Folk music is experiencing a renaissance in New Zealand as musicians rediscover the Gaelic tradition of pub sessions. Baz Macdonald reports.
It’s a Sunday night at Waxy O’ Shea’s, the local Irish pub in Invercargill. Patrons are eating dinner, having a yarn and a drink. In dribs and drabs, people with instrument cases slung over their shoulders filter in and congregate around a long table at the middle of the bar. Drinking and chatting, they casually retrieve guitars, banjos, fiddles and pipes from their cases.
There’s no fanfare to kick off proceedings; someone simply raises a fiddle to their chin and begins to scratch out a tune. After a few bars, the other musicians pick up the melody and kick in with their instrument’s part. These musicians are playing for each other, yet the whole ambience of the bar lifts. People continue their meals and conversations, but not without a steady accompanying tap or stomp of their foot on the ground.
After a few songs the scene transforms. Every patron in the bar is now hollering along to the classic folk songs – you know, those songs you seem to know every word of, but have no idea how. The room shakes with the steady stomp of feet, bottles and glasses on tables clink along, and people pull each other up out of their seats to dance in the aisles.
It’s a scene we’re all familiar with from Titanic, Lord of the Rings or any number of Irish movies, but probably one that many of us have never actually experienced, or assumed no longer existed. Yet scenes like this are still taking place all over New Zealand, as an increasing number of musicians gather for this Gaelic music tradition called a session (Irish Gaelic: seisiún). In fact, according to folk music champion (and founder of the KiwiFolk website) Mike Moroney, not only does this tradition still persist right across New Zealand, it’s experiencing a boom. “I don’t think [New Zealand’s session culture] has ever been livelier than right now.”
The Session renaissance
In recent years the session culture has exploded across the world, starting in Ireland and Scotland where, Moroney says, young people “train to be folk musicians like New Zealand kids train to be in the All Blacks”. The movement made its way south of the equator, and now this country is seeing a similar increase in interest from young and old musicians alike.
The Invercargill session is an example of the new trad folk wave popping up all over the country. Over the decades there had been several attempts to create an ongoing session culture in Invercargill, but they all petered out – until five years ago, when Irish musician Kathryn Adam launched the first session at Waxy O’ Shea’s. Having grown up in an Irish pub, Adam was keen to have an ongoing session in the city, so she gathered together some local musicians for a jam in the pub. Since then it has become a tradition on the second Sunday of every month, and has grown from just a few musicians to a group of 20 to 30.
One of those first musicians was Stephen Hayes, a fiddle player who organises music festivals in Southland (he was also a prop for the Southland Stags throughout the ’90s). Hayes is hard to miss at these Invercargill sessions; he stands tall and broad-shouldered at the head of the table, his fiddle hanging from his neck by a strap made of a piece of twine, playing every tune with effortless skill.
Hayes says as the Invercargill session has grown, it’s incorporated a diverse group of musicians – in terms of both instrument and genre background. The session is also made up of a broad range of ages, with a large proportion of participants in their teens and twenties. Hayes says they have even had a 90-year-old violin player along to a few sessions. On the other end of the age spectrum, Adam’s five-year-old daughter is learning to play the violin and will often join in for a tune during a session – including on the night I attended, when she and her mum played an incredible duet.
The Session Etiquette
The Invercargill event is just one type of session; they take a number of different forms, each with their own etiquette and approach. Some sessions, such as the one in Invercargill, are open to anyone who wants to be involved. There are also closed sessions, typically organised by very dedicated folk musicians and which can only be joined by invite.
Closed sessions are also quite strict about the form of music they play: the more dedicated sessions only feature traditional instrumental tunes, no singing allowed.
That’s only one aspect of session etiquette, Moroney says. “There is a protocol – not that the protocol is well explained.” For instance, though open sessions allow new musicians to take part, that doesn’t mean you can just rock up to a table of musicians you don’t know and play along. “Someone once described it to me as the Jane Goodall approach – you have to observe from afar, work out who the alpha is, approach very carefully, behaving exactly as they do. That is half-joking, but it is like that.”
While most sessions are quite welcoming, Moroney says there’s a level of expected expertise. Essentially, these nights are not there for you to learn to play the songs, and especially not for you to learn to play your instrument. This is particularly true of some of New Zealand’s more dedicated session groups. There is a session in Wellington every Tuesday night at the Welsh Dragon Bar which has its own website, on which you can find a huge catalogue of tune recordings and an audio player which allows you to learn them on the website before coming along to the session.
Hayes says their group also expects that people will put some time into learning the tunes outside of the session, because “the magic really happens when a group of people are all playing the same tune together in unison. The patrons can feel and hear that magic too.”
Moroney says that for many of the more dedicated Gaelic musicians, the enjoyment of playing together is the primary purpose of a session – if the the pub crowd enjoy it too, that’s just a happy side-effect.
For Hayes, however, the performance aspect is key. “I’m very much there to keep the patrons entertained as well. Some people might be more intensely into the tunes, but I always try and put on a bit of a show too.”
Hayes says that the smaller communities of musicians, such as the one in Invercargill, are less strict about some of this etiquette because there are fewer strictly Gaelic musicians. However, they do still abide by some central tenets, such as playing the songs in their traditional key – instead of the keys used in modern adaptations for groups playing on the piano and accordion.
Songs and tunes
Another major difference between open and closed sessions is how flexible they are about the type of folk music they will play. The dedicated sessions not only omit certain songs but also stick to older, more traditional forms of Gaelic music, whereas most open sessions will include modern songs.
Down in Invercargill, a couple hours into the session at Waxy O’ Shea’s, the musicians are all taking a beat to have a drink. Suddenly a young lad who has been playing and singing like an Irish virtuoso all night suddenly starts singing the unaccompanied song ‘The Auld Triangle’, which you might know from the film Inside Llewyn Davis. When he hits the chorus the whole room joins in. It’s utterly haunting to hear the whole bar singing this beautifully melancholic song.
Yet to some purists, to include this song – written and popularised in the 1950s – in a session is blasphemous. Moroney says that you would never hear such a relatively modern song at one of the more dedicated Gaelic sessions – and that if you did ever hear a song like this it would be a Sean-nós, a very traditional form of unaccompanied Irish song.
Hayes says that a lot of this Irish folk purity is a counter-movement that comes from the mainstream success of The Pogues, who modernised the Irish folk sound in a way that brought it mainstream attention, but which is considered sacrilegious to some folk musicians. The flipside, he says, is that the success of bands like The Pogues is partly why we are seeing such a revival of Gaelic folk music at all.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.