Aidan O’Rourke: “Edinburgh is at a turning point”
The EIF concert series hosted by fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke brings together notable Scottish and Irish folk musicians, but also reflects broader issues. Taking their title, “A Great Disordered Heart,” from Robert Louis Stevenson’s vivid evocation of the Edinburgh Cowgate in his Picturesque Notes, the concerts – and an associated film in progress – not only reflect the similarities and differences between the traditional music from both cultures. but also a musician’s place within the community, as the Cowgate, where O’Rourke lives, catches its breath after the tourist-free lockdown break.
O’Rourke wonders if this Cowgate “big messy heart” isn’t threatened by another kind of mess with the return of the tourist hordes. When the confinement began in March of last year, recalls the violinist, it was the first time that he really began to know his neighbors, even though he had lived there for ten years: “I never had spent time with them because, a, my life was crazy and, b, there was a tourist haze in that part of town. Our backyard is half Airbnbs or short term rentals, and that sort of hubbub seemed to stifle any possibility for a community to interact.
Talking with (and playing for) his neighbors, instead of rushing from festival to festival, gave O’Rourke a glimpse of this Old Town community – the once heart of Edinburgh’s “Little Ireland”. particularly through his conversations with the 81- year-old women he calls “the three Margaret”.
Partly Irish in origin, O’Rourke was intrigued by the ancient strength of the community, founded on centuries of immigration. “Irish was the key to everything, but it was also inclusive; there were Poles, Italians, Jews, but everyone knew each other. There were pubs that were once the key to the community, but now they are oyster bars.
A Great Disordered Heart is a concert trio – Shared Melodies, starring O’Rourke with young skye flute player Brighde Chaimbeul and accordion wizard of Kerry Cormac Begley; Shared Songs, with former Hothouse Flowers vocalist Liam Ó Maonlaí, Scottish Gaelic piper Allan Macdonald, Gaelic vocal trio Sian, Connemara singer sean nós Róisín Chambers and American folk star Sam Amidon; while the conclusion of Shared Futures features O’Rourke’s powerful trio, Lau.
“It’s about sharing ideas between Irish and Scottish musicians,” he explains, “really getting into the material, celebrating the connections, the nuances and the differences. “
O’Rourke’s stopping touring and his immersion in the community, he believes, may even have affected the way he plays. He’s speaking to me from Prague, where he had just made his first appearance in a festival live from confinement. “Over the past year and a half, I have felt equally fulfilled playing this social role in my community. Saturday was my first professional concert after confinement and I felt I was performing differently. It was much more a question of interaction, of intimacy between the musicians and the audience.
In the meantime, he and director Mark Cousins are working on a film in association with A Great Disordered Heart, which will feature involved musicians but also highlight what O’Rourke describes as “several Edinburghs”. He sees the old town as having two distinct rhythms – one that of a deep-rooted community, “the other a rhythm of Airbnb-ers, bus tours and cashmere scarf buyers.”
Lockdown saw this shift in balance. “Edinburgh, it seems to me, is at a turning point,” he said, speaking from a Prague which, until lockdown, had become notoriously ravaged by tourism. “The center of Prague has become this tourist Disneyworld and Edinburgh is moving towards that. So do we go back to an old town where there is no sense of community or do we keep what we have now? “