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Book Review: Turning the Tune

The book that is the subject of this review is titled “Turning the Tune: Traditional Music, Tourism, and Social Change in an Irish Village” by Adam R. Kaul. It was originally published in November 2009 by Berghahn Books. It is roughly 200 pages in length and falls in the niche of performance studies, under the wider genre of general anthropology. Dr. Adam Kaul is a socio-cultural anthropologist, and professor at Augustana College, who specializes in the social impacts of tourism. Stemming from this, the primary issue addressed by this book is the affect that a rapid increase in tourism has had on the social structure of Doolin, Co. Clare, but more specifically, how it has impacted the traditional Irish music scene which has been deeply ingrained in and associated with this area. Dr. Kaul conducts an in-depth examination of Doolin, taking into account its history, traditional and contemporary social structure, and cultural roots. In establishing its progression from the 19th century through to recent times, Kaul eventually delivers his argument that Doolin acts as a microcosm of Ireland’s progression from poverty to prosperity and the impact this has had on its economy, culture, and social structure.
The broad goal of this book is to tell the story of Doolin as it navigated its way from its humble beginnings, through the great depression, the Irish musical revival, the Celtic tiger, all the way up to the present day. Kaul uses this linear route through the recent history of Doolin as a general theme through most of the book, however he often deviates from this path to in order to go in depth regarding the more important factors that molded the period he is addressing. In the first few pages of the book, the scene is very quickly set to tell the story of Doolin. Doolin is described to the reader as a rural Irish town with under 600 permanent residents whose economy relies almost entirely on tourism. From this initial description, Kaul soon takes a large leap back into the 19th and early 20th century to provide the necessary historical context. He discusses the minor role that tourism played in the area during this time along with the daily lives of those who lived in the region. The céilí scene of the area in discussed in depth and provides a point of comparison for the ways in which cultural gatherings evolve as Doolin begins to prosper. Having provided a brief history, Kaul then identifies the 1950’s as an important point in Doolin’s development. The Irish music culture as a whole was declining due to a combination of factors such as economic hardship, emigration, and the popularity of new types of music. However, during this period, Co. Clare remained as a pocket of strength for the Irish music scene. As a result of the perseverance of traditional Irish music in the region, when the revival movement rose to prominence in the 1960’s, Doolin found itself becoming a key destination for those wishing to learn about and participate in the Irish music tradition. Kaul goes into depth about the type of tourist that this movement attracted – often described as hippies – and the impact that this influx of visitors had on the local economy and culture. By the early 1980’s, the revival is viewed to have ended. However, at this point Doolin had already emerged as a thriving tourist hotspot for those seeking to be immersed in the traditional Irish culture. On the back of the rapid economic growth of the 1990’s, Doolin began growing again, at a more rapid pace than even before. Due to this, Kaul explains, the local tourism industry began to be appropriated by corporate developers. The specialized music tourism that Doolin had experienced had morphed into what Kaul terms “mass tourism,” with a greater emphasis being placed on the landscape of the area. The influx of this new type of tourist brought its own challenges. Due to this mass tourism, Doolin became increasingly commercialized, leading to increased tension between upholding the authenticity of the community and the desire to continue economic growth. Divisions between those whose families had been living in the area for generations and those who had arrived relatively recently became more pronounced as Doolin began to become more significant. This superfluous differentiation between the different ranks of residents is addressed thoroughly in a manner demonstrating the strains that such an influx of both tourists and new residents can have on a society in addition to the resistance that many of the locals had to this change. Once Kaul finishes depicting the journey of Doolin through to the modern day, the book revisits and reflects upon the themes visible throughout the book, eventually drawing on these themes to support Kaul’s various arguments. The most significant of these arguments is that the movement that Doolin has made from initial poverty to eventual prosperity is comparable to Ireland’s development from a relatively poor nation to one of the more prosperous and significant countries within Europe. Thus, from this comparison, we can project our understanding of the impact tourism had on the social structure, economy, and expressive culture in Doolin, and scale it so as to better understand and foresee the impacts that increased participation in the global community has had and will have on Ireland as a whole.
In general, this book is very quick to capture the attention of the reader. It immediately stands out through the unique way in which addresses the community as a collection of interacting individuals as opposed to as one single unit. Characters quickly emerge to tell their stories and opinions in a way which adds a sense of storytelling to an otherwise potentially mundane topic. The distinctive nature in which Dr. Kaul writes becomes apparent almost immediately. His style of writing is most distinguishable in how it fluctuates back and forth from an informal prose, narrating the story of a rural Irish town, to the formal analytical writing expected of an academic. It is the contrast that results from this structure that allows for the author maintain the attention of his readers. Furthermore, this contrast can be seen in the sources that Kaul provides in supporting his arguments, relying both on prior academic sources sources alongside firsthand accounts gathered directly in the area. Thus, the most significant achievement of Kaul is his successful depiction of life in Doolin in a way that endears the town to the reader while still maintaining the argumentative nature of an academic work.
Although this book is successful in many regards, these successes are often at the risk clarity and consistency, the primary issues that readers may face in this novel. While the larger argument that Kaul is making is hinted at through smaller arguments throughout the book, it is not until the final two chapters that Kaul states and supports his argument in an outright and concise manner. With no clear argument being stated at the outset, there are parts of the book which become difficult to tie together, and thus do not support Kaul’s argument efficiently. Furthermore, Kaul states his intention at the outset of the book to divide it into two parts addressing how traditional Irish music changed in the latter half of the twentieth century as a result of its revival and the symbiotic relationship that developed between music performances and tourism in Doolin. While both of these topics are undoubtedly addressed to a degree throughout the book, there is significant overlap between them due to the major role that tourism within Ireland played in the revival. Thus, it seems like an unnecessary division which served mostly to damage the fluency of the book. Despite these minor complaints, this book is undoubtedly a very accessible and enjoyable resource for those wishing to learn more about the Irish music community
            Ultimately, this book is rewarding for all readers, no matter their knowledge of Irish culture. Unlike many other books on the topic, it requires very little (if any) knowledge or understanding of Irish culture from the reader, thus making it accessible to a wide audience. The manner in which this book is written allows for its readers to develop a very personal connection with the community of Doolin and provides a unique understanding of the manner in which tourism and culture impact the lives of individuals as opposed to solely their economic impacts. Conclusively, this book would be suitable for a wide variety of readers and would provide them with a more colorful depiction of Irish culture than many of the other contemporary works on the topic. 

Nicholas Harding Bradley
Turning the Tune Book Cover


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