Friday, September 14, 2012

The Prickly Problem of the Session

There's nothing so divisive among folk musicians and singers as "the session". I remember a time when a session, whether it was late at night at a festival or a Sunday arvo in a pub, was an all-in kind of affair with songs and tunes and plenty banter, harmonies and guitars. The more modern trend to separate the "sing-around" from a hard-core tune session has seemed inexplicable to some and a complete necessity to others. In my observation this has developed commensurate with the increased uptake of repertoire-specific instruments like the uilleann (Irish) pipes or the open-backed banjo. Not only is the apartheid of singing in evidence, but also a further refinement into Scottish, Irish, English and American tune sessions is also occurring. Indeed, most listed "open" sessions come complete with their modifiers which might include level of expertise, banned instruments, protocols for joining in, who gets free beer, number of bodhrans permitted, unsuitable tunes and more.

Sometimes, of course, this is all left to chance. In these instances, it is not uncommon for one or two dominant players to either kill a session or build it into a tour-de-force. I know because I have done both in my time.

My travels in Ireland, Scotland and Europe have revealed a different approach to the session in many bars. One or two key musicians (usually singer-guitarists) are paid, either with money or free beer, to "make" a session. They sit at a table, invite a few friends and play songs and tunes to seed the session. There may well be a few of these in New Zealand too, but I've not found them. There's always something faux about these sessions, but the singing is often good and occasionally there is a standout musician. It's also a place where visiting musicians can engage - which may, in turn, lead to an invitation to the secret session of the old hands elsewhere in the village. If not, it's best just to assume there isn't one.

There a list of open session in New Zealand here.

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