"Performance studies" are on the rise in anthropology these days. About time too, most would say. Many anthropologists have long concentrated on elucidating local rules and their regulation, and have skipped around performative dimensions of people's practice. The trouble is that performance is not easy to research well; it is all too tempting to produce a supposed "analysis" that is an exercise in almost meaningless abstractions. Trying to verbalise the non-verbal then results in the non-readable, or edges towards the vacuous. Here, getting the language and context right is key.
This is what makes this unpretentious but convincing ethnography so welcome. Because what Adam Kaul wants to examine is the generation of "craic", a term used by contemporary Irish speakers of English to describe that fleeting moment in festive occasions when identities dissolve and tensions relax, as participants let the celebration carry them collectively away. His focus is Doolin, a village in County Clare. Thanks to the dedication of a handful of local musicians, it has become a world centre of what is referred to as traditional Irish music. Fiddlers, flautists, drummers and guitarists come from afar to hear and learn the tunes and the local style, hoping for a little craic.
Sensibly, Kaul lets ethnography form the core of his book. Almost all the theory that is involved arises from his ethnographic analysis, not vice versa. He let locals comment on his manuscript and provides generous quotes from his fieldwork interviews. He wants, to an illuminating extent, to portray the terms and rhythms of local language. This has to be the first ethnography I've read where the many pauses in talk are almost as significant as the words.
He is wary of overgeneralising, instead concentrating on individual lives and particular contexts. He doesn't like "the global" - too vague and too taken up with laying boundaries - but prefers Pnina Werbner's "vernacular cosmopolitanism", connoting fluid spaces where the local, the rooted and the customary can coexist with the transnational, the transcendent and modernity. What he underlines is the way a musical style, branded as traditional yet always evolving, brings otherwise disparate people together in a manner that undercuts the otherwise domineering geographies of imperial hegemonies. Tired worries about the nature of authenticity give place to concerns about credibility - a much more workable concept. The outcome? A performative account of craic that both academics and the locals of Doolin can readily believe in.
I have my quibbles: I'm sure my father, a good Clareman, would have asked: "But what about class? When I was a lad, the well-to-do wouldn't have dreamt of fiddling in a bar." Many anthropologists of Europe can be cagey about discussing class, as though it is meant to no longer exist. Yet recent work in Ireland, for instance, shows that it hasn't gone away, just transformed.
When I did fieldwork on the Clare "blow-ins" (expatriate incomers, including musicians), they emphasised that there were three different waves: the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s, the hardened crusties of the 1980s, and the rural suburbanites of later decades. Kaul does not differentiate between blow-in musicians, no matter when they turned up: perhaps the attractions of the craic are so strong that homeland differences are deliberately forgotten.
And what of gender? There appear to be no women interested in picking up a fiddle or banging a drum. In this sense, Irish sexism is still as alive as ever.
Turning the Tune: Traditional Music, Tourism, and Social Change in an Irish Village
By Adam R. Kaul
Berghahn, 200pp, £47.00
Published 14 December 2009