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The Isle of Avalon: when Irish dance is not quite what it seems

When I looked before starting to write, this clip of the Isle of Avalon Irish dance ensemble had attracted 2,969,130 views, which had risen to 2,969,283 by the time I finished a moment ago. It seemed fair to assume they would not be relying on Salut! Live to find 30,717 more clicks needed to pass three million.

I had remembered the clip, vibrant and blatantly suggestive, while reflecting on a French band, Irish Coffee, which I came across the other evening in the south of France. Their repertoire consisted of Irish, Scottish, cajun and acadian music (admittedly with a little from Brittany, too). Until the lead singer, Vincent Inchingol, began addressing the audience in what was clearly not a foreigner's attempt at French, I had assumed they were Irish.

Just as I had imagined Isle of Avalon to be Irish. Ploughing idly through the comments, I realised that a lot of people had made the same assumption. But they are from Slovakia and it is in their own language that their their website is presented.

I thought back to Paris and the senior diplomat from the Irish embassy who told me he had rarely heard the traditional music of his country played so well and so often as when he was posted to Prague. And it had been Czechs playing it.

Three nights after encountering Irish Coffee, I watched a pair of white Englishmen pounding out the blues.

There is, I suppose nothing new in people playing or dancing to music from a genre with which they have no true cultural or ethnic connection. The floor singers at folk clubs I ran in the North East of England 40 years ago had no direct experience of the Irish events they sang about any more than they had suffered with the descendants of slaves in the racially southern states of America.

It is perhaps no more than a compliment to the appeal of the music that others wish to copy it.

Would it not be something akin to cultural fascism to ordain that music and dance with roots in any given country, region or life experience should be performed only by those with first-hand acquaintance of their origins and influences?

Yet I am not sure I'd especially want a world in which culture had become utterly homogenised; it seemed disappointing but somehow right, when my Anglo-French daughters were small, that they were never made entirely welcome at Irish dancing classes, otherwise attended by the children of Irish parents, in Bristol.

There is something more satisfying about Irishmen and women, boys and girls, displaying the dance steps of their own country and culture, just as the authenticity of the American Folk Blues Festival was always preferable to the imitations produced by my contemporaries in County Durham.

There is no reason why the two should not co-exist, of course. The process is also reversible; the Dubliners, after all, were hardly averse to singing songs from industrial Britain (even if the lyrics had no obvious link with migrant Irish labour).

Musicians from the nationalist tradition of Ireland have cheerfully plundered the musical cultures of eastern Europe, the Far East and the Americas. Think Sharon Shannon, Andy Irvine and Frankie Gavin's De Dannan. Some, like the Fureys, have even produced cover versions of No Man's Land, Eric Bogle's compelling story of a British (OK, Scottish) squaddie's death in the First World War.

So maybe all's fair in love, war and music - just as long, when it comes to the music, as you can get an occasional fix of the real thing.


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