FolkWorld Live Review 10/2000:
The beginning of August was hot and sticky on the Royal Alley in downtown Lorient my base for five hectic days of Irish music immersion. Lorient is a city that has become a hot house of Celtic creativity. For the past thirty years every summer the town has buzzed to the birl of bagpipes and hosted a summer feast of music, arts and crafts with a Celtic theme. Seán Laffey went along as a guest of Cumann Cáirdeas Ceilteach (the organisers of the Irish delegation) to sample the final few days of the millennium FIL.
Lorient was established by Royal Charter in 1664 to exploit the growing trade with the East. It looks much newer, because in 1944 over 90% of the town was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. What replaced it is basic Lego architecture, lending a boxy character to the city. However, like many seaports it has expansive ideas and farsighted individuals, (Greek philosophy thrived on the back of maritime merchandising) Jean Pierre Pichard the Director of FIL thinks big, and we have a man in Ireland to match his magnanimous style, my host, Tomás Mac Ruairí. Tomás organises the Irish delegation, with over two hundred individuals to cater for it's a task of Herculean proportions. Special mention must be made of two stalwarts, Mícheál agus Máire Ó hEidhin from Conamara who have been organising the music workshops for the delegation for many years ; they also teach at FIL. The Irish party includes musicians, interpreters and a small collection of organisers. Every year they invite two guest journalists, one from the print media, and one from either TV or Radio. This year's broadcast journalist was Meaiti Jó Shéamus representing RnaG. (The all Irish Radio Staion).
The Irish delegation's main musical muscle came from three pipe bands (the Arklow Carrigaline and St Mary's Pipe Band from Lurgan who came 2nd in the bands competition.) There was a bag of solo uilleann pipers (Brian MacNamara, Meaiti Jó Shéamus, Tommy Martin and Flaithri Neff). Instrument teachers (John and Kathleen Nesbitt, Meabh Ní Lochlainn, Robert Watt, Kay Webster and pipers Brian Mac Namara,Meaiti Jó Shéamus). There was an obligatorey Iridsh dance Troupe, Grúpa Rínce Dún Aengus lead by Donncha O' Múineacháin,. The bigger culture wasn't neglected either with Irish language instruction from Pádraigín Ní Dhomhnaill from Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore in Donegal). Indeed you were as likely to hear Irish rather than English as the first choice language of many in the Irish Delegation. There was a total of six groups, Anór, Meitheal, Mo Rúnsearc, Teaghlach, covering the traditional end of things whilst the experimental edge was held high by Melanie O'Reilly. Rome based Kay McCarthy and her nine-piece group represented the Irish Diaspora.
The sessions in the Galway on Rue Belgique were as good as anything you'll find at home (three quarters of the players were Irish so no surprise at that). Prices in the Galway are steep , but they do serve pints and the food in the beer garden is exceptional ( you'd starve as a vegetarian at the main festival). The in joke with the musicians at the sesh was that one night a kangaroo strolled into the bar carrying a banjo, went up to the bar tender and asked for a pint of Guinness. "We don't get many banjo playing kangaroos in here" says the bar keeper "That doesn't surprise me" says the Kangaroo "Your beer is too ***** expensive!"
Nearer to town, La Bové tavern had a nightly session at a more relaxed pace with tutors from the Irish delegation joined by students for after hour's fun. According to Brian MacNamara these are an annual event, certainly the patron Jean Des Nes was a welcoming host. Le Saloon Bar was the last stop on the way back to the Irish Dorms for the 200 in the Irish delegation, time has no meaning there with sessions still in progress from the night before as other groups head off for the next day's engagements. Mike McGoldrick walked into the bar and asked the patron,"When do you close" , he answered with a shrug of his sholders, " Ah probably next week!". An annual Seisiún takes place in the police station yard , with a retreat to the locker rooms for a wild time where even the beer fridge has a Garda Neighbourhood Watch sticker and strong padlocks. This year Arklow PB were invited back to play for the boys in blue(some cross dressing occurred with Cops in kilts and Pipers in Police uniforms!)
The attendance at this year's FIL was up to an all time record of 450,000 with large crowds at the nightly concerts in the Parc du Mustoir. I flew in at mid week, too late to catch either Sharon Shannon or the Chieftains, (very enjoyable gigs if the gossip on the streets is to be believed). The Thursday night big tent at the Espace Kergroise featured a Celtic American showcase with Clandestine, Deborah Henson-Conant and the Eileen Ivers band. Henson-Conant's plays mainly jazz standards, on a Camac electro-Harp. (A startlingly blue portable Celtic instrument made in Nantes. I'd love to see Ursula Burns working with one of those). Conant's command of French was excellent, something the Irish bands could learn from. Her only attempt at anything Irish Trad was The Drunken Sailor which showed up her lack of understanding of the genre, the dubious quality of her playing and the technical problems of amplifying her harp. But she looks good, has a sassy personality, tells double entendres in French and is a gusty performer.
Clandestine, gave us a Scots-Irish take on traditional music with a Texan flavour, they had very good two part harmonies and attention to detail in the choice of Breton tunes. The sort of stuff one imagines that might even be popular in David Trimble's constituency, but which we are very unlikely to hear on this side of the Atlantic, including a stunning two part harmony on Leon Rosselsons' The World Turned Upside Down. The Eileen Ivers band were awesome, with Jerry O' Sullivan on pipes and Donal Clancy on guitar (one of his last engagements before joining Solas, that's the big news for the coming months by the way, and John Doylke moving over to Eileens band). Eileen's music is Irish trad -rock fusion with enough energy to run a Bronx milking parlour. When she left the stage and ran amok through the audience, fiddling for a footrace, we knew this was transatlantic trad, more Vegas than Valentia.
Celtic music in Lorient is given big platforms and it demands a huge stage presence from the performers. The word from the French journalist was that Sharon Shannon's new band were definitely doing the right thing in this regard. The following night I saw a superb new production of Sean Davey's The Pilgrim, conducted by Mr Davey in white shirt and jeans,narrated by Giles Servat with Liam O'Flynn, Liam O' Maonlai and Rita Connolly heading up a stage full of musicians.
FIL started off 30 years ago as a piping contest and piping is still at its core. Brian MacNamara has seen his uilleann piping classes double in size over the past ten years; the Bretons love the Irish pipes, so much so that a special showcase concert given by the Irish pipers attracted an audience of at least 700. On the largest stage, at Parc du Moustoir, home of Lorient FC, Dan Ar Braz gave his final performance of Heritages Des Celtes with Nollaig Casey, Mike McGoldrick and the rest of the lads from Capercaillie with Karen Matheson acting as lead vocalist. Guest uilleann piper was local boy Ronan Le Bras. The event was so popular that over 15,000 tickets had been pre-sold and even the torrential rain, the first drops for nearly a fortnight, didn't deter the eager fans.
Outside of the music, there were various, cultural, educational and trade shows, including a whole marquee devoted to the Breton publishing industry. On the instrumental side there were far fewer luthiers than on my last visit, perhaps indicating a shift from participation to consumption in the Celtic Arts. The one luthier who was present, HJ Jézéquel, a pipe maker had an innovation on show, a traditional Breton cornemeuse with a bellows, which he said had been inspired by Irish uilleann pipes. The visual arts had their own Salon, hanging space at the Palais De Congrés is a real honour. I was a most impressed by the Welsh artist, David Uzzell Edwards with his huge swirling canvass some two meters square, modern interpretations on the Book of Durrow.
Like many festivals it was a time to bump into old mates and share the fun of music. I teamed up with Jean-Pascal Assailly, he has relocated to Marseille where he's working his way into the local Irish sesh scene ("there are about 30 players in Marseilles, it's going to be an interesting winter " he tells me ). Other musicians make bigger journeys, ex-Narraghmore piper Dave Mason had flown in from Thailand to play with one of the Scottish pipe bands. His verdict "I have never experienced a bagpipe oriented festival like it. Sure, there were lots of other instruments around but the pipes were played to death and thoroughly enjoyed by all! (Well, they said so; maybe something was lost in the translation?). Ten nights of piping accompanied by the odd partaking of a light refreshment (for the heat and sheer effort of it all, okay?) I can honestly say that I didn't meet one person who hadn't enjoyed themselves. Even the bus ride back to Glasgow (26 hours including the ferry!) wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I am going to try get back again next year. It is well worth the effort!"
If the Scots had to take a bus home, the Irish in contrast were much more civilised, Tomás Mac Ruairí chartered a Boeing 757 from Monarch Airlines, sold the extra seats to the Manx delegation and off we flew to Dublin (flight time one hour).
The last time I attended the Festival Interceltique Lorient (FIL) was some twelve years ago, I came looking for sessions, with a whistling playing buddy and two lasses from Kilkishen who could do a passable shuffle. We piled a dozen bodhráns into the hired Renault (intending to sell the drums Fleadh style to pay for the ELF and Pelfth); got out the Michelin guide and headed south. This year I was on the official reporter's list, with an access all areas badge, different times and different perspectives. No matter how you make it to FIL, I can only say that a dozen years away is just too long. FIL 31 is already on my wish list for next year, I'll mark the calendar in pigeon Breton "An Oriant , 3-12 August 2001, Emvod ar Gelted #31".
Further infos available at: Festival Interceltique de Lorient Homepage
Photo Credit: All photos by Sean Laffey: (1) Eilleen Ivers, (2) E. Jones (Cladestine), (3) Jerry O Sullivan, (4) Uilleann Pipe Recital, (5) Deborah Henson-Conant
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