(The following is an interactive version of my Arts Practice Phd research from 2016)



         Let me confess from the outset, that I am a mongrel.

         To be more specific, I am a musical mongrel.  

       My reclamation of my mongrelity has emerged out of the arts practice research process which informs this thesis.  Much of this project is influenced and critically informed by my experience as a student and performer on the North Indian 25 stringed lute called sarode.  I have been studying Indian Classical music for over a decade and it has fundamentally changed my musical way of being-in-the-world.  Yet, through the reflexive narrative of this thesis, I began to realise the significance of my other cultural and musical experiences.  This unusual pedigree was something I had often felt as a detriment to my sincere study of North Indian music and also my recent engagement with Irish traditional music.  I had in fact attempted to suppress the reality of my mongrelity.  This is partly in response to what Aubert refers to as the ‘duck in the henhouse’ syndrome, namely that, “the recognition of an artist’s talent acquired outside the context of his or her chosen culture, undergoes a supplementary handicap because his or her trajectory is constantly susceptible to being questioned, even judged as suspicious” (2007, p. 82).  Being a musician involved in the world of inter-cultural, hybridity, and fusion is not without its anxieties.  As Aubert further suggests an “apprenticeship in Indian music is a lesson in humility, to such an extent that one can wonder if such an artist’s life has indeed a purpose” (2007, p.83).  In my own quest for understanding the unique mixture of sources that make up my practice, I realized that if I was to find my own ‘authentic’ voice then I needed to reclaim rather than avoid or deny my mongrelity.

I understand the mongrel as an internal confluence of cultural and musical sensibilities which allows us to understand hybridity within a specific musician and their playing.  This project, and my reclamation of mongrelity, acts as a case study addressing the instability of the post-modern condition resulting from globalisation and interprets hybridization as one of its cultural consequences.  Most research into hybridity and inter-cultural music exchange seems to ignore the complex performative realities of the musicians involved in the music making as reviewed in this work.  In this thesis, I attempt to interrogate the complexities of my own hybrid music making within the metaphor of the mongrel.  More specifically, it is an exploration of inter-cultural hybridity through a practice based case study of Irish traditional and North Indian Classical music.  It combines both ethnomusicological analysis and an arts practice research model underscored by the creation of two significant musical performances. It is both an attempt to add to scholarly discourse on hybridity by drawing upon the performative, while also addressing my own quest for an authentic musical self as performer.


Research questions

This research asks two primary questions.

What is the role of the mongrel in inter-cultural music exchange?

What might be the sympathies between Irish traditional and North Indian classical music?


Although some musical and cultural comparison will be necessary, my purpose here is not primarily a comparative musicological investigation.  I am not particularly interested in comparing the cultures of Indian and Irish music as an endeavour to establish musical links or connections; the reasons for this shall be explained in more detail later.  Rather, the focus of this research is my own musical practice, the unique mongrel way that I engage with Irish traditional and North Indian classical music.  I use the term sympathy to refer to my own embodied and internal musical understandings and relationships rather than abstracted musicological connections.  Understanding sympathy in this context may be aided by a practice based analogy. 


                                                                                         Defining sympathy

Examine the sympathetic (tarup) strings on the sarode, which run along the neck of the instrument, underneath the main melody strings. These strings are parallel and in relationship to each other, yet not connected physically.  However, when one string is plucked its vibrations may activate the resonance of another string, but only if the other string is tuned correctly.  It may also not necessarily be the string directly physically parallel to it which is activated in this sympathetic relationship.  This vibrational sonic sympathy is internalised in the acoustic properties of the body of the instrument.  So it is in the inter-cultural performance process, certain musical and extra-musical elements will resonant within the bodies of the performer and some will not.  This may happen within the music itself, in the relationships of the musicians, or within the affective world of one person.  The above analogy reflects my understanding of the word sympathy as the lived interactive process of performance mediated by individuals which is felt in the body.  The term sympathy is important in this research as it stresses the extra-musical dimension of this work, which Blacking has referred to as “fellow feeling” (1987, p.39).  By examining my own practice leading to the creation of performance, this research seeks to understand what role the mongrel may have in the realization of musical sympathy and how the world of affect may help us bridge the “gap between structure and feeling” in the study of musical meaning (Rahn in Denora, 2011, p.19).

Jimi Hendrix: my first 'guru'

Jimi Hendrix: my first 'guru'

Performing with The Highway 5 1996, Brisbane, Australia

Performing with The Highway 5 1996, Brisbane, Australia

Situating the self within the research
Before discussing the musical focus of this project, let me first further identify my own musical mongrelity to situate myself in the research. I was born in Brisbane, Australia to an Irish immigrant father.  I began my musical life as a guitarist and drummer experimenting with grunge and post-rock, before experimenting with electronica, free jazz, Zen chant and even West African drumming. 

Sougata Roy Chowdhury

Sougata Roy Chowdhury

My current mentor- K. Sridhar

My current mentor- K. Sridhar

 However, I have spent a large and formative portion of my adult life travelling to and from Kolkata studying North Indian Classical music on the sarode, firstly with Sougata Roy Chowdhury and more recently with K. Sridhar who is based in the UK.  My experience of this tutelage has been that of a traditional guru-shishya relationship where disciplined and dedicated practice to both the lineage and spiritual basis of the music are paramount.  Since re-locating to the West of Ireland in 2006, I eventually began to play Irish traditional music, first on the mandolin and fiddle and eventually on the sarode.  I soon discovered a rhetoric, both anecdotal and scholarly, about Irish-Indian cultural connections, most notably through the writings of the most seminal figure in Irish traditional music, composer, scholar, educator and musician Seán O Ríada.

In his influential collection of lectures, Our Musical Heritage, Ó Ríada argues that, “Irish music is not merely not European, it is quite remote from it. It is, indeed, closer to some forms of Oriental music” (1981, p. 20).  In the above interview clip from Belgian television, O’ Ríada explains that, “here we also have highly developed traditional music, very complex, very sophisticated, but it's more Oriental than Western...it's improvised . . . very much like Indian rag”.  O’ Ríada, however, was by no means the first to posit Irish-Indian connections.  Lennon argues that a hypothesis of Irish-Indian connection goes “as far back as writing goes” (2008, p. x).  A discourse of ancient links between Ireland and India (amongst other Eastern cultures) is an old one and has subtly informed the collection and revival of traditional dance music and song in Ireland from at least the 19th century onwards (Dillane & Noone, 2016). 

It is important to distinguish here that there is historical discourse of musical connections between Ireland and India rather than verifiable musical contact or exchange. While there is a modern history of Irish-Indian cultural connections, particularly in relation to a shared colonial past (Caroll & King, 2003; Viswanathan, 2004; Ohlmeyer, 2015), this is not the focus of this research.  Nor is this research concerned with pre-historic similarities between Celtic and Vedic culture in mythology or language; a topic which has been discussed elsewhere (Dillon, 1947; O’ Flaherty, 1979; O’ Driscoll, 1982).  I am rather concerned with examining Irish-Indian musical relationships in and through practice, because, truth be told, Irish traditional music and North Indian classical music are in fact, musically, very far apart.  Yet apart from isolated examples, there has been no systematic critical musical examination of either the similarities or indeed the differences between Irish traditional and Indian Classical music.


        This research combines traditional scholarship with performance.  It takes an interdisciplinary approach combining ethnomusicology, hybridity theory and arts practice.  The project began with field work conducted in Irish traditional sessions and music festivals in Co. Clare, such as the Willie Clancy Week, where I enrolled two years running as a student on both fiddle and sarode.  I conducted interviews with several key figures within Irish traditional and Indian Classical music who were experienced in cross-cultural exchange and I undertook a traditional academic literature review while also analysing and categorizing my field notes.  I also facilitated undergraduate musical ensembles with traditional music students in the Irish World Academy in the University of Limerick to begin to explore the practical applications of Indian classical aesthetics to Irish traditional music.



Concurrently, I began to utilise my own practice, both as musician and performer, to further generate research 'data' for analysis. This involved both individual and collaborative sound studio work, and was heavily influenced by Susan Melrose's (2002) concept of 'expert disciplinary mastery'.  She suggests that arts practitioners, through the development of a craft expertise within any creative discipline, possess a unique embodied knowledge system which in its own way is a possible site for theory.  To access this 'embodied mode of knowing' requires a 'critical meta-practice' (Melrose 2002), by which she means developing a reflexive and analytical understanding of what constitutes one's practice and the insights that have been garnered from it. In her words it is “…a disciplinary practice or practices which both maintain conventions specific to the discipline (and the judgements it entails) while challenging and/or interrogating certain of its practices” (Melrose, 2002, p.1).   In fact, it was through this reflexive process which can also be located within a tradition of autoethnographic research (Chang, 2008) - focusing in this case on providing a reflexive account of my own musical development - that I first began to play with the term 'mongrel' as a salient one capable of capturing the hybrid character of my own complex, mixed musicality.

This process of embracing my mongrelity became part of my 'critical meta-practice' and helped me focus on aspects of my own individual artistic approach which I felt could be applied in my engagement with Irish traditional music.  In particular, I sought to draw on my experience as a student of Indian Classical music.  I became interested in the idea of a kind of 'metaphysical apprenticeship' to elders which is central to Indian musical culture and is also part of the Irish tradition. Alongside my academic study of Irish traditional music history as a cultural form, I apprenticed myself to ‘elder’ - established and influential - musicians such as Ged Foley, John Carty, Martin Hayes and fellow Australian, Steve Cooney.   

It was through this process of 'apprenticeship' that I discovered a particular lineage of Irish traditional instrumental music which appealed to me and which also seemed in sympathy with my experience of the aural traditions of Indian Classical music.  Attachment to a lineage, often described by the term 'gharana', is an important element in studying Hindustani music.  It provides not just musical pedigree but also addresses the need for an awareness of the cultural and spiritual connotations of the music one is playing.  In my engagement with Irish music, I have consciously adopted this stance of reverential respect for older musicians and have been able to engage with a particularly nuanced style of playing; rather than having simply learned the traditional repertoire ad hoc.  In particular, I have become devoted to the simple yet emotive style and compositions of fiddle players such as Junior Crehan, Paddy Fahy and Joe Ryan. The compositions and styles of these musicians represent an approach to Irish music which technically works for me in my attempts to play Irish traditional music on the sarode, while also allowing for a cohesiveness in musical expression which is fundamental to the principles of Hindustani music. 

My instrument is also a key part of my methodology and a physical extension of my ‘critical meta-practice’.  It is also something of a mongrel.  During the initial stages of this research, it became apparent that I would require a different instrument to fully explore Irish traditional music.  The North Indian classical sarode is a large instrument, with a long scale length of around 64 cm, four melody strings, two high pitched drones, four sympathetic chikari and fifteen tarup underneath.  It is usually tuned to a ‘C’ natural tonic and played with a coconut shell plectrum.  The physical size, the scale length and the tuning of the traditional sarode makes it problematic for playing Irish traditional dance music.  Melodies in the Irish tradition tend to make melodic movements up, down and beyond one octave, which on the sarode requires crossing all four main melody strings rapidly.  In Indian classical music, much of the melodic material is played on one or two main strings requiring slides and bends to move up the scale rather than crossing multiple strings.  Furthermore, the most common keys for traditional melody are D, G and A which are difficult to play with ease on an open-tuned C instrument.

My hybrid sarode

My hybrid sarode

To overcome some of these difficulties I had a smaller ‘hybrid’ sarode built in the key of D.  It has guitar machine head tuners and I have been experimenting with different tunings of the sympathetic strings to more easily facilitate changing of scale material.  Apart from the tuning pegs, the shortened neck and the simplified string system, the rest of the instrument is built like a traditional sarode, but its sound and my manner of playing it are significantly different. A more technical discussion of the use of the instrument will be presented in the following performance based chapters.


Theoretical perspectives and arts practice research

The methodological approaches discussed above are in fact not separate from the theoretical considerations of this thesis.  Developments in the fields of somatics, aesthetics, practice and performance theory have begun to challenge traditional research models and provide radical alternatives allowing artists to “speak from the positions previously occupied by academics alone” (Candlinin, 2008 p.3). Likewise, practice theory has suggested that the actions, dramas and performances we undertake are central to understanding meaning, so much so that “practices have displaced the mind as the central phenomenon in human life” (Schatzki et. al., 2001, p.20).   In particular, I am interested in Leavy’s suggestion that “music based methods can help researchers access, illuminate, describe and explain that which is often rendered invisible by traditional research” (2009, p. 101).  As we increasingly live in “a world of hybrid products” (Shusterman, 2000, p. 2) reflexive practice, with the future goal of performance, can become “the means through which theory is written—in other words, a theory of practice is actively being composed as performances take place” (Morton, 2005, p.14).

Documenting all the complex elements of practice is crucial in developing new knowledge from practice based research.  This research employs a variety of ethnographic techniques including traditional field notes, journals, reflection, photos, video and audio recording.  Alongside this documentation runs an autoethnographic narrative thread so that the writing flows between connected ideas, even though in different voices, to create a “patchwork that portrays a more complete view of life” (Wall, 2006, p. 10).  Autoethnography is a “research method that utilizes the researcher’s autobiographical data to analyse their cultural assumptions” (Chang, 2008, p. 9).  Or as Pelias puts it plainly, autoethnography, “lets you use yourself to get at culture” (2003, p. 372).  In a sense, it is like a philosophical open door which the Self may walk through as a process of interpretation.  Yet Chang cautions the autoethnographer that, “telling one’s story does not automatically result in cultural understanding” (2008, p.13).  Wall extends this important critique by suggesting that “using the self as subject is not a problem [but] how the self is used is very important” (2006, p. 11).  For autoethnographic method to be effective in its “depth of cultural analysis and interpretation” it requires a rigorously critical reflexive structure which follows an intentional research trajectory (Chang, 2008, p.13).  In cognisance of the possible dilemmas of such a subjective research method, I have attempted to follow the guidelines suggested (listed below) by the National College of Art and Design in regards to the nature of practice based doctoral work.    


•Purposive - based on identification of an issue or problem worthy and capable of      investigation;

• Inquisitive – seeking to acquire new knowledge;

• Informed – conducted from an awareness of previous related research;

• Methodical – planned and carried out in a disciplined manner;

• Communicable – generating and reporting results which are testable and accessible by others.   (2005, p.7)


A key feature of the arts practice model used for this research is the use of performance for the generation, communication and reporting of research findings.  The development of performance follows the steps outlined above and is arguably the most accessible form of communication of research.  As this research is dealing with the focus of Irish and Indian musical hybridity, the performances developed were of a hybrid nature.  Hybrid performance, as Schechner defines it, is a “performance which incorporates elements from two or more different cultures or cultural sources….evolving something new from a basis of mutual respect and reciprocity” (2002, p. 251).   It is exactly this ‘evolving something new’ that I am interested in mapping in musical performances.  Furthermore, there is an important affective element in inter-cultural music exchange, which Schechner defines above as ‘mutual respect and reciprocity’.  Therefore, as well as documenting the musical exchanges of my performance practice, I shall also endeavor to map the more personal inner world of sympathy in inter-cultural music exchange.

I chose a mode of practice based research as the limited academic ethnomusicological discourse addressing Irish-Indian music similarities did not significantly address the performative dimension (Taylor, 1997; O’ Laoire/ Beriou, 2003; Cooper, 2007).  The subject has also been something of a theoretical cul-de-sac for researchers, as most scholars have employed comparative musicological perspectives in a biased attempt to plot formal, mythological and historical connections between Irish and Indian music (Ladd, 2002; Quinn, 2005; O’ Driscoll, 1982).  This previous research into Irish-Indian musical connections has attempted to argue for contemporary musical similarities by referring to an unknowable musical past.  I wanted to circumvent this methodological impasse by focusing on the question of performance and by literally testing any theory of musical homology in and through my mongrel practice and, in particular, my experience of cross cultural musical collaboration.

Structure of thesis

The structure of this thesis is broken into four main chapters followed by a conclusion. 

Chapter 2 is a literature review of work relating to ethnomusicology, hybridity and inter-cultural “musicking” (Small, 1998).  A connection will be drawn with the theorisation of hybridity as developed by Homi K. Bhabha (1994), along with other scholars responding to his work, and the possible applications of this theory in music practice.  An argument will be made that the individual should be at the centre of discussion of hybridity and the concept of mongrelity as representation of this idea will be explored. 

Chapter 3 is a review of literature relating to Irish traditional music and North Indian classical music.  An attempt is made to provide broad descriptions of the two musical traditions both culturally and in musical terms.  A history of the discourse of Irish-Indian musical links will be outlined and explored in relation to an Orientalist framework. 

Chapter 4 is a performance focussed chapter.  It relates to the first major performance of this research which was a two week tour of India with traditional duo, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill.  This chapter is partnered with a 40 minute film entitled, The Sound of a Country made by Myles O’ Reilly which presents an artistic document of the tour.  This film should be viewed in conjunction with the text of the chapter as examples from the film will be used in the ethnographic accounts.

Chapter 5 is focussed on the final performance project of this research which involved two concerts in the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.  These concerts were a presentation of the culmination of research and feature myself, tabla player Debojyoti Sanyal and Irish percussionist Tommy Hayes.  Again, these performances are documented through video. It is important that the video of both performances are viewed before reading the text of this chapter.  Some video examples of the performances will be included in the text but for a full understanding of the extent of this research, please watch the films. This final chapter will be followed by conclusions and an attempt to answer the research questions outlined in this introduction.