The MAC Hosts Not So Trad Concert Series

Celtic funk maestros The Olllman kickstart Eamon Murray's experimental concert series at The MAC

Eamon Murray has been hard at work. Not, though, doing what he is currently best known for, which is playing bodhrán in his band Beoga, and in numerous traditional music sessions where his reputation as one of Ireland’s leading exponents of the goat-skinned instrument is already solidly established.

Murray’s activities have in recent months been centred more on his involvement with New Music Plus, a two-year initiative inducting rising young musicians into the facts and foibles of the UK music industry. Murray is Northern Ireland’s only representative on the scheme, and the learning curve has already been a steep one.

‘Parts of it are the best way to be successful at funding applications,’ he explains. ‘Then looking at how to market your events, the dos and don’ts, especially the different changes that are happening in the music sector. There was also a legal course, on how to protect yourself if you’re a promoter or curator looking for a venue, or being hired in by a venue.’

These are not, it has to be said, areas in which the average young musician seeking to forge a living in the contemporary music business has much, if any, ready expertise to draw on. Murray, however, is insistent on their usefulness, even if at times the hard-nosed ethics of the industry environment collide with the gentler, more subjective art of musical creativity and inspiration.

‘That was the biggest part of the learning curve for me,’ Murray acknowledges. ‘A lot of it to me seems kind of intellectualising or formalising stuff that maybe doesn’t need to be that way. But I think there’s a space for it, because there’s governmental money that’s there for the arts sector, and it has to be applied for in a certain way. You can’t just go up to the man with the purse strings and say, “I know a lot about music”.’

Murray’s new-found savvy in nailing down the funding necessary for exciting new initiatives to happen is about to bear its first fruits on a practical level. On July 26 the young Randalstown musician is launching Not So Trad, a string of concerts at The MAC in Belfast, the venue mentoring him as part of the New Music Plus training package.

Murray waxes lyrical about his new centre of operations in the Cathedral Quarter. ‘The location of the MAC is unbelievable, right in the centre of town and towards the north side of the city, which is kind of being rejuvenated as well. It’s great to have two venues in the building, and they’ve given me an office. Plus the staff here too, the technical and marketing team, everybody has been very helpful. They’re prepared to trust me and take a chance, and are really open-minded.’

In a sense they need to be, as Murray’s Not So Trad concerts are undoubtedly aiming to push the envelope artistically, presenting traditional Irish music in ways not seen before, and taking the music itself to new audiences and new places stylistically – a generation ago, that would never have been the case.

‘My tastes in trad music are very left of centre, because I think the straight stuff, the hardcore kind of trad, alienates people, you know.’ Murray has cut his own musical teeth on ‘the straight stuff’, and continues to play it frequently. So why, I wonder, does he feel it is potentially alienating for audiences?

‘It’s just not as accessible or jovial,’ he muses. ‘It’s not presented as a show, as opposed to, “This is a piece of music that was written 200 years ago, and this is how it’s played”. It’s more of an acquired taste, it’s less entertaining for somebody who is just loosely into music.

‘What I’m trying to appeal to is people that mightn’t necessarily like traditional music, and would call it “fiddly-dee” or whatever. And there’s lots and lots of them. They don’t know if they like it, they don’t know if they don’t like it. So in the centre of town here I thought it would be much more beneficial to programme stuff that wasn’t as die-hard traditional, to branch out and catch the inquisitive people who are just into music in some way, shape or form.’

‘Left of centre’ is certainly an apt description of the first concert in Murray’s Not So Trad series, in which The Olllam – purveyors of ‘neo-acoustic Celtic post-rock’ (the band’s own description), and featuring Uilleann pipes and tin whistle maestro, John McSherry – join forces with Belfast creative company DSNT in a 3D ‘son et lumière’ extravaganza liable to not just push the envelope on traditional music presentation, as rip up the template altogether.

‘The record that The Olllam brought out recently is one that everybody has been excited about,’ enthuses Murray. ‘It’s essentially a jazz or groove album, I suppose, but it’s played on uilleann pipes and whistles, piano, guitar, bass and drums. They’re one of the vibe-ier bands people have been talking about, and are very adventurous and experimental.’

Murray firmly believes that stretching the parameters with Not So Trad, far from being a subjective ego-trip for himself and the musicians he is working with, is essential to the future life blood of traditional music in Northern Ireland. ‘I think it’s all development,’ he says.

‘Trad music has become a bit trendier again. I know from my own band Beogan that the younger generation are definitely up for things being a bit more progressive, a bit wilder. It’s nice that that is what’s capturing young people’s minds, and if they get into traditional music through us, then by all means...’

And on a broader, pan-national front, Murray sees change and innovation as crucial in preserving and perpetuating the soul of traditional music for future generations, and broadening its appeal to the widest possible number of constituencies.

‘I think it’s good for everybody in the island to know the music of the island,' he concludes. 'I think it’s something that a lot of people have been scared of for a long time, because there’s political connotations. The more experimental, accessible stuff that people can get into, the better. Irish music isn’t something to be scared of, or ashamed of.’

The Olllam and DST perform at The MAC, Belfast on Friday, July 26 as part of the Not So Trad concerts series.