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What do Liverpool, Nashville, Berlin and Dublin have in common? Great music scenes, according to the head of music at St Patrick’s College, Dr John O’Flynn. Only, as he tells it, Dublin isn’t getting enough credit for it.
Hence: Mapping Popular Music in Dublin, a project he’s embarked on with research partner Dr Aine Mangaoang.
They’re collecting data on the musical experiences of fans, performers and promoters. First step is a survey. Later, there’ll be discussion groups. (Sadly, there won’t be a map; it’s not that kind of mapping.)
If you’re looking for a theory on why there seems to be a lot of music in Ireland, there are a few to choose from, of varying shades of questionable.
Musicologists Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone have written that the Irish “natural proclivity for music and song […] can be traced back even to the Norman invasions of the 12th century.”
Or, argue postcolonial theorists, the Irish were painted as innately musical in order to keep the oppressed as “entertainers to the colonial masters”. Or, a wave of creativity was born out of working-class strife in the 80s. O’Flynn and Mangaoang run off these theories with clear scepticism.
“I wouldn’t dare say Ireland is more musical than anywhere else,” said Mangaoang, “but it is a social thing that connects people, it brings people together and it is an inherent part of family and friendships.”
Whether or not it is more musical than other places, Dublin is music rich: there is always a gig to go to and busking is within earshot of anyone who takes a stroll through the city.
A Ragtag Bunch
“[There is] that image of popular music in Dublin; of it being a rock-and-roll town, four-man bands, U2 and Thin Lizzy,” said Mangaoang. “It’s been interesting so far to hear whether people’s experiences in Dublin are aligned with that or whether it is a contradiction.”
It depends on who you ask.
“You see a lot of boys with guitars,” said Anna Clifford, a cellist and bassist who plays with experimental band Low Tide. Most of them are playing indie rock and folk, she thinks.
But in and among the sea of strings and strums, quirky things are starting to happen, says multi-instrumentalist and singer Kiruu: “Dublin is now so much more cosmopolitan, there is a lot of new types of music coming in, at no expense to singer-songwriters.”
His music is an “eclectic sound formed with influence from his East African upbringing and European roots,” he said. His set last Sunday had English, Spanish and Swahili melodies intricately looped with guitar, keys and percussion as part of “Playtime” PlayTyme, an interactive music night that he runs at the International Bar.
Of course, you can still get your portion of trad, too. But “the problem has been that traditional music, which is obviously amazing and wonderful in its own right, has marginalised other forms of popular music,” O’Flynn explained.
“People expect folk and a rearrangement of a traditional tune but a lot more is happening,” said Clifford, “It’s anti-innovation in a way and perpetuates an identity that is quite nostalgic.”
One of the goals of the research – which is funded by Failte Ireland – is to inform the tourism industry.
“In Liverpool, there is a widespread association between the city and music, and music could be used to catapult the city out of a recession. Music was seen as a viable thriving tourism industry,” said Mangaoang.
In the UK, the music industry attracted 6.5 million tourists in 2013, according to statistics from UK Music. There don’t seem to be similar figures available for Ireland.
But should we reorient the music scene towards tourists? There are dangers.
“Tourism caters to the lowest common denominator, which leaves a lot out. Some might find their [musical] spiritual home in a song that isn’t popular,” cautions Clifford, the cellist.
One of the questions on the survey asks for the respondent’s “most memorable experience” in Dublin relating to popular music.
Clifford recalls a gig her band played at the now-closed Joinery: “We have one song that is 45 minutes long and has no vocals. Not everyone is into that but this place was like a spiritual home for that kind of music.”
Kiruu is more optimistic: “I’ve heard a number of [musicians] coming from abroad and a number of people have said that this scene is happening, and it’s friendly.”