Thursday 26 April 2018

Working it out... Forget Bali - no need to leave Kilkenny

Karen Fitzpatrick and Micha Kat, a tourist from The Netherlands, celebrate Kilkenny's Medieval Week (April 17-26). Photo: Dylan Vaughan/
Karen Fitzpatrick and Micha Kat, a tourist from The Netherlands, celebrate Kilkenny's Medieval Week (April 17-26). Photo: Dylan Vaughan/

John Masterson

Some years ago, I was returning from a stint of work in Australia and I was convinced by a colleague to stop off in Bali. This was going to be as close to paradise as I was ever likely to be, they insisted. I took their advice and headed off, solo, to the very hotels that they prescribed as ideal for me. They were right. I had a wonderful week. I keep on saying I will go back but never have. Thankfully, they insisted at the time, or I would have missed that magic part of the world altogether.

One of the things I remember about that trip was sitting in the shade by the pool reading a book and listening to the sound of the gamelan. This instrument is a bit like a xylophone and the players would sit by the beach banging it with a mallet. It is a percussive instrument and makes a pleasant hypnotic rhythmic sound that doesn't sound much like anything we are used to in this part of the world. I grew to like it and, as one does on holidays, bought a few CDs. I came home, and as one does with things acquired in far off places, never played them once.

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Mel Mercier who, as well as being an accomplished musician, is an academic of repute in University College Cork. I simply could not believe my ears when he told me that he had what sounded like an orchestra of gamelans with his students. And, what's more, this Cork Gamelan Ensemble, was coming to Kilkenny to play in St Canice's Cathedral as part of the Arts Festival. Always up for something that sounds a bit different, and lacking the funds to go to Indonesia, I decided to go.

I am a collector of CDs but every now and again there is a night of music that was not recorded, will never be repeated, and you just have to be there. This was one of those nights.

About 20 UCC students took their places at the many gamelans on the stage and sat cross legged on the floor with their hammers poised. They were joined by fiddle player Martin Hayes. He left and the students swapped places with each other and we were treated to Duke Special. Then Iarla O'Lionaird. Fiona Shaw read, well no, performed, a Yeats poem with the ensemble in full flight. Colin Dunne danced. Julie Feeney sang. Kate Ellis played the Cello. Then Nick Roth played the clarinet. All to the rhythmic tuneful backing of the collection of gamelans. The Brooklyn Rider Almanac took the roof off the place. And then it went double local with the Kilkenny Unity Singers and the West Cork Ukulele Orchestra.

My thoughts drifted back to that pool in Bali. Mel's instruments are Javanese but that didn't make a lot of difference to me. Perhaps he sat by the pool and heard the same background percussion as I had. Thankfully he was able to use his muscial imagination to take it to places I could never have dreamed of. But I was very happy to be able to listen live that once-off night.

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