on the Irish fiddle
Crossing bridges - fraying bows
Interview by Carol Wright
Ivers is a founding member of the all-woman folk group, Cherish the Ladies (Green Linnet) and has recorded with such artists as Hall & Oates, Patti Smith, Paddy Maloney, Joanie Madden, The Boston Pops Orchestra, and Luka Bloom. As we spoke, Ivers had just finished the 1998 Lee Company (original show) Riverdance season with five Las Vegas performances.
new Irish-fusion solo album debut on Sony Classical, Crossing the Bridge,
features many top world musicians, including some from the Riverdance orchestra;
the album was produced by guitarist and composer Brian Keane, whose fine
Celtic touch has helped create Celtic Twilight, Winter Solstice,
and the soundtrack for The Irish in America. Even the liner
notes are in top form, with words written by Pulitzer Prize winning author
and New-York-pub-buddy Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes.)
Your parents are Irish, and you grew up in the Bronx, which has a very
solid Irish community. Even so, it must have been remarkable for someone
from the States to win so many music titles back in Ireland.
Ivers: Both my parents are from County Mayo. Because my dad worked for the airlines, we were able to spend school vacations there visiting aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins-chasing the farm animals around, toppling over haystacks, and entering music competitions, each year held at a different county. I won my first competition when I was nine; I suppose it was odd that these New York kids were able to win these titles. But I consider this great testament to my New York fiddle teacher, Martin Mulvihill, who really taught us the music in a very traditional way. I suppose I should also give credit to that Hee Haw television show, for that's where I was first exposed to great fiddle playing.
Although we have some talent shows here in the states, we don't have music
and dance competitions to the extent that they do in Ireland. They seem
to have competitions for singing, dancing, and every instrument.
Ivers: There are Irish music competitions here. I sometimes teach fiddle workshops at the Irish Arts Center in New York, where they have classes in every form of dance, song, and musical instrument. On something like the fiddle, an adult contestant would play four tunes: a reel in 4/4 time, a hornpipe in 2/4, a jig in 6/8, and a melodic air. There are also other types of songs in Irish music: waltzes, polkas, and marches.
These structured music competitions might not make sense to you in the states. I was somewhat of a loner in New York, screeching away on my fiddle when the other kids were out in the streets playing stick ball. So for me, the Irish music competitions were very important. I got grounded by listening to old records. Having the competitions ahead of me encouraged me to practice, to pay attention to the technical details, and to be precise with tradition. The judges mark you on choice of material, technical ability, rhythm, and styling. Judges-in Ireland, mind you-were saying "thumbs up," and that meant a lot to me.
Through my life in New York City, I've soaked up a melting pot of musical styles. Any one night you can drive down to Manhatten and hear strains of hip hop, Jamaican, Celtic, salsa, jazz, or African. You'll hear a lot of New York in my new album. Certain grooves marry nicely with the Irish.
When did you first sense that Irish music was taking off world-wide? Besides
the sixties folk revival days of The Chieftains and The Clancy Brothers,
Celtic didn't seem to have a popular revival here until
Ivers: Irish music is the pulse of people, and the path of Irish music has not been a straight one. The music and even the language had a hard time, even in this century. Outsiders tried to stop us from playing our music and speaking our language. Dances have been forgotten, and distinct regional musical styles melded with the advent of recordings. In America, however, there were little hotbeds of Irish music. Generation after generation of Americans playing Irish music to keep in touch with their homeland.
It survived in really rough times, and now it's enjoying its hour on the world stage, with Riverdance bringing it to another level. Riverdance is a great evening of entertainment, and what an experience it was to perform it on the stage at Radio City Music Hall. Even performing so much, I still want to sit in on a traditional session; it's a rare city anywhere -- Japan, Germany, Spain, Australia, France -- that does not have an Irish pub or home and a session to sit in on. Great sessions with the tunes flyin'!
There was some criticism, or apology, at first for Riverdance not
being "traditional" Irish music and dance. What was your experience first
playing in the company?
Ivers: It's fantastic that Riverdance brought Celtic music a world audience, but in some ways, it actually goes against the heart of the music. It didn't feel right for me to come out solo to the center of this huge stage with my wireless mike. Irish music is very "session" and the tendency is to stay back with the group. This music is a social thing, played in pubs or around the fire at someone's house. But I went along with it, wandering all over the stage…and when I hear five or six thousand people cheering, well…
One of your Green Linnet albums, Wild Blue, pictures you with your
blue electric violin and a
totally frizzed-out bow, a testament to the vitality of your playing. Have
you ever completely blasted your bow strings before the piece ended?
Ivers: If it's a good night, and a good set of tunes, I some times switch from horsehair to synthetic so I'll have some strings left. In Riverdance, I often trade with the percussionist. Once I hit the cymbal with the bow and the top broke off, with strings spraying everywhere. It even got mentioned in the reviews! I love to get into it and play my heart out!
Some pieces on Crossing the Bridge are very complex and technically
demanding. You all negotiated many subtle key shifts and accelerating,
hair-raising tempos. Did you write out the music before hand? This album
couldn't have been jammed.
Ivers: In the Irish session tradition, set notes don't mean much. You jam it. The people who played on it found their sound and their groove; we've . The South African bass player Bakithi Kumalo has recorded with Herbie Hancock. He had never played Celtic music before, and I was very pleased when he said there was a great connection between Celtic and African music. And he hadn't felt so excited since he played on Paul Simon's Graceland, another great coming together of music.
Jazz guitarist Al DiMeola plays on the flamenco piece, "Whiskey & Sangria"; Riverdance's flamenco dancer Maria Pages added the dancing feet, palmas, and castanets. John Doyle, who I've toured with for years, plays acoustic guitar; Joanie Madden plays Irish whistles; Jerry O'Sullivan is on the uillean pipes, Seamus Egan plays banjo and flutes; and Tommy Hayes plays a mean bodhran. He and I had a riot of a time on "Polka"!
We had magical moments on the African track, "Jama" which means peace in Seneglese. Vieux Diop plays kora and sings with three African women vocalists. As we played back a take, the women started to jam along with the recording. I asked if I could record that as well, and one said, "We thought you'd never ask!" She was a elegant women with a cane, who sat on a stool, swayed with her arms, and sang her heart out. It was a beautiful experience.
Speaking of jama, or peace…What is your sense of the political situation
in Ireland? Has music helped bridge the gap?
Ivers: Living here in the states, we could probably not fully understand the political situation. Actually, besides this Irish Riverdance playing in the heart of London, there was a moment where music brought peace. On St. Paddy's Day a few years ago, John Hume and Gerry Adams were invited to the White House by the Clintons; I played with some other musicians. It was around 10:30 when the Clintons excused themselves for the evening. We continued playing, and Hume got up on the stage and began singing "The Town I Loved So Well." Then Gerry came up, and they sang the song together. We hope that things do turn out. You do want peace, you know.
Are you glad you signed with Sony Classical? Do you have plans for another
Ivers: Peter Gelb, Sony's president, trusted us to make the album we wanted. He believed in what we were doing, and you can't ask for more than that. We're very pleased. For my next album, I want to feature guest vocalists, for words and singing are so important. Right now, I'm working with my six-to-seven piece group and just want to have fun touring festivals in Europe and the states in support of the album. From time to time, I'll drop in on the Riverdance company; it's always fun to be with the gang.
There has never been a better time for Irish music than there is right now. I just wish my teacher Martin Mulvihill was around to see this, for he worked so hard around the Bronx and the Shamrock clubs teaching fiddle to twenty-five kids at a time. It was people like him that kept it all going. And now it's all paid off.
Ivers' "Home of the Blue Violin"
with links to Riverdance production companies
Eileen Ivers has appeared as a guest artist on dozens of albums, and
tracks from her albums appear on many compilations. Key albums include:
copyright 1999, Carol Wright
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