How it’s New York: The players were primarily tri-state performers, and the crowd were tri-state Trad fans.
How it’s Irish: This was a concert featuring the best in Irish traditional music in the tri-state area.
Tony DeMarco gave us all a gift the weekend of October 19&20. He dreamed up, organized, brought to life and put on the First Annual New York Trad Fest. With at least six different sessions throughout the city over the weekend, a Masters of Tradition lecture and panel discussion at the Glucksman Ireland House and a grand concert Saturday night at Connolly’s Pub in Times Square,
the festival was both a showcase and a celebration of the rich talent and vibrant dedication represented by musicians and dancers in New York.
By definition from Wikipedia, tradition is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. The Latin roots come from the verb tradere which means to transmit, to hand over, to give for safe keeping. It is obvious from this weekend that the tunes and steps that have been transmitted and handed over thus far are in good hands (and feet) and are in cherished safe-keeping.
The tunes and steps of traditional Irish music are kept alive by regular sessions, ceilis, lessons, concerts and festivals. Any given tune gets played, typically three times through in a set, session after session, repeated because people have heard them and love them enough to learn them and play. Then new people, whether they are adult beginners or the next generation of players, learn those same melodies, fall in love with them and keep them alive. But behind the tunes are the people and behind the people are their stories.
The Masters of Tradition lecture and panel discussion was a lovely opportunity to hear some unique and personal stories of masters past and present. Through names such as Mike Flanagan, Neil Nolan, Michael Coleman and James Morrison, Mick Moloney gave us hint about the characters who played the music before us. The rapt attention of the audience throughout the lecture and discussion shows how valuable and precious it is to all of us to hear the stories of our heroes. Brian Holleran shared his story of how he first got started on the whistle, and then flute, with an almost reverent recollection of his lessons with Mike Rafferty. He spoke of how “The Mighty Raff” taught him to be proudly Irish-American. Besides guiding him to learn tunes with precision, he helped him understand that he had to be his own man and his own musician; he had to come to terms with how
to play the traditional tunes he’d learned, with his own breath behind them. Dan Gurney shared that he first played jazz and Bach on his accordion, and that these were among the first pieces that he played, as a 6 year old, for an enthusiastic Fr. Charlie Coen. The first thing that Billy McComiskey taught Dan, when he met him as a young student at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in the 1990s, was to go learn and practice every scale possible on the accordion. The relaxed, no-pressure learning atmosphere that Dan says he grew up in has very obviously formed and shaped the way he plays his instrument today.
The lecture/panel discussion was rich in details that help fill in gaps in our understanding of the trad scene in New York, like just what music was already coursing through Tony DeMarco’s veins before he learned his first Irish tune from Paddy Reynolds, which inspired Tony’s concert line-up that included bluegrass and old-timey musicians he knew from way back in his formative fiddling years. This being New York, the trad scene, as well as people’s personal stories, are not 100% Irish. Siobhan Butler’s story echoed the now common thread of the non-direct path that most of the American musicians and dancers in this Irish tradition seem to have travelled to become the devoted masters they are. Rather than a direct family heritage path into the scene, Siobhan fell in love with Irish step dancing upon seeing Riverdance, and it was even a few years after that that she was able to find Irish step-dancing lessons where she lived in Florida.
Whether it’s a culturally common Irish-American appreciation and understanding of smuggling sausages and Weetabix home from Ireland, or, from the youngest participant in the New York Tradfest, my son, 9 year-old Bram’s personal story of growing up comfortable enough in Brian Conway’s house for fiddle lessons that he knows he’s always welcome to help himself to a bowl of cereal (though in this case, it’s Cheerios rather than Weetabix), it is the telling, hearing, sharing, and knowing of these stories that weave us together as a group with shared stories and traditions ~ as a family.
As a melting pot, New York has a celebratory attitude toward the unique and different heritage any given musician is bringing to the tradition.
To its beautiful credit, the Irish music scene welcomes, with open arms, anyone approaching with respect and diligence. Of course we all love to see and hear these masters perform… but it’s more than just the excellent music. It’s the people, their stories, their humor, and poignant memories that keep us connected and coming back for more. The one-up-Italianmanship banter between Tony DeMarco and Matty Mancuso is a fun bonus to their fabulous fiddling. It’s the casual joking on stage, the tid-bits of information, the funny little stories that, once we’ve been gifted the time and space to hear them, weave us together as a family that now shares
… a family that cares deeply for each tune and where it came from…
…a family drawn together by the love of tunes and steps learned with fervent exactness and fiery devotion…
…a family that cares strongly about passing on the stories and memories and tunes…
…a family that is keeping the tradition alive.
There is not one formula that equals ‘how’ to be a trad musician or dancer. What the New Yotk TradFfest illustrated, however, is an honoring of and a reverence for the special stories and unique path of each artist. The opportunity to hear, like so many children gathered ‘round a holiday table, Joanie Madden’s story of how, where and when she first saw and heard Tony DeMarco playing is a treasure in the tradition. As a parent, I have the perspective of realizing that even as we are hearing such stories, we are creating the stories of the next generation. And if we were to do this all again, and hear even the same stories told next year, wouldn’t that be the very essence of what tradition is all about? The New York Trad scene is alive and well and very worth celebrating. Thank you, Tony.
p.s. Incidentally, while researching the definition of tradition and the word trad, I came across the Urban Dictionary definition which names “trads” as an old Norse word expressing regret at the loss of another’s food…and for some reason the NY trad group, The Yanks, and their current kickstarter campaign for their new album came to mind… As in… Trads, Dylan, we ate all the hotdogs for the contest before you even arrived. Keep having fun, lads!