Paper for ‘Taking Part’, European Seminar in Ethnomusicology (ESEM), 15 to 19 September 2011, Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen
Beating a legend into shape in real time: the participative transformation of the Minstrels’ tambourine into the Irish bodhrán drum.
The revival of Irish Traditional music from the 1950s onward coincided with the do-it-yourself aesthetics of the skiffle impetus and the development of Popular music and associated activities. Easy entry to the Traditional music-making process typically involved acquiring and playing cheap instruments such as the tin whistle or the tambourine (since re-named ‘bodhrán’). Many of those so seduced then moved on to more sophisticated melody instruments, but the frame drum held its own and was rapidly developed as a sophisticated percussion form which became not only vital in ensemble music making, but developed as a key visual artifact of Irish music itself, and of Irish identity too. This was witnessed most recently being beaten by Ireland fans at the cricket game in Bangalore, India where Ireland defeated England in March, 2011. The seemingly easy participative nature of bodhrán music-making belies the sophistication required for its acceptable performance. But it draws attention to the compulsion to physically beat time which previously had been seen only in rudimentary form in musicians by stamping time with the feet, and by other participants in dance. This paper explores the history of the actual bodhrán (a stone-age, skin tray) and its evolution over a half century from pragmatic time keeping to slick, world-class instrument with regional associations and a comprehensive mythology.