Tuesday, December 30, 2014

[Live] Dabka and Trad: traditional music and dance from Ireland and Palestine

There is often a long lead time between when I experience things and when I finally post about them here. I went to this event back in April, before this summer's Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the simmering autumnal violence in Jerusalem. The evening was organised by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, bringing together the Palestinian dance form of dabka and Irish traditional music. It took place in Liberty Hall, headquarters of the trade union SIPTU.

Dabka is a dance style popular in Palestine, though it also features in other parts of the Middle East (popular Syrian superstar Omar Souleyman is a dabka singer). There may be a split in the dabka world between people who dance to a more acoustic accompaniment and ones dancing to the kind of programmed high octane beats served up by Omar Souleyman's collaborators; this may however be a difference that means more to westerners than to people of the eastern Mediterranean.

This event was not solely musical and cultural, as it was also about reinforcing support for the cause of Palestinian freedom. This was done through speeches and the like from the stage and exhibitions of photographs outside, as well as the showing of films before the performance proper.

The compere was Robert Ballagh, a well-known Irish visual artist who used to design our banknotes back when we had our own banknotes. He mentioned once attending a peace conference in the USSR as a guest of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Despite his being a well-known figure in this country, I had somehow never heard his speaking voice before. He is very well-spoken and also possessed of a dapper demeanour. If The Chap ever come to Ireland in search of well-dressed men they could do worse than interview Mr Ballagh.

I was quite *tired* when I arrived at the event, but the first act lifted me out of my customary torpor. They were the Kilteel Comhaltas Youth Group, who were basically a small army of young musicians playing céilí band music. People with a more advanced appreciation of Irish traditional music can be a bit sniffy about céilí band music, but I liked its relentless full-on massed attack. I can see how one could get obsessive about this kind of thing.

Frances Black was on next. She is a well known singer in this country, a member of the famous Black family of singers and musicians. Her musical efforts are not really the kind of thing that appeals to me, but I can see why people like her. One thing that was amusing about her performance was that she had her son accompanying her on guitar. He had a great "Oh mum!" air to him whenever she started recounting anecdotes.

Ms Black's set featured that Labi Siffre number 'Something Inside So Strong' (actually '(Something Inside) So Strong'), part of the ongoing campaign to turn the struggle for Palestinian freedom into the 21st century equivalent of the battle against apartheid in South Africa. If this means that there will be an updated version of 'Sun City' then I am all for it.

Cormac Breathnach, Kevin Rowsome and Brian Fleming were on next. They were a pretty straight down the line Irish trad trio. I have the least to say about them but that should not be taken as an indication that their music was uninteresting or unenjoyable.

And then there were Eoin Dillon and Colm Ó Snodaigh from the band Kila. Kila are now a rather long established modern trad group. Despite their fame, I had not hitherto seen them live or even heard their music. They rather confounded my preconceptions, as these two players were nothing like the raucous rapscallions I was expecting. Instead the music seemed to contain some odd harmonics and the suggestion of a modern composition influence, so much so that I must seek out more of their tunes.

Donal Lunny and Paddy Glackin gave us more trad action, with Mr Glackin on fiddle and Mr Lunny on bouzouki and vocal. Mr Lunny is famous from his time in Planxty and various other important outfits. Mr Glackin is not so well known to me but I understand him to be a heavy weight in his own right. They did one song with Irish language lyrics sung from the point of view of a crazed stalker woman who is cursing the wife of some fellow for whom she is has an obsessive love. I was surprised that there is enough Irish lodged in my memory for me to suddenly register that at one point the song was about wanting to break the legs of the man's wife.

There were also non-musical elements to the evening. Robert Ballagh told anecdotes of the time he met Mahmoud Darwish at that Moscow Peace Conference, then a woman, possibly from the Palestinian General Delegation in Dublin, read some poetry of that famous writer. She read it in Arabic, but I find foreign language poetry oddly soothing so I was not complaining.

The dabka dancers themselves were from the Lajee Cultural Centre in Aida refugee camp. They performed to backing tracks of recorded music that was a good bit more restrained than the high speed mentalism of Omar Souleyman. As they came onstage the thing that immediately struck me was that the dancers were both male and female; given how gender-segregated the Middle East is, this was something of a surprise. I thought perhaps they might be from a predominantly Christian area where separating the sexes might conceivably be less common. Research however reveals that that the troupe is run on an inclusive basis that does not discriminate on the basis of gender or creed. That sounds to me like it might be a relic of the progressive-nationalist-leftist era of yore, even if the centre was only founded in 2000; or maybe it is a harbinger of a bright new future.

The dabka performers gave us two sets, dancing in formation with a lot of foot stamping by the men. The dancing was folkish rather than like anything akin to ballet or modern abstract dance forms. It is the kind of thing you could imagine people spontaneously doing at social gatherings. You could realistically aspire to learning the steps and having a not completely embarrassing crack at this yourself, in a way that would be inconceivable for something like ballet or Butoh. The dancers seemed to boast a range of body shapes, though the flowing outfits worn were less figure hugging than those of western dance. The men's outfits were somewhat reminiscent of the cossack outfits you see in films; the influence here could go in either direction.

Some of the dance pieces seemed relatively apolitical, but others had an overt political charge. One the dramatisation of an unfortunate incident wherein a youth was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while playing football, his funeral then transformed into a piece of political theatre. The grand finale saw a lot of Irish and Palestinian flags being waved on stage. My consciousness was raised.

Here is a YouTube video of the troupe performing on Grafton Street:

More images (Lajee tour/Dublin, a set on Flickr by Fatin Al Tamimi

See also: Lajee Center