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Cultural Biodiversity: finding a sense of place

This article was written by Brendyn Montgomery in 2004 for the quarterly Flute Focus magazine (now an online publication) and is reproduced here with the permission of Flute Focus and Brendyn Montgomery.

Cultural Biodiversity: finding a sense of place

I sometimes wonder what led me to this place. I am an Irish flute player with a BSc in Zoology and an M.A. in traditional Irish music performance (1st class honours) and I have lived in Ireland. Yet I am a New Zealander. Brendyn MontgomeryI was born here, my parents were born here, and in fact, five generations of my relatives proceed me in this land…

My music does not come directly from my extended family as a neatly handed-down package as it so often does in Ireland. Irish has such a strong oral tradition in its homeland, where people live and breathe the music everyday. I live in a country where the society has evolved hugely from the societies that my ancestors left. The demise of the family unit and the freedom to choose your own path that has been slower to change in Ireland and Scotland, the countries of my ancestry. I am not against this change by any means; it simply means that many of the threads of the oral tradition have been broken.

Yet I am certain that the immigrants brought their music with them. My mother’s mother talks of how they played for dances from an early age, tunes that were handed down from the wider family. But that was lost as the family moved away to different parts of the country. I was bought up with both recorded and live music and was dragged to folk festivals from the age of six weeks. It is something I have grown to appreciate with time. This was not family music, but folk music of the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by technology and recordings from other parts of the world.

Before I went to Ireland I clung to that misguided belief, known in many people who have not yet travelled, that I was Irish, born in New Zealand. In Ireland I found I was definitely a New Zealander with Irish roots and the difference rocked me. When I was there I longed to come home and now that I am home, I miss Ireland. The music here changes with the land it is played in. My temperament is different to the Irish, more laid back, I drink far less alcohol. All this reflects in the music I play, and how I play it.

Playing Irish music in New Zealand is like living in a time warp, a step back into the past and an older more relaxed way of doing things. Irish music in New Zealand lacks the commercial following of modern genres, the ‘grandeur and subtly’ of classical music or the ‘coolness’ of jazz in peoples eyes. So I do it for the love of it and try to pass on the love of it to others. I impress the virtues of an oral tradition in this day of electronic convenience. I try and bring it past its colonial stigma and brand it as an acceptable and understandable part of New Zealand. Most importantly I try to share this newly found awareness and sense of place with other musicians and potential players.

While attending Kei Ko Na Ha Me te Wairua (there be the breath with the spirit) as a teacher, a hui (meeting) on Scots and Maori musical traditions, I was stuck by the opportunities for integration and understanding such a meeting generated. I was able to learn a great deal about Maori musical traditions while at the same time share mine, both equally important parts of New Zealand’s story. The presence of Dr. Alexa Still and Richard Nunns ensured the high calibre of the material being shared. I was struck by the similarities in the nature of the teaching and the strength of the oral traditionwithin Maoridom. I decided that it was possible for this means of transmission to survive in a modern era. I am happy to say that this opportunity will be repeated next year in Rotorua in late March, from the 20th until the 28th. This year will include a focus on Native American flute traditions and classical players also. I would thoroughly recommend the experience.

Currently in New Zealand, Irish traditional music is loosely associated with the ‘folk’ scene. It is however its ‘own man’, as it were, and in Ireland a very clear distinction is made between the two. It is not a quaint, older idiom that harks back to yesteryear, it has become (in Ireland anyway) a sophisticated listening music enjoyed by all sectors of the population.

So where do I fit in? Traditional Irish music has a place in New Zealand and is growing slowly. Contemporary Irish music has a proven appeal on the world stage and also in New Zealand. I once believed that uncompromising traditional music was the only way forward. I am more thoughtful these days and listen to what New Zealand has to say…


For more information or to contact Brendyn Montgomery, kindly visit Brendyn’s website.

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