It was certainly a tale of two countries over this past weekend as the Culture Ireland task force hit the ground running for their second year of participation at the largest gathering of arts presenters in the world in New York City. Again traditional musicians played a major role in their contingent of almost 80 people in the theater, dance and music world coming over to strategically display their wares in the Big Apple at the 52nd annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) Conference at the New York Hilton held over the weekend. The gathering is said to attract 4,000 people from all 50 states and 25 countries that are seriously involved in the business of promoting and delivering the arts through the U.S. and beyond. While it has much in common with the craic and haggling of a market day in any old Irish town, the professionalism and polish exhibited by many of the nine traditional groups at play at APAP still leads to the quandary that permeated the conference and its theme of "Conscious Connections" of promoting the arts in an economic meltdown. For the Irish performing bands or individual musicians, it comes down to how to find work over here at a time when back at home they keep turning out more musicians than can profitably work at it anyway. And they must do so when the appetite and venues for Celtic folk music in the U.S. are less than robust. Observing the sophistication and optimism of most of the performers I saw and chatted with, they are well equipped to keep Irish music buzzing around any size performance space if the right deals and collaborative projects like this weekend yield enough fruit to pay the piper and the singer and host of other performers floating about. One such collaboration that proved a viable initiative at least in providing a logical plan for presenting much of the trad talent was the two night " Best of Irish: Culture Ireland Showcase of Traditional Irish Music" on Sunday and Monday evenings at the Irish Arts Center. Five varied acts were liberated from presenting in the sterile (but very efficient) function rooms of the Hilton Hotel. That allowed for more focus on the Irish acts assembled and curated into a performance block by Paul Flynn, the traditional arts officer employed by the Arts Council of Ireland at the invitation of Culture Ireland. Making fertile use of 25 minute blocks, each group was afforded enough time to convey to the diverse audience the essence of their material and presentation skills. Swapping places as openers and closers on successive nights were the up-tempo and energized offerings of Slide (Daire Bracken, Eamonn de Barra, Mick Broderick and Aogan Lynch) and Guidewires (Karol Lynch, Tola Custy, Padraig Rynne, Paul McSherry and Sylvain Barou) which helped to ensure the electricity from start to finish in the Donaghy Theater at the center. Slide has been in operation long enough to produce three CDs and multiple U.S. tours already, while Guidewires was testing the waters this time out. Leitrim singer Mary McPartlan, now a soul sister with Dublin singer Susan McKeown based in New York with whom she shared a Philadelphia gig over the weekend, provided songs in an historical time frame, ably accompanied by vocalists Mary Staunton (also on box) and Bernie O'Mahony, who traveled over with her and Aidan Brennan on guitar and Brendan Dolan on keyboards. McPartlan spent many years in Galway working behind the cultural screen promoting other artists before moving in front of the mike as part of her own recording career. An intriguing and imaginative fiddlers three named Fidil comprised three natives from Donegal. Ciaran O Maonaigh, Aidan O'Donnell and Damien McGeehan have exceptional resumes on their own but were inspired to go beyond the double-fiddling that has been a fascinating aspect of Donegal music over the years, most prominently by Altan's Mairead ni Maonaigh and Ciaran Tourish of Altan (who also presented on their own night at the IAC on Saturday). Like much of the visiting delegation of musicians, they represent the full flower of Irish youth not only in their talent but in their commitment to respecting the musical tradition in which they were reared while giving it full expression for today's audiences. Most unique on the night was a multimedia presentation that was both spare in form and filled with imagery that linked poetry inspired by the tunes and the people who make it. Called The Frost Is All Over, it was conceived by Tony McMahon, the veteran RTE producer and box player from Clare, and partnered with piper David Power from Waterford to the words of poet Dermot Bolger delivered by actor Eamonn Hunt on this occasion. Against the black and white backdrop of photos from the Irish traditional music archive, the poet's touch and the haunting melodies on the pipes and accordion drew you to the well of traditional music, that pure drop that nourishes the heart and soul. The weekend collaboration between CULTURE IRELAND and the Irish Arts Center was well conceived and executed, and gentrified the awkward aspect of presenting arts for hire that is the very underpinning of the weekend conference. While some may relegate the arts to a low priority in the depressing economy challenging us from all sides, it is helpful to remember that it elevates our common humanity and provides valuable entertainment and diversion that keeps our spirits up. For generations traditional Irish music has provided that sustenance and got people through tougher times than these, and from this past weekend hope among the artists was in abundance and surely it wouldn't hurt to rub some of that off on the rest of us. Trust me, it's a lot easier to be an audience than a performer so go grab yourself a seat. One of the local New York musicians, native Dublin piper Ivan Goff, also participated in APAP as part of Tony DeMarco's Sligo Indians set at the Hilton Hotel before the pair went down to the popular East Village Sunday session at the 11th Street Bar where they were joined by a number of visiting musicians anxious to recover from conference cabin fever. Goff, who is one of Riverdance's contributions to New York, is currently pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at NYU, which will also be the scene of his upcoming uilleann piping concert as part of the Blarney Star Concert Series at Glucksman Ireland House on Friday, January 16 at 9 p.m. Joining him in this dual recital is Yonkers native Jerry O'Sullivan. Visit www.blarneystar.com or call 212-998-3950.
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