How it’s New York: The Irish Arts Center and Symphony Space are located in Manhattan
How it’s Irish: The concert features music and performers from Ireland
Last Friday, the Irish Arts Center and Symphony Space welcomed the changing seasons with the program Winter Solstice: Ireland Meets Veracruz. It was a spirited night of music, dance, storytelling and more that celebrated Irish and Mexican cultures. The idea for the musical union came about at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day feté in the Irish Embassy to Mexico when musicians from The Green Fields of America created a cultural exchange with representatives of the Mexican tradition of Son Jaroco, a musical genre born in the migrant communities.
The solstice event was hosted by Mick Moloney, who founded the Green Fields 40 years ago. He was joined by Athena Tergis, The Green Fields (Brendan Dolan, Liz Hanley, Billy McComiskey, Niall O’Leary and John Roberts) and Guadalupe Peraza, Zenen Zeferino and Victor Murillo, with members of Radio Jarocho (Julia Del Palacio and Carlos Cuestas). Ambassador Barbara Jones, Ireland’s Ambassador to Mexico, made a special appearance. The ambassador was part of the undertaking that brought the musicians together for the concert.
For those wondering what the connection is between the two countries, there’s a history that goes back to the 19th century. The contemporary partnership is grounded in the Mexican-American War, when a group of mostly Irish immigrants, led by John Riley, left the lines of the US Army they’d been fighting for because of their belief that the cause was unjust. They joined up with Mexico and its fight against the Americans, forming the San Patricio Battalion. The men were seen as deserters and 50 of them were ultimately hanged or shot. Riley had a “D” for deserter seared into his face and later died in Veracruz. Not only do children learn about the battalion in school, but St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Mexico and the post office put out a stamp that honoured the San Patricios.
Many of the Irish and English songs – “The Holly and the Ivy” and “The Carol of the Birds” touched on nature. “The Wren Song” is about the tradition in the southern part of Ireand of hunting for wren, known as “The King of All Birds” on St. Stephen’s Day. As Moloney explained in the program note, “I was among the last generation of children in my part of County Limerick to ‘go out on the wren’ , singing for money at the front doors of neighbours’ houses.” A song from the 21st century – “The Halsway Carol” – was written specifically for the Winter Solstice by Nigel Eaton and later poet Iain Frisk provided words meant to get people to “dance in the shadows of the longest night.” And speaking of dancing, the footwork from Niall O’Leary was brilliant! He’s a former All-Ireland and World Champion dancer who no less than Michael Flatley called “the greatest ever Irish dancer.”
From Veracruz came “La Manta” (The Quilt), which featured zapateado, traditional dancing, performed by the dazzling Guadalupe Peraza. She wore a rebozo (shawl), which, according to a note from Carlos Cuestas, “represents the quilt, which is skillfully woven, flaunted around, and put in place in each of the dancer’s luscious movements. Arguably one of the most well known son jarocho songs is “Cascabel” (rattlesnake). Zenen Zeferino wrote that “the verses of the cascabel reference the physical and the spiritual, the relationships between human life and nature.” Musicians still put the snake’s rattle in their instruments to try to create a richer sound. Another song, “Balajú”, speaks to Veracruz and son jarocho’s connection to the water. As explained in a note by Cuestas, the song is about “the perils of a fisherman’s life. Balajú’s lyrics are introspective and reflexive, as the uncertainties of coming back to firm land…haunt the speaker every time they must go out back to the sea.”
Winter is coming, and bringing cold, sun-less days with it. But the lovely music, spectacular dancing and warmth generated by the vibrant collaboration between Ireland and Mexico will help ease the journey. Keep the feeling through the holiday season long by pouring whisky and putting on some Irish Christmas music.