Traditional Irish Tunes Keep D.C. Toes Tapping; Just Don't Ask the Band for 'The Unicorn Song'

Article excerpt


You know, there's an awful lot to be said for this Irish traditional folk music and folklore, because first of all you have to learn it, and first you must learn the Talk and then you must learn the Grip, and after that you must learn the Truckly-How, and then you have the whole lot, only just to keep on practicing it.

- Seamus Ennis (1919-1982), Irish uilleann piper and music collector

Stroll into the ceili at the Green Acres Community Center in Fairfax and the first thing that strikes you won't be the swirling couples, the youngsters crammed along the wall decorating cupcakes, or even the large banner emblazoned with the name "Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann" tacked up next to the American flag against the wall.

It will be the size of the band, a 10-person powerhouse of a creature that will race through jigs, reels, hornpipes and even a waltz or two before the night is through.

That's part of the reason why folks coming in to dance are grinning so broadly; they know what's coming, and it won't be "Toora Loora Loora."

Thanks to bands like the Bog Wanderers, traditional Irish music is alive and sometimes kicking in the Greater Washington area. From pub sessions where musicians can trade a tune or 10, to group lessons that will hone your skills with the Irish drum or uilleann pipes, to ceilis like this one where all you really have to do is dance, the "pure drop" of traditional jigs and reels can leave your toes tapping, your body swaying and your heart hoping for just one more.

Far from the bog

"We have the biggest ceili band in the area," says Marilyn Moore, who calls the dances at the Fairfax ceili.

Many would say it's also among the best, numbering among its ranks some veterans of the Irish music scene, including Jesse Winch (drums, bodhran, percussion, mandola, guitar and harmonica), Danny Flynn (accordion), Tabby Finch (piano, harp, hammered dulcimer) and Joe DeZarn (fiddle).

They take their name from a tongue-in-cheek reference to the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian guru who dispensed controversial wisdom from an Oregon commune in the 1980s, but the moniker conjures up visions of a music suppressed for centuries and denigrated as "bog music," the music of the illiterate, rural Irish poor.

Not that the dancers at the ceili (say "kay-lee") seem to care either way.

"We really feed off each other," says Kate Kane, a regular at the Saturday ceilis. "We'll get high on the music and the music will get high on the dancers."

Before the night is through, new friends will be made, fathers will dance with daughters, and the children will join in whenever they get the chance.

"It's one of the few things that you can take your kids to that's not a child-centered activity," says Mr. Winch's wife, Francesca, whose two children, ages 11 and 9, are somewhere in the hall. "That's a rare thing in our society."

The subtle distinctions

Just don't ask for one more "song," unless there's someone there getting ready to sing. These are "tunes," as any traditional musician will be quick to tell you.

"Songs always have words; tunes are played with instruments only," says ethnomusicologist Philippe Varlet, a French-born fiddler and master of several other instruments who arrived on the Washington music scene in 1977 and has built a reputation as an expert in the history, forms and styles of Irish traditional music.

"If you're playing a song, you have to think about the words, their poetry, and how they fit together. You can't just play anything."

Mr. Varlet, along with flutist Rob Greenway, hosts an Irish music session at Ri-Ra, the Irish pub in Bethesda. Music sessions are another way to get to know traditional Irish music, in a relaxed setting where musicians can check in or out of a particular tune at will. …