Neil Martin on the Future of Trad

'For too long trad has been perceived to belong to nationalists...'

At the Belfast Festival at Queen’s 2005, Neil Martin introduced a celebration of Irish music featuring Dervish, a band instrumental in bringing Irish music to a global audience.
What marks this particular event is that the afternoon concert was aimed at pupils of NI schools. This is due to developments within the curriculum that, it is hoped, will open traditional music to all. After all, classical music has no knowledge of cultural divides so why should trad?
With a huge reputation as both a classical and a traditional musician, Neil Martin is uniquely placed to expound on the differences and similarities of the two genres. 
‘Classical music and traditional music are very different though one is no less than the other,' he explained. 'Though traditional doesn’t have a broad orchestral sound like classical, it is important as more of an oral tradition.’
With trad now a compulsory part of GCSE music, all pupils will study it in the same way they have studied classical music until now. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has responded to this shift by producing a DVD, Exploring Trad. Soon to be distributed to NI schools, it provides a historical context for Irish music.
Material for the production came from the archives of broadcasters such as the BBC, TG4, RTE, Channel 4, and other independents. Neil worked on the production and described the contribution from these media partners as ‘terrifically generous’.
He continued, ‘There are many sections to the DVD including music, dance, and social history. This is the first time there has been a collection of material of pertinent events in trad. Included are artists such as Planxty, The Chieftains, Paul Brady, and Sinead O’Connor.’
Neil considers the step of including traditional music in the curriculum to be an important one. As a pupil himself of the Christian Brothers and then of St Malachy’s in Belfast, he was introduced to the cello. It was outside of school, however, that he learnt the uilleann pipes as a student initially of Francis McPeake.
‘Back then there was no trad in school. There may have been an element of it in Cork but nowhere else. Inevitably by learning both, the two began to cross-fertilise. I was able to read certain things in an orchestral way.’
Neil went on to explain that traditional music is being studied more and more. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, director of the Irish World Music Centre, has been instrumental in encouraging the study of trad in third level education at both University College Cork and the University of Limerick.
As a member of the West Ocean String Quartet which successfully fuses trad and classical music, Neil recently gave a workshop to music students at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus. They were well-received and saw many of the students again at their concert that night. The importance of studying both disciplines isn’t lost on Neil, ‘In order to fuse any two forms of music you need to know something about both.’
The benefits of greater cultural understanding may affect more than just the music. The socio-political context of trad may also be affected. 
‘For too long trad has been perceived to belong to nationalists but it is an art form and so is over and above politics and religion. Both sides are responsible for this. One side claims it exclusively while the other makes fun of it, but it’s common to everyone who lives here. This division has been created unnecessarily for reasons of political expediency.’
But it wasn’t always this way. Neil goes on to refer to the Belfast Harpers Festival of 1792. This, the last meeting of the gaelic harpers, was organised by Presbyterians who recognised the cultural importance of trad. Cannily, they also employed a church organist, Edward Bunting, to write down what was being played. His works, the Bunting Collection, became one of the most important works in music by preserving and promoting the music of the time. As Neil says, ‘Traditional music would be greatly impoverished without it.’
Hopefully the concert at this year’s festival can have a similarly positive effect. An effect which can only be complimented by a grounding in the history of this art form.
Neil Martin also works as a composer and has written the score for Family Plot, a new play by Daragh Carville also featuring at this year’s festival.
Frazer Orr