Along with Guinness, Jameson and Kerrygold butter, one of Ireland’s greatest exports may be Dervish, a dazzling Irish traditional band.
Along with Guinness, Jameson and Kerrygold butter, one of Ireland’s greatest exports may be Dervish, a dazzling Irish traditional band described by one reviewer as “the most compelling, most soulful Irish traditional folk band playing today.”
The group, founded more than three decades ago, has travelled the world bringing Irish folk music to diverse (and usually sell-out) audiences in Europe, the U.S., Scandinavia, and even Japan, where their enthusiastic fans treat their concerts like they were the latest Apple iPhone, waiting in lines that stretch around the block before tickets go on sale.
They’ve broken out their instruments for an impromptu concert at the Great Wall of China, played at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, and accompanied Ireland’s then-President Mary McAleese on official state missions to Latvia and Lithuania – places not known as hotbeds of Irish jig fans.
Dervish was the first Irish group ever invited to Rock in Rio, a music festival that’s been a mostly annual event below the equator since 1985. There they found themselves on the bill sandwiched between Iron Maiden and Brazilian heavy metal superstars Sepultura, facing an audience of a quarter million people who were more used to head banging than toe-tapping.
It was a test of the music and the musicians.
“One could be nervous playing jigs and reels to a heavy metal crowd but they absolutely loved it,” said Cathy Jordan, who has been singing and playing the bodhran – an Irish traditional goatskin drum – with Dervish since 1991 and recently spoke over Zoom in advance of the group’s 18-stop U.S. tour.
“We weren’t preaching to the converted here,” she says of their atypical heavy metal audience. “The music was all brand new to them, but they really got it. They really responded to the rhythms and the stories. It was such fun.”
Dervish is bringing its unique brand of Irish traditional music to the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center (The Irish Center) in Mt. Airy on March 18, a production of the Philadelphia Ceili Group. Along with Jordan, the group is made up of Brian McDonagh (mandola, mandolin), Liam Kelly (flute, whistle), Shane Mitchell (accordion), Michael Holmes (bouzouki) and Tom Morrow (fiddle).
While Irish music has found its aficionados the world over, there may be other reasons for Dervish’s worldwide appeal.
The group, given a lifetime achievement award from the BBC in 2019, was formed by some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians who met playing in pubs in County Sligo.
Tucked into the northwest corner of Ireland, Sligo is known for its particularly exhilarating landscapes – undulating mountains rolling out to craggy coastlines, part of Ireland’s branded “Wild Atlantic Way.” It was the land that inspired both Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats and a musical style that takes its name from its county of origin.
Sligo style is “very exciting, highly ornamented music. There’s a wildness to it,” Jordan explained. Ornamentation in Irish music means adding extra notes into a piece to “decorate” it—“loads of notes moving wildly,” as Jordan describes it.
“It drives people a little mad which is a great thing,” she said, laughing. “We all get set in our square-minded ways. The music makes you have to respond. It’s like a drug or a spirit taking you over.”
That may help explain why an Irish band is named after a Sufi religious order known for hypnotic whirling dances that are designed to transport its practitioners to nirvana. One of the group’s founders, Liam Kelly, after watching a TV documentary on whirling dervishes, saw the parallel between the captivated Sufi dervishes and Irish musicians caught up in their own tuneful “flow.”
The Sligo style was introduced to the United States – and later, the rest of the world – when Sligo musicians Paddy Killoran, Michael Coleman, and James Morrison, emigrated in the 1920s. They settled in New York, where their arrival coincided with the birth of the recording industry.
“They were the first people to ever record Irish music, and it was so exciting for people to hear their music on the old 78s,” Jordan said. “People in Ireland who wouldn’t have heard this style of music before – most people never left their parish – all wanted to copy it. These musicians were the superstars of their day.”
Dervish has put its own stamp on traditional Sligo style. “There’s a Dervish sound for sure. It’s our arrangements (done mainly by Holmes and McDonagh) and our backing,” says Jordan. In new arrangements, ancient tunes take on a modern sound, and with the addition of non-Irish instruments such as the mandolin and bouzouki, an exotic flair.
Their concerts, she said, combine all the components of traditional Irish music.
‘There are three: Goltrai, so sad it makes you want to cry; Geantrai, so spirited and exciting it makes you want to dance; and Suaintrai, so soothing it makes you want to sleep. So one minute you could have a tear in your eye because you’re listening to a sad song of immigration, betrayal, or unrequited love, and then you’re moving to the frenzied heights of the reels and jigs, and then you have the soothing action of the waltz or air.”
She pauses. “And we don’t even charge extra for these things.”
Advance tickets, now available at philadelphiaceiligroup.org are $20 for Irish Center and Philadelphia Ceili Group members, $25 for nonmembers when purchased in advance. Tickets at the door are $30 for adults and $20 for students with ID. Children under 12 are admitted free.
The Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center is located at 6815 Emlen St. in Mt. Airy, across from the Carpenter Street SEPTA station. For concert-goers with a disability, there is a second entrance in the building that will lead to an elevator.