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  • Mike Long

Acoustic Cities: Dublin

Ireland’s musical pedigree is arguably one of the most influential and well-known in the world. Ireland has impacted modern music in ways that defy probability for such a small nation. From Irish folk tales to roving Irish ballads, there’s something astoundingly resonant and approachable about the heart of the Irish people. “Folk” is undoubtedly the word that emerges when exploring Irish music. It is like the artists who create it, unpretentious with a spirit of being for the people, by the people. My mission is to explore just how tethered Dublin is to its musical heritage -- foundation for the future or limitation?

When you step across the cobblestones of Dublin music immediately greets you. In the heart of town, street musicians are in higher concentration than anywhere else, possibly in the world. Old wizened figures accompanied by fiddle, or guitar singing a range of typical Irish folk songs, young troupes of teenagers belting tunes into the open sky are familiar figures in the streets of Dublin. Ireland knows and is proud of its musical identity. What surprised me was that Dubliners have a willingness and eagerness to seek out new music and welcome others to its stage.

Musician Giovanni Agostini. Photo by Mike Long.

As I strolled through the streets of Dublin listening to the music in the streets I came upon a young performer outside of Saint Andrew's church. Giovanni Agostini, a Venezuelan immigrant who moved to Dublin in 2012 makes his living playing music. He plays on the streets and sometimes clubs. His music is a mix of pop tunes and Irish tunes with a dextrous finger-picking style that is decidedly South American in origin. In hearing of his and other immigrant musicians similar stories, it is clear to me that Dublin is actively embracing new ideas within the framework of it’s traditional forms.

Further evidence of this point is the existence of the first-annual Cruinniú na Cásca Festival in Dublin, a celebration of all things contemporary in Irish music and culture. The crowds were thick on Easter Monday at St. Stephen’s Green. The park was filled with numerous stages and tents, some for performance, some for hands-on playing and learning. What was exceptionally exciting about the festival was how much it valued the blurring of lines between various genres and cultures and things traditionally “Irish”.

On the main stage, a gospel choir performed with the aid of an Irish fiddler. In a small tent a drum circle of Afro-Irish drummers practiced varying rhythms. Workshops were offered on subjects ranging from traditional Irish folklore to LGBTQ identity within Ireland. If this festival was any metric, Dublin is mastering the art of maintaining their historical identity into the future while remaining open to new ideas and influences.

Raidió Teilifís Éireann - Ireland Radio and Television Broadcaster. Photo by Mike Long.

Most tourism in Dublin seeks out the sort of old Ireland that remains cast in stone and unchanging. Temple Bar is a neighborhood where one might not find a lot of locals visiting and things remain fairly true to the “Golden Era” of Irish music. There is an abundance of music to hear in Temple Bar and it is some of the best in the country. Even in other neighborhoods Dublin still boasts an unassailable number of musicians and shows.

The next night I had the great fortune of visiting a small venue called Doyle’s near Trinity College. On Tuesdays they put on “Ruby Sessions”, a showcase of local artists, with occasional surprise appearances of bigger names. In the past, famous local musicians like Damien Rice, Mumford & Son, and others have played unannounced.

Doyle’s looks by all accounts like a fairly typical Irish pub equipped with dim lighting, wooden structures slightly warped with a cave-like series of twists and turns. The pub is filled with people, pints and an easy attitude. I ascended a narrow set of stairs to a small room and stage. As the announcer walked the audience through the line-up, he made it very clear that Ruby Sessions was a no-talking venue and his mandate was law. This is the sort of experience I’m rarely privileged to take part in: a small, acoustic show where the audience was prepared to sit still and listen to the performers.

The Fontaines, Ruby Sessions at Doyle's, Dublin. Photo by Mike Long.

The presence of a silent audience makes a serious statement about the current state of music in Dublin. Music is still prioritized. The role of the artist, though I can only attest to that of the musical artist, is still one that’s highly appreciated. The community supports and provides places for up-and-coming singers and bands to practice in unique way. In many settings and cultures, bands and musicians seem like almost incidental props to attract people to bars and clubs; a sort of decoration that people occasionally notice but are not central to the experience. Here, however, the focus of the audience was to listen. The bands ranged from tight-knit three-piece acoustic sets that seemed fairly Irish to my ears to singers with more of a Samba or Brazilian influence.

The last band, The Fontaines, played a ragged and urgent mix of 60’s psych rock and 80-90’s Irish punk. They seemed to embody a sort of old-Dublin stereotype of young masculinity. Brash, young, rough and nearly combative, they tore through a riveting set. The tone of their guitars was thin and stinging and their strumming fast and aggressive. The singer stared unflinchingly into the audience when he wasn’t singing which made me borderline uncomfortable to make eye contact with him. A silent audience listened to every word, even the painful and uncomfortable ones.

Aside from the intimacy and localness of the show, The Ruby Sessions show really struck me for it’s emphasis on the spoken word or the story told. All the vocals were always highly audible-- a very unusual occurrence in my concert-going experience. So while musical forms and compositional norms of Dublin might be fairly consistent with other Western cities, the emphasis on the words still seems very Irish.

My brief stay exploring one of the world’s most famously musical cities has been incredible. I can sense that in Dublin is maintaining strong roots to the past with an openness to the future. Storytelling and folk songs are still the primary vessel for the music of the people, but it seems to be openly embracing the sounds, rhythms, and voices of a world of influences.

Stay tuned. More to follow. Next stop, Vienna.

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