Roots in Tune – Peter Smyth on a diverse musical initiative

Belgian fiddle player and composer promote intercultural connections in a parish hall in Roundwood

Summer schools are a renowned facet of the Irish holiday season, but there’s no reason for them to be stuck in a summertime slot – that seems to be the attitude of one group of musical innovators.

With directors from Belgium, Italy, Spain, England, Portugal and indeed Ireland, Roots in Tune is a newly created not-for-profit body set up to “promote intercultural connections within Ireland”, part of which involves inviting artists from their home countries to Ireland to create co-operative projects.

The first of these, titled The Invites, involved Belgian board member, fiddle player Els Lemahieu, inviting compatriot composer Wouter Vandenabeele to her adoptive home of Roundwood, Co Wicklow, for six days of workshops in the parish hall – an Easter school you could call it, starting right after that festival.

Lemahieu’s father, Ivo, a teacher, had done the same years before in Belgium with Ethno, an international intercultural organisation. That group asked her to consider a branch in Ireland, and Roots in Tune is the first step. Vandenabeele had been involved in an earlier project Lemahieu attended in Belgium. His other workshops abroad include trips to Ramallah in the West Bank, to Sicily and, repeatedly, to Senegal.


This initial Roundwood outing, which was kept to a very reasonable price, saw 20 musicians sign up – mostly Belgians due to their familiarity with Vandenabeele – with the intriguing notion that only three would be native Irish. Your diarist took one of these slots, with his double bass in tow. Said Lemahieu: “If I knew we would have 20, I could probably have booked a community house where people can stay, cook and practise together, to be more together for that week.”

Another key factor behind Roots in Tune has been the Balfolk Ensemble, a collective of musicians in Dublin harking after folk-dance tunes from innumerable cultures, several of whose members also attended in Roundwood.

Vandenabeele got down to business right away at the parish hall, commanding his charges to learn by playing repeated short phrases by ear on their fiddles, guitars, oboes and other instruments, with these phrases gradually filling out into full motifs. This correspondent, used to playing with a free style, found the process very tough, having to play notes exactly as prescribed, with the bow and sometimes without, and having no other bass player to try to hide behind. Belgian cellist Els De Bondt, with a classical music background and sitting alongside, proved very helpful.

Vandenabeele decided what songs we would learn – Bracno Oro (Albanian dance), La Nonchalante (French mazurka), Balkanpolska and waltz set (Sweden & England), Neu Pneu and Around the Corner (Schottische), and two Bourrées (France). Could he say why he chose these? “I heard there was some Balfolk influence, I tried to find tunes with that background that are a bit challenging, and also where I could explain elements such as swing and groove. And I really had to find tunes that I was sure nobody knows!”

After a windblown detour to the Panceltic Festival in Carlow amid Storm Kathleen, the six-day project wrapped up with a free concert

Outside of this writer’s efforts on bass, the standard of musicianship was phenomenal, so good that it could perhaps be professional. And so it proved – oboist Nele Vertommen (24), from Leuven, specialises in playing Charpentier, Telemann and Geminiani with her Baroque ensemble Musica Gloria, while Anne Willem (28), another oboist, from Liege, plays with German orchestra Stegreif. What were they here to learn?

Said Vertommen: “I’ve always loved folk music, I think there is also a strong link to Baroque music. In past times, people were not big travellers, so it’s all very rooted music. Also the ornamentation is super interesting, and finding a groove in a dance is something you don’t really learn in classical music.” Said Willem: “I am looking for a way to have more fun playing the oboe because it’s all so serious, and to translate that because I also teach children, and when I perform, to have more freedom in my playing.”

A day is given over to unique teachings by Irish contributors Joe McKenna (uilleann pipes and button accordion), Rónán Ó Snodaigh of Kila (percussion and singing as Gaeilge) and Bríd Harper (fiddle).

After a windblown detour to the Panceltic Festival in Carlow amid Storm Kathleen, the six-day project wrapped up with a free concert. Possibly the quickest pickup by this predominantly Belgian ensemble was an Irish music set saved until last, taught by Harper and McKenna – the Wicklow Hornpipe (aka Sonny Murray’s) followed by Mrs Crowley’s Polkas. A fitting send-off, if the response of almost 100 attentive listeners was anything to go by.