Originally published in the Irish Echo, October 3-9, 2012, p. 19.
Last week I had the great good fortune to chat with Sean Cleland, the founder and director of the Irish Music School of Chicago. One of the great Irish music education centers in the United States, the Irish Music School of Chicago not only teaches traditional tunes (by ear!), but teaches their history as part of an all-around approach that stresses an appreciation for not only the music, but for the people that play it and the community that supports it.
In building the school, Cleland drew upon his own experience as a student. Raised on Chicago’s North side, he got into trad in the 1970s when he was nine, exposed not only to the likes of the old heads such as Kevin Henry, Jimmy Coyle, the Cooleys, Joe Shannon and Johnny McGreevey (to name but a few), but to young superstars like Liz Carroll, Jimmy Keane and Michael Flatley as well. A dedicated student, Cleland competed in fleadhanna both in the US and in Ireland and soon became an in-demand musician, both at sessions and feiseanna.
As he developed a feel for the music, he played in several noted bands. In 1982, he co-founded the Band Baal Tinne with Noel Rice. In 1987, he formed the folk-rock band The Drovers, one of that genre’s most successful acts. Then in 2000, he co-founded the champion band bohola with Jimmy Keane, and with them recorded four outstanding albums.
Cleland founded the Irish Music School of Chicago in 2003, putting his sterling reputation both as a performer and as a teacher to good use. He explained that what he’s trying to do “is teach people how to participate in the life of the music. We teach kids and adults – on tons of different instruments – the standard tunes, but with a Chicago twist. But many of the first group of tunes we teach the young students have names like Kevin Henry’s on them, so they can begin to understand how things connect in this music.”
One of the things Cleland does is bring established musicians to the school to teach and spend time with its students. In the past two years, for example, he’s brought Brendan and Seamus Begley, Oisín Mac Diarmada, Téada, Caitlin Nic Gabhann, Stephen Doherty, Pat Doocey, Padraig McGovern, Sabina McCague, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Danny O’Mahony & the Shannonvale Ceili Band and Grainne Hambly, to name a few.
His efforts (and those of his teaching staff, all of whom are fantastic players) seem to be paying off – his students (of which he is rightly proud) compete in the fleadhs, get out to the sessions and are doing their part in keeping traditional music in Chicago not only alive, but thriving. To learn more about the school or to inquire into it class offerings, visit www.irishmusicschool.com.
In other news, I’ve been listening to fiddle player Karen Ryan’s recent release “The Coast Road” (featuring piano player Pete Quinn) all week and think it’s just marvelous. Ryan, who comes out of the London style of playing, has put out an album of straightforward, unpretentious instrumental trad music (save for a single song, featuring Nancy McEvaddy) played with joy and verve.
Ryan is a member of the renown group the London Lassies and on this album she features mostly on the fiddle (save one track each on the banjo and whistle), and is joined variously by a selection of supportive musicians, including Conor Doherty (guitar), Gary Connolly (accordion), Elaine Conwell &Teresa Connnolly (fiddles) and Coleman Connolly (uilleann pipes).
Each of the album’s tunes bounces along with lovely lift. Jigs tracks like “Dr. O’Neill’s / …” and “Kiss the Bride / …” are elegantly delivered, while reels like the “Swallow’s Tail / …” and the “Galway Reel / …” have great drive. Her expression in the air, “Sliabh Geal gCua” (which she picked up from Seamus Begley) is fantastic and one of the album’s many highlights.
“The Coast Road” is an album for anyone who loves listening to a nice, old tune. Packaged with a lovely illustrated booklet with liner notes in Irish and English, it’s one to have. For more info, visit www.karenryan.net.
By the way, I caught the fabulous Karan Casey at Joe’s Pub last Tuesday. She was there with Niall and Cillian Vallely (concertina and uilleann pipes, respectively) and Alan Murray on guitar (who was spectacular, despite never before playing in the group). In addition to some of her hits, she performed several original songs for an album she is currently funding through Kickstarter. It’s an exciting project, and I hope she reaches her goal – to learn more or to pledge, search for Karan on www.kickstarter.com.
Finally, best of luck to Doyle Jeter and the Northeast Louisiana Celtic Fest! It’s on October 6 in West Monroe Louisiana. I met Jeter (who runs Enoch’s Irish Pub & Café) at CelticFest in Mississippi and learned about his work there – it’s fascinating stuff. For info on the festival and on who is performing, visit www.nelacelticfest.org.