By Joe Fago
Sessions (often spelled seisún in Irish) are gatherings of musicians sharing the traditional rural dance music of Ireland. The term echoes the well-known “jam session” of jazz musicians, and it’s possible the Irish expression was borrowed from the other genre.
Some say that sessions developed in London in the 1950s, where ex-patriate Irish workers, finished with a grueling day of labor, congregated in pubs to play the traditional music of home. Others say they were merely continuing a practice long established in Ireland, where the public house often served as a central gathering place for the community.
Today, Irish sessions are a global phenomena, taking place in Europe, throughout North America, Australia, even Japan and South America.
Detroit is no exception. Through the years, Irish immigrants have enriched our city with their culture and music. They and their descendants are part of a vibrant music scene throughout Michigan.
At an Irish session you will most likely hear traditional instrumental dance music. The individual pieces are referred to as “tunes” as opposed to “songs” which implies lyrics. Although there is sometimes dancing, more often in a session the music is played for its own sake. Yet the types of tunes are determined by the original dances; thus, you will hear reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas etc.
The music is played on acoustic instruments, usually a mix of accordion, banjo, bouzouki, bodhrán, concertina, fiddle, flute, guitar, harmonica, harp, mandolin, uilleann pipes and whistle.
A session is not a performance, at least not in the sense most people mean. The musicians will usually sit in a circle and play tunes for mutual enjoyment. They are not a band presenting music to an audience. For the most part, the musicians are amateurs – although many have achieved a very high level of expertise.
A session participant is expected to know from memory and be able to play to speed the tunes that are played. Of course, no one can know and have complete mastery of all the tunes (by some estimates there are as many as 15,000 distinct tunes – and it’s growing every day as composers add to the tradition). There is a core repertoire of perhaps 50 – 100 tunes that are commonly played. Exactly which tunes are considered “core repertoire” varies from location to location, and from session to session.
There is a system of protocol in a session, and though some would have you believe it’s arcane and inscrutable, in reality it’s little more than common etiquette and good manners. For example, participants should not play along with tunes they don’t know. Free improvisation, as in jazz, is vehemently discouraged. Tunes from outside the tradition (i.e. from bluegrass or popular music) are generally not greatly appreciated. Conversely, playing too fast or playing nothing but obscure tunes, even Irish ones, is not well received, either. While the very idea of rules might seem constraining to those unfamiliar with the genre, their purpose is to facilitate a communal musical experience, to make it possible for complete strangers, with nothing in common but the tunes, to sit together over a few pints and play this beautiful, highly melodic music.
In actual practice, though, Detroit-area sessions are fairly laid-back affairs. There is a good mix of beginners to intermediate and advanced players, and everybody is usually pretty tolerant.
It’s been said that culture does not belong to a people, so much as a people belong to a culture. And so it is with a sense of devotion rather than ownership that we approach the traditional dance music of Ireland.
Tradition is a continuum. It consists of a past, a present, and – we most fervently believe – a future. We warmly invite you to be a part of it.
“Yet if one heart throb higher at its sway, The wizard note has not been touched in vain.”