Indian tradition have always forged new paths which have led to the rich diversity of its performance practice.[5]  As international professional musicians, Indian Classical musicians are increasingly being forced to find ways of adapting their art form to fit new cultural and social forms.  As Neuman states, “while the dominant narrative spins tirelessly around themes of “purity” of raga and proper training, the dominant performance presents movements and marches into aesthetically "impure" territory” (2004, p. 191).  Here we are reminded of Munelly's assertion that the debate between purism and innovation “is meaningless within the parameters of the traditional dissemination itself” (1996, p. 140).

Understanding the tradition of either Indian or Irish music as monolithic static entities, neglects the constructed nature of purity.  As Glassise argues, “tradition is the creation of the future out of the past. A continuous process situated in the nothingness of the present, linking the vanished with the unknown” (1995, p.1).  Furthermore, both Irish and North Indian music, as we have discovered, are a part of an evolving process of hybridity and can be “too easily reified as ‘traditions’, transforming ongoing process into finished product” (Quigley, 2012, p. 46).  I agree with Quigley when he suggests that, a “more rigorously conceptualized notion of tradition as process, both conserving expressive forms and enabling their creative transformation, would be better suited to our analytical needs today” (2012, 47).  An on the ground study of current expressive forms which enable the creative transformation of these traditions is essential in re-evaluating how music processes may be the breeding ground for the enunciation of not just new musical systems but theoretical concepts.  The intermingling of Irish and Indian music is itself an example of an expressive form which represents an excellent example of the constructed nature of traditions and the porous borders of musical culture.    


Seán Ó Ríada and the river of sound

You might compare the progress of tradition in Ireland to the flow of a river.  Foreign bodies may fall in, thrown in, or dropped in, but they do not divert the course of the river; nor do they stop it flowing, it absorbs them, carrying them with it as it flows onwards (O' Ríada, 1982, p.19-20).

Drawing upon Blacking's concept of musical cultures as “floating resources which people invoke and reinvent in the course of social interaction” (1986, p.4), Sean O' Ríada, has used the concept of a 'river of sound' to describe the Irish musical tradition.  The above quote, describes not just the diverse influences of Irish music but also the “paradox of a national tradition that absorbs outside influences without being changed by them” (O' Shea, 2008, p.3).  Carson argues that what makes traditional music ‘Irish’ “means absorbing other differences and making them feel at home” (1986, p. 6).   Perhaps one of the most important, yet subtle influences within the 'river of sound' is the belief of a connection with the Celtic and the Aryan culture of ancient India[6].

While Irish cultural identity has long been shaped by 'a perceived otherness' (O' Flynn, 2008), it is scholar and composer Seán O Ríada who is often credited as the seminal agent provocateur in relation to the Indian other-ing of Irish music.  In his influential collection of lectures, Our Musical Heritage, he argues that, “[t]he first thing to note, obviously enough, is that Irish music is not European” (1982, p.20).  Whether or not that this is obvious is debatable. The Irish Traditional Music Archive (1991) bluntly defines Irish traditional music as “European structure, rhythmic pattern, pitch arrangement [and] thematic content of most closely resembles the traditional music of Western Europe”.  Yet O' Ríada extended his thesis even further suggesting that, “Irish music is not merely not European, it is quite remote from it. It is, indeed, closer to some forms of Oriental music" (1982, p20). 

O' Ríada only touched upon the musical indicators of the Oriental and Celtic influence on Irish culture, such as the ability of instruments with an unfixed scale such as the fiddle and the voice to use microtonal nuances, the importance of the drone and cyclical time structures (which all have a similarity to Indian music philosophy).  Importantly, this connection between the Eastern world and Irish traditional music relies more on an assertion of fundamental differences of culture between European and an older pre-colonial Irish culture rather than clear musical synergies.[7]  While he did not explore this connection to its fullest in his lifetime, Irish traditional music has been transformed by O' Ríada's influence including the introduction of ensemble playing based on an Arabic model.  As Cooper argues, to “reform the Ceíli band, Ó Ríada turned to the basic principles of the Arab orchestra, proposing a grouping whose wind section involved the uilleann pipes, flute, tin whistle and a string section formed of fiddles, with accordions to provide weight” (2005, p. 219).  Ó Ríada also introduced new instruments to traditional music, notably the bodhran and the elevation of the music from a 'folk' tradition to the global concert stage[8]

However, the folk revival movement, of which Sean O' Ríada was a great catalyst, has also been linked with the uneasy expression of Ireland's emerging post-colonial nationalism.  In light of this, the folk revival movement and many of O' Ríada's ideas have been critiqued as overtly romantic, culturally idealistic and intrinsically nationalistic. Our Musical Heritage, while credited as a landmark resource in the development of Irish traditional music, has also been criticised as “an impressionistic overview of the tradition, coming in the intensely fervent nationalistic atmosphere of the early sixties...[and] cannot continue to be accepted unquestioningly as a definitive sacred text on traditional Irish music” (O' Laoire, 2003). 

Despite O' Ríada's critics, the idea of Irish-Indian musical links still has currency amongst listeners and practitioners of Irish traditional music.  The belief in the historical connections between Irish and Indian cultures, while generally discredited among scholars continues to have an anecdotal cultural resonance.  Ironically, while the Irish-Indian connection is largely a quasi-academic idea, in the modern permutations of Irish traditional music there is an ongoing exploration of this theme.  Peadar O' Ríada, has composed and recorded several sean-nós songs with tambura accompaniment (Tríur, 2013, 2011, 2010). [9] Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (1992) has composed pieces with sitar and used tambura drones to accompany an alap style introduction in Still Point of the Turning World and appropriated Indian rhythms with Mel Mercier in the piece Crispy.  Jazz musician, Ronan Guilfoyle (2008) has toured, collaborated and recorded with South Indian musicians Kanda. The O' Snodaigh brothers from Irish ‘world music’ group, Kíla, have travelled to India to make a documentary about Irish-Indian musical links.[10]  Further ramifications of these Irish-Indian imagined links can be heard in the arenas of world music (Delhi 2 Dublin) and New Age fusion (Celtic Ragas, Sheila Chandra and Indo-Celt).[11]  


Irish Orientalism

           While perhaps it is easy to be cynical and dismiss Irish-Indian musicking as a modern phenomenon which represents an insatiable desire for novelty in a globalised world music market, the cultural links between India and Ireland have historical and political resonance which dates back to the 19th century and much earlier.  Joseph Lennon explains how a tradition of Irish contact, both real and imagined, with what is commonly termed “the Orient”, has existed from the ninth century up to the present day.  Long before it was treated as Celtic culture, Ireland was linked to the Orient. Lennon states that, “textual links between Celtic and Oriental cultures existed independently in nativeIrish and Gaelic culture as far back as Irish writing extends” (Lennon, 2008, x).  The historical and literary manifestations of this connection have been explored elsewhere, in particular the sympathetic relationship between Yeats and Tagore. However, an imagined Irish-Oriental connection has existed far longer.  Lennon argues that there have been “mythic links between Celtic and Oriental cultures since medieval times” (2003, p.129). 

This tendency towards cultural synthesis is partly attributable to the enduring cultural influence of Ireland’s origin legends.  The ancient and mythological beginnings of the Irish have been situated in the geographical area known as the Asian Steppes. These origin legends outlived their original, and ahistorical, context and remained in the Irish cultural psyche much longer than other, similar, European legends (Lennon, 2003). Throughout the course of Irish cultural history, this discourse has served as an important imaginative and allegorical realm for Irish writers and intellectuals, and, I would argue, has deeply influenced traditional music's evolving sense of identity.  Drawing upon Peirce’s (1998) concept of synechism, in which an idea can travel within a culture over time, we can trace the course of Irish-Indian resonance as a cultural idea which informed the romantic developments of the Celtic revival and has subtly influenced Irish music for generations. 

While a majority of definitions of Irish music state that it is European and dismiss any Eastern links, we must first consider that culture is defined in relationship to its’ Others.  Said (1978) has famously described the Orientalist systems by which nations appropriate from Others to define themselves.  The Orient then becomes an invention, “a creation with no corresponding reality . . . a structure of lies of myths” (Said, 1979, p. 5).  Said suggests that the construct of the Orient and the Oriental, “has helped to define Europe as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Said, 1979, 1-2).  While Said focuses on Orientalism's construction of 'positional superiority', between the West and the East, within the Irish oriental aesthetic, the inversion of this is true.  The Orient, rather than being denigrated as the barbaric and sensuous other, has been an important imaginative and allegorical realm for Irish writers and intellectuals.  Irish artists have drawn upon the ancient mystic image of the Orient to elevate and separate Irish culture from the tyranny of its colonial past and alleviate the “pathos of absence” of a continuous cultural tradition (Koch, 1987, p. 95).  Lennon argues that this “may stem from Irish culture’s collective need for a certain and noble past in light of its uncertain present and future” (2008, p.61). 

Imperial British texts had long compared Ireland with Oriental cultures in order to, as Lennon explicitly states, “textually barbarize Ireland” (2004, p. 52)and images of the barbaric Scythian ancestry of the Celt were often explicit in sixteenth and seventeenth century depictions of the Irish. At the same time, a more positive alternative model was applied to the origins of Irish culture which drew connections between the Phoenicians and the Celts.  This connection, while also imbued with an Orientalist underpinning, rather than 'textually barbarize Ireland' it helped argue for an esteemed an ancient classical pedigree (Lennon, 2008).


Orientalism in Irish traditional music   

            This attempt to elevate Irish culture through Orientalist re-imaginings and affiliations with Eastern culture is further manifested in the first collections of Irish music.  From the late 1700's until the beginning of the nineteenth century, revivalist and antiquarian impulses spurned the collection and preservation of native music within Ireland.  In the rhetoric surrounding these collections, we can trace how Indo-Celtic origin legends persist.  In many of these early collections, the ancient music of Ireland was ascribed mystical and classical attributes which found a mirroring in the musical systems of the Near East and the Indian Classical tradition.  The music was used to demonstrate the noble antiquity of Irish culture, suggesting that “music was cultivated in Ireland when melody was scarcely known in other countries” (in White, 1998, p. 21).  It was also infused with the sensuous characteristics of the Orient, namely emotion and passion.  The use of minor scales, flattened sixths and other accidentals became seen as musical and emotional indicators of the ancient Eastern origins of Irish music.  This had the effect of further distinguishing Irish music from the formality, logic and tonality of Europe and its colonial empires.

In Walker's Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards 1784, we are told that, “Irish music is, in some degree, distinguished from the music of every other nation, by an insinuating sweetness, which forces its way extricably to the heart, and there diffuses ecstatic delight, that thrills through every fibre of the frame, and agitates or tranquilises the soul” (in White, 1998, p. 20).  For some collectors, such as Petrie and Moore, this emotional resonance was also seen as reflection of the woes and oppression of colonial domination and in this way these early collections became infused with both politics and orientalist romanticism.  During this era, Irish music “began to be determined by an attempt to rationalise and subsequently to polarize it as an outgrowth of antiquarian research on one side and as a coherent, politically informed expression of romantic individualism on the other” (White, 1998, p. 36).

A romantic, and yet subtly political, imagining of Irish-Indian musical affinity was also expressed in George Petrie's Collection of the Ancient Music of Irelandfirst published in 1855.  He discusses three separate lullabies as bearing a striking resemblance to similar melodies from the East, and India in particular.  In his reflections on an air Seo Hú Leo, he describes “its strong affinity to the lullaby tunes of the Hindostan and Persia” (1855, p. 106).  Furthermore, he compares the mythological nature of the song, which relates to the Tuatha De Dannan, as further evidence of Asian links as it is connected with “a fairy legend, this affinity must be regarded with interest by those who trace such superstitions to an Eastern origin” (1855, p.106).  Indeed, Petrie refers to these lullaby airs as belonging to an Eastern category adding that,

such affinity with Eastern melody is not confined to the nurse tunes of Ireland, but that it will no less be found in the ancient funeral coaines, as well as in the ploughman’s tunes, and other airs of occupation- airs simple indeed in construction, but always touching in expression and I cannot but consider it as an evidence of the early antiquity of such melodies in Ireland (1855, p. 169). 

In particular, harp music came to be seen as the last living remnant of an ancient and noble Celtic past and represented an, “intense nostalgic longing for a misplaced identity” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1992, p. 45).  The Belfast harp convention in 1792, and the subsequent publishing of Bunting's Ancient Music of Ireland, marked another important transition of Irish-Orientalism into the realm of music theorizing.  In Bunting's collection, several melodies are said to represent something of the old harp tradition of Gaelic court life.  Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin in particular, has compared these non-cyclical tunes with the modal improvisational model of North Indian Classical music.  He argues that Bunting's manuscripts are evidence that the harping tradition in ancient court life “was not harmonically based at all but . . . found its logic in the melodic line itself” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1999, p. 79).  Ó Súilleabháin was significantly inspired by this interpretation to compose new material which explicitly drew upon Indian Classical music theory.  This he argued was “a practical way of putting primary creativity back in the hands of the Irish harper” through channelling “a living musical system” and therefore, “heal a break in the oral tradition which occurred a century and a half ago” (1992, p. 46).  Ó Ríada had used a similar understanding of Indian music to re-invigorate the medieval harp culture.  Ó Súilleabháin says, that one could, “[t]ranslate the sitar into the harp, and the Maharaja into the Taoiseach or Chieftain of the Irish clan, and the equation was set” (2004, p. 2).  This type of imagined ancient connection has further been encouraged by links between Sanskrit and old Irish (Dillon, 1947; O Driscoll, 1982)).  In particular, Rimmer has discussed how the Irish word for harp, cruit, can also be linked with the Indo-European root ker, meaning bent or curved (1962, p.22).

Exotic images of the East, both in its music and mythology, have provided powerful symbols for Irish artists in response to the longing for an ancient unbroken cultural heritage.  This was not restricted just to music and was most famously apparent in the literature of W.B Yeats.  This Hiberno-Indian mythos also provided a counter hegemonic force against a shared colonial oppression of the Empire and entered into the stream of Celtic poetry indirectly through sensuous and sometimes, musical analogy. The infusion of Indian and Orientalist thought on the literature of the Celtic Revival has been well documented (Lennon, 2003, 2006, 2008) and need not be repeated at length here.  It is important, however, to reflect on how musical orientalism influenced the Celtic literary revival.  During this period, “the [Celtic] revival proclaimed music as a finite resource from the past, on the other side, this symbol of a dying culture was given new life as a literary trope of immense expressive fecundity” (White, 1998, p. 10).  Indeed, Cousins suggests that so “subtly had the Aryan-influence intermingled with the Indian...that poets found their inmost nature expressed in Indian modes” (1922, p. 160). White argues that, this “cultural polarisation was of even greater consequence for music that it was for literature” (1998, p.7).

The musically infused poetry of the Celtic Revival provided what Kearney (1988) has called a “transitional narrative” between the static nature of the Irish tradition and the quest for a new cultural aesthetic. This could be described as an artistic and cultural transitional crisis between revivalism and modernism and the "intimacy between myth and history which underpin modern Irish writing” (White, 2008, p.5).  In this way, India was viewed as something of a spiritual mentor to Europe and Irish writers in particular drew inspiration from their colonial cousins “through metaphysical elaboration, mysticism and exoticism... as an “imaginative yet controlled possibility of an emergent Ireland” (Lennon, 2006, p. 165-164).


Orientalism and Sean-nós          

            The syncretic literary vision of the Celtic revival, further perpetuated by dubious anthropological and ethnomusicological references, has deeply influenced small pockets of modern scholarship in espousing further connections between music from Ireland and the East, particularly with the example of the Irish vocal tradition of sean-nós[12].  Again, it was Sean O Ríada who most famously posited this position, suggesting that ‘one should listen to sean-nós like one should listen to Indian rag’.  Bob Quinn's (1986) well known Atlantean films are an artistic exploration of this connection, albeit through the lens of North Africa and the Mediterranean.  His argument, developed in part from O' Ríada's comments from Our Musical Heritage, suggests that there is a possible maritime connection between Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Arabic world of North Africa, Spain and the West coast of Ireland (Quinn, 1987).  Based predominantly on anecdotal comparison, Quinn has argued for the uncanny similarities between vocal traditions of a variety of Eastern and the melodic and ornamental style of sean-nós.  For example, as well as comparing sean-nós to the Muslim call to prayer he also describes how he, “took examples of Connemara sean-nós as far as Tatarstan (Russian Federation) and had it recognised by performers there as almost identical to their own. I played Tatar sean-nós songs to Connemara singers; even they unanimously declared it to be musically identical to their own” (Quinn, 2003).

O Laoire (2003) has described this trend to compare sean-nós with other Eastern vocal traditions as an “insistent exoticisation” which “deliberately removes this kind of singing from the real, and places it in one hermetic, ahistorical, timeless, category, rendering it mysterious, eastern and non-European”.   While O' Laoire argues that these claims are highly exaggerated and despite “affinities of approach” it is not proof of common origin.  Importantly, he argues that this type of discourse is an attempt to bestow a quality of superiority on the tradition of sean-nós and that “anyone making external claims for similarities between... Eastern singing and the singing of the Irish-speaking regions of Ireland, is implicated in the discourse of Orientalism, however inadvertently”. (O'Laoire, 2003).    Quinn (2003) in a direct response to O' Laoire argued that,

comparison is not similitude; one compares different objects in order to understand their nature better...seems to me a paradox that a body of research that clearly demonstrates the universal dimension of a form of folk art such as sean-nós singing could be dismissed as narrowly ‘nationalistic’ or as ‘exoticisation’(Quinn, 2003)

While I agree with Quinn's comments which advocate a universalist comparative musicology, it is undeniable that the lack of evidence of origins of Irish traditional music and Irish culture for that matter, before the 1600's has led to the creation of mythical histories and artistically imagined new cultural identities.  It is dangerous to conflate myth making with actual history.  Ladd (2002) who draws a similar hypothesis to Quinn's Arabic migration across the Atlantic, makes creative leaps of imagination and flights of rhetoric to support his argument.  In particular, the Irish music tradition is used to support the antiquated and mystic notion of the Celt as the Oriental of the West.

the Celtic soul seems embodied most in Ireland’s traditional music, the roots of which are comfortably obscured in the mists of myth, legend and contrivance.  Follow those tendrils and connections between Bedouin and North African oral traditions and druidic tripartism are revealed....and uncanny correlations between the Middle Eastern maqãm and the modal and interpretive nature of native Irish music are unearthed (Ladd, 2002). 


The main problem in many arguments suggesting Eastern links with Irish music is that most scholars only possess 'a superficial knowledge' of the music to which they are drawing comparisons.  The Middle Eastern maqam to which Ladd refers is a highly nuanced and developed musical and aesthetic system, somewhat comparable to North India raga.  Obviously in relating this ancient and esteemed musical system, Ladd is attempting to elevate the modal and rhythmically improvised nature of Irish traditional music.  However, he does so unconvincingly.  I agree that “to demonstrate the links between the music of North and South India, Persia, North Africa, Spain and Ireland would be a lifetime's work” (Feehan, 1982, p. 335).  However, perhaps that would a lifetime misspent as the links, musically speaking may not be there. 

Some scholars seem blinded by the light of a mystic neo-Celticism despite musical evidence which suggests that, “modern Celtic music . . . has no historical connection whatsoever in the music of the ancient Celts” (O' hAullamurin, 1998, p.11). Feehan, argues that despite not knowing much about Indian or Arabic music, that she has “seen and heard enough, however, to be convinced that there are links and even if some proof is lacking the suggestion remains tantalising” (Feehan, 1982, p. 335).  This position is undermined by her own emotional appraisal of the loss of ancient Irish culture in comparison with the living rich tradition of the East when she says, “one cannot but reach the conclusion that those born on this side of the world have lost a very great deal” (1982, p. 335).  In her anecdotal accounts of finding a comparison between raga and sean-nós song with an Indian professor of music, while Feehan is obviously excited by the idea, there is no mention of the raga's name or a consideration of the fact that raga does not necessarily tell a fixed story, rather a raga is a constellation of musical affects which can be attributed multiple themes.

Somewhat more musicologically, Feehan has attempted to compare the slow air Mabhana Luimni to Indian raga presentation.

 Like the Indian, the Irish singer uses whatever pitch is convenient. As in some ragas the great Irish songs revolve around three of four notes which recur again and again.  “Marbhana Luimni” was composed, we are told, about 1635, but it is conceivable that the tune which circles like a culture over a corpse round the notes E flat, F natural, G natural, B flat, G natural, F natural, and E flat could be transformed by changing the rhythm and latering the pitch upwards a tone; the result, with a little imagination, could approach a raga style (1982, p. 334).

It is, however, with much more than a little imagination, that a rendition of a slow air could be constructed as raga style.  In particular, a significant changing of rhythm and temporal considerations would need to take place for slow air to resemble a raga[13].  The rendition of a slow air in the Irish tradition would take several minutes while the performance of a raga may take several hours.  Feehan however, argues that “it is in the interpretation of the melody, and chiefly with regard to ornamentation, that some of the most significant resemblances between Irish and Eastern music can be observed” (Feehan, 1982, p. 338).  I suggest that perhaps the opposite is in fact true, namely that the approach to ornamentation and interpretation of melody is one of the most significant differences between Irish and Indian music.  For as herself Feehan admits,

The Indian quarter tone seems more predictable than those heard from a traditional Irish singer in Connemara.  This would seem to suggest that raga is a consciously acquired means of communication whereas the singer of an Irish slow air will, within a short space of time, produce elaborate ornamentation entirely as the spirit moves him or her” (1982, p. 334).


Here the spectre of O' Ríada's own ideas loom large and also we are presented with a fundamental difference between Irish traditional music and Indian Classical music.  While both use ornamentation and melodic variation, in Indian Classical music the theoretical frame for improvisation is explicit, elaborate and built upon completely different cycles of time and rhythm. While scholars frequently allude to the interpretation of melody and use of ornamentation as “the most significant resemblances between Irish and Eastern music” little detailed and sustained comparison has been achieved (Feehan, 1981, p. 338). 

Cooper (2005) has explored the imagined North African and Mediterranean origins of Irish music, particularly the vocal tradition of sean-nós, in a more measured ethnomusicological perspective.  While he draws the comparison between the ornamental interpretation of melody in Arabic magam with Irish music, he argues that, “it seems unlikely that it came about as a response to external influences such as those of the South Mediterranean; in fact it is probably symptomatic of the flexible approach to modality found in many European traditional musics” (2005, p.214).  Importantly, he states while there are some musical similarities in approach to tuning and melodic variation, for Irish musicians, it is “certainly not a theorized practice”, the opposite is true for both Arabic and Indian Classical music (2005, p.214).

Feehan admits that while speculation “as to the Asian origin of Irish music surfaces from time to time: what is often posited depends on the predisposition of the enquirer” (1982, p. 333).  Arguably, the disposition of musical inquiry is not constrained by academic critique.  Taylor has documented that while many scholars of Irish traditional music, in seeking its origins, “have posited some sort of link between Oriental music and the music of Ireland . . . no one has produced any evidence, or even much of a discussion, mainly because origins can never be unambiguously known” (1997, p. 149).  Thomas Moore described in 1843 in his review of Irish history, “how naturally the eye turns to the East, in any question respecting the origin of Irish antiquities” (1843, p.41).  It would also seem that it is equally as natural for our ears to turn Eastward in trying to find a sympathetic origin myth for Irish music.  Whether or not this origin is in fact a historic reality is almost impossible to discern.   


Remember the future-performance and Irish-Indian music

              The modern revival of Irish traditional music has become imbued with a subtle inversion of an Orientalist aesthetic of otherness which it has inherited from the proceeding century of musical collections, literary inventions and mythic histories.  This idea became absorbed into the literary imaginings of the Celtic Revival and has continued to influence Irish music performance to this present day.  O' Driscoll sympathizes and also resolves this dilemma when he argues that, “there is little evidence to substantiate this claim, but in seeking 'evidence' one is perhaps seeking the impossible.  Music, by its very nature, is an evanescent art” (O' Driscoll, 1982, p. xii).  Rather than viewing this as a theoretical cul-de-sac, perhaps it is an invitation to re-consider the boundaries of musical traditions.  As Bhabha suggests, the “unsettling, advantage of this position is that it makes you increasingly aware of the construction of culture and the invention of tradition” (1994, 247).

The post-modern evolution of Irish traditional music and its many guises, especially the Celtic New Age, can also be viewed as an effort to connect with others “at the world’s edges” (Stokes & Bohlman, 2003, p.10) and a seeking of “a symbolic language in which the fragmented world [of Celtdom] could be reunited” (2003, p. 7).  Taylor (1997) has explored how the idea of Irish-Indian shared heritage can be assumed or posited in musical practice.  In analysing world music star, Shiela Chandra, who “uses folk and traditional musics as an instrument against modernity/ postmodernity” (Taylor, 1997, p. 151) we may see how the constructed idea of the oriental Celt is “representative of all peripheral and rejected cultures created out of the European experience and as being the European equivalent of the Hopi, the Apache, and the Aztec” (DeMarco, 1982, p. 519-520).   Taylor argues that this is “music that exists for its own sake and doesn’t' have to mean anything other than pretty sounds” (2004, p. 150).  Taylor asserts that through Chandra’s “use of reverb… mystification [and] new age tendencies...the world is distanced in production” (2004, p.150).

Yet, Said himself has said that, “survival in fact is about the connection between things” (1993, p.408). Lennon has also explored how Irish Orientalist writings “frequently reflect more triadic structures in which a hybridity is immediately foregrounded” (2008, p. 167). Many of these Irish texts, either through appreciation of other faiths, or the promotion of religious syncretism, promote pluralism and, most importantly, cultural and religious tolerance.   Yazdija has explored how by embracing the hybrid, traditions may “reform their long held ideologies in light of a changing world, as well as to consider their work through alternative (non-Western) lenses, [this] is an essential practice in deconstructing the bindings of narratives-as-knowledge” (2010. p. 37).

Perhaps then true reverberations of the musicality of the Irish-Indian connection lie in the future rather than the past.  Bhabha reminds us that the “power of the postcolonial translation of modernity rests in its performative, deformative structure” (1994, p. 346).  Perhaps, it is within the post-modern performances and deformations of Irish traditional music in which the power of Ireland's postcolonial manifestations are most apparent.  The performance of overt and subverted Indian musical undertones could be understood as postcolonial theory in construction.  Further research into this field should therefore be performance based rather than purely historical and draw upon Melrose's (2002) concept of “critical meta-practices” to look at the theory producing nature involved in Irish-Indian musical exchanges.  This type of arts practice research is a modest attempt overcome the “intimacy between myth and history” in Irish cultural narratives (White, 1998, p.5) and may begin to solve Kearney's crisis of 'transitional narrative' which still underpins so much of Irish cultural production.

Culture cannot be defined in abstract isolation, but rather must be seen within the context of its construction in relation to the Other.  In this respect, I agree that the “quest for origins is a fruitless exercise” (Rowell, 1992, p.341) and invite us to explore Irish-Indian links as 'Third Space' which originates in the idea that “cultural practices construct their own systems of meaning and social organisation” (Bhabha, 1990, p. 209).  This construction of meaning happens in a continuously liminal space of relationship between the cultural Self and the Other which Ó Súilleabháin might describe as, “the crossroads of becoming where the dynamic of cultural change is being generated” (2003, p. 192).  The “creative working of outside ingredients has had a revitalising effect on traditional music...entirely new musical traditions have not just accepted passive acceptance but taken on new forms...[therefore] Irish music must be defined as encompassing all creative music making in Ireland” (Ó Súilleabháin,1981, p. 87).  

I do not wish to perpetuate Orientalist stereotypes or subscribe to colonialist imaginings which would put “Indian music as the eastern most outpost of the ancient Indo-European world” (Rowell, 1992, p.340) but if we can consider western, and by this I mean Irish, music as ethnic music then it deserves to be studied with a method which accounts for hybridity rather than fights against it.  Accounting for hybridity by accepting confluence “brings new light to bear on how we have become accustomed to hear, think and feel music” (Rowell, 1992, p. 340).  A method which allows for hybrid possibilities should be one based on practice and actual music experience of the individual.  For any change in a traditional music “is a continuous process . . . the result of many small steps rather than a few giant is also a personal process, in which the big picture is made up of an almost infinite number of individual points of view” (Ahern, 1996, p. 15).  It is only though the predominantly non-discursive manner of music making that the possibilities for Irish-Indian sympathies can be fully accounted.  Hopefully, the following performance based research will begin to explore the extent of Irish-Indian musicking in practice.





[1]Breathnach describes that there are reportedly some 6,000 dance tunes in the modern repertoire, “jigs, reels, and hornpipes in profusion, and hundreds of tunes for sets, polkas and other dances” (1977, p. 56).

[2] The Vedas, in particular the Rigveda a collection of 1028 hymns which “set forth the purpose” of the other major four Vedas and the Samaveda which is “a much smaller collection of hymns, mostly from the Rigveda, set to melodies” are perhaps the oldest surviving musical doctrines that exist (Rowell, 1992,. 58). In the Vedas the scale material or melodies (saman) were intertwined with text and in preceding musical treatises such as the Natyasastra (200AD) the scale types of theatrical and ancient music were based on jatis which changed the tonic note of the scale. 

[3] Van de Meer also recognises that hybridization in Indian Classical music is a complex process and concedes that “understanding the processes of hybridization in music is not easy, but we can see it in action all the time” particularly in musical exchanges.  He also admits that much of the process of hybridization “happens on a subconscious level that are very hard to research” (2006, p.21).


[5] Allaudin Khan, the father of Ali Akbar Khan and guru to many esteemed Indian musicians, was an incredible innovator and introduced rhythmic cycles, structures and ensemble playing to the classical tradition.  Likewise, he developed the modern version of the sarode, which in itself is still a relatively new instrument. See (Mc Neil, 2004).

[6] The concept of ancient Ireland and Indian links is based on commonality of Indo-European language structure, mythological and ritual similarities between the ancient Celts and Vedic culture.  The loose historical theory is that the Celts were descended from a race of Aryan nomads who travelled across the Himalayas into Eastern Europe, eventually spreading to the Western seaboard.

[7] The main artistic form which O' Ríada draws upon for his comparison is that of the circle or cyclic nature of Irish art in general.  Likewise, he also referred to the improvised nature of Irish music, particularly in regards to ornamentation as “the same as Indian rag”

[8] While O’ Ríada did not fully explore supposed Irish-Indian, or indeed Arabic, musical connection in his lifetime, his work is continued by his son, composer and musicians Peadar.

[9] Peadar O Ríada is a composer, scholar, film maker and director of Cuíl Aodha choir. He is the son of Sean O’ Ríada and has in many ways continued on the work of his father in his various projects.

[10] In this documentary, the O’ Snodaigh brothers travel around India interacting with local musicians, both from

 the folk and classical tradition.  Particularly vivid highlights include their interactions with folk musicians, whereas

their performance with tabla maestro, Zakir Hassein, is perhaps ill informed and naïve.  Ronan O’ Snodaigh

confessed to me personally after the tour that he felt like a “monkey on a stage” in comparison to Zakir.

[11] The idea of Celtic-Indian connections also has examples in the Scottish and UK traditional music scene Milun, Alba and Mike Mc Goldrick.

[12] Sean-nós (old song) is a traditional unaccompanied vocal form which is predominantly sung in the Irish language. 

[13] O’ Súilleabháin recounted (in interview, 15th April, 2014) a similar sleight of hand practised by Ó Ríada in espousing Irish-Indian vocal connections.  In a lecture in University College Cork, Ó Ríada apparently would play a sean-nós recording at half-speed on a tape player and then ask his students to identify where the music was from.  When the students responded that it sounded like Indian music, he would adjust the tempo to reveal the true origin of the recording.