Fifteen talented traditional musicians will take to the stage of the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork this Friday to compete in the final of the Séan Ó Riada Gold Medal Competition, broadcast live on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.
Composer, musician, and broadcaster Peadar Ó Riada, who presents Cuireadh Chun Ceoil on Raidió na Gaeltachta, initiated the competition, following in the footsteps of his famous father, Seán Ó Riada, who ran a similar competition on his radio programme in the 1960s.
Now in its fourth year, the competition has a four-year cycle in terms of what family of instruments is used. For this year’s competition, the instruments are the concertina, accordion and mouth organ.
Peadar Ó Riada says that between 40 and 60 musicians from all over the world enter the competition every year, with 15 finalists short-listed. The idea is to bring the listeners of Ó Riada’s programme together and build a worldwide network of traditional music fans who can record themselves at home thanks to technology.
There is a strong Munster contingent in this year’s competition. Bryan O’Leary, a grandson of legendary Sliabh Luachra box player Johnny O’Leary, as well as two of the talented Begley family from West Kerry, Niall and Cormac, are included. In all, there are four musicians from Kerry, five from Clare, two from Tipperary, one from Cork, one from Dublin and one from California, ranging in age from 12 to 50-something.
The American mouth organ contestant, Don Meade, is the producer of a series of Irish traditional music concerts held in New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House. He spent 10 years as a music columnist with the Irish Voice newspaper.
The adjudicators are master musicians, Charlie Harris, Mick Mulcahy and Noel Hill. “People from all over the world enter the competition,” says Ó Riada. “They enter anonymously with numbers that are assigned to their files. The adjudicators don’t know whether they’re listening to a three-year-old or a 90-year-old. They don’t know if the contestants are famous or people they’ve never heard of. They’re adjudicating purely on the music, the musicians’ musicality and their character.
“We’re not looking for technical ability. While technique is important, there needs to be creativity and soul in the music. Traditional music is a language that’s about communication. A traditional tune can never be played in the same way twice because it’s constantly evolving. But the best music changes in a subtle way.”
Commenting on the state of traditional Irish music, Ó Riada says: “It’s peculiar because it’s more popular abroad than at home. It’s like fresh water. People at home can take it for granted. I have listeners all around the world.”
Bemoaning “manufactured music” on TV reality shows, Ó Riada says that what’s important about traditional music is its originality. “You need a small amount of really authentic stuff coming up from the well all the time. It’s on that that you can build the Michael Flatleys of this world. If you don’t have that constant trickle of real stuff coming through, then the music will die off eventually. What has happened is that everyone has started thinking that technique is the most important thing.”
Ó Riada is pleased to report, though, that there is “a stunning generation of young musicians coming up. The only problem is that they’ve been reared in a different world with television, ipods, ipads and the divil knows what. But once the kids find out that it’s emotion that makes the tunes, they’ll be flying.”
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