- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

There’s always something about the Irish. They have not only a gift for blarney and sociability that becomes intensified around St. Patrick’s Day all over the world, but they have the artist’s gift of the universal

The world discovers itself in the pages of “Ulysses,” in Samuel Beckett’s tramps, still waiting for Godot, in the poetry of W.B. Yeats and in stage-Irish characters that are staples of American film. People who have never heard of the 18th century Irish patriot Wolfe Tone or know a “Brits-out” Fenian from a farmer thrill to Irish rebel songs in pubs all over the country.

But if you want to find the heart of the universal appeal of Irish culture, you don’t have to go very far: Listen to its music.

Go, for instance, to the newly minted Ri-Ra Restaurant on Elm Street in Bethesda on some Wednesday night or a Sunday afternoon, and pull up a chair at a nearby table or a barstool in the pub and give a real listen.

You’ll be at an Irish session, or seisun, and you’ll hear a reel or an air running down a road with a fiddle or two, a guitar, a pipe, a flute or a bodhran drum. It’s all melody and music.

There you’ll find a Frenchman playing the fiddle, leading the way. You may see a woman from Germany playing a flute, a young black man on the bodhran — a goatskin drum resembling a tambourine but without the jingles — or middle-aged men in casual clothing, or a young American University graduate student waiting to chime in on a small flute.

You realize then that for a long time now, Irish music has pulled on the whole world, and been embraced by musicians everywhere.

Sessions constitute Irish traditional (or “trad”) music on display at its most basic and authentic. At a session, men and women who play Irish music engage in a kind of musical conversation, a discussion among themselves. But they also illustrate just how intense the appeal of real Irish music is, how it jumps like electricity across cultures, settings, languages, genders, ethnic groups and history.

Philippe Varlet, a 48-year-old native of France, has made a life in America out of Irish music, a kind of passion that dates back to the 1970s when he first heard Celtic music in Brittany. A sessions leader at the Ri-Ra along with Rob Greenway, he’s intensely serious about the music.

“Musicians basically play for each other,” he says. “The audience, when we see people moving to the music, keeping time, all of that is, of course, very nice, but it really is about the players.”

Tina Eck, a regular at the Ri-Ra session, has been making music this way for about 10 years.

“One day, I think it was in 1994, I walked into Nanny O’Briens on Connecticut Avenue, and I sat down and listened the music being played,” says Ms. Eck, 41, a radio correspondent for the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

“I was absolutely enthralled. It was a session and I came back, and some time later I brought a tin whistle and I started playing. It became a big part of my life, and still is.”

Staff Sgt. Josh Dukes, 24, is a member of the elite Old Guard Drum and Bugle Corps (the U.S. 3rd Infantry) at Fort Myer. Tonight at Ri-Ra he’s playing the bodhran.

“It’s kind of like perpetual motion music,” he says. “It’s electric, and it really draws you in. I heard about sessions from friends so I checked it out. First, you listen to it and then you get to play.”

Sessions don’t require onlookers: The musicians are each other’s audience. Spontaneous and informal, sessions give a sense of a gathering in someone’s kitchen; they’re like returning to the source. And sitting in on one, or even just listening, is an entirely different experience from watching musicians perform for an audience at, say, the Dubliner near Union Station on a Friday night or at Murphy’s in Alexandria.

Sessions are few, and sometimes hard to find. Ri-Ra has its main session on Wednesday evenings in the atmosphere-steeped pub and a more family-oriented session on Sunday afternoons in its main restaurant. Nanny O’Briens on Connecticut Avenue in the District is in some ways the granddaddy of sessions; trad musicians jam there on Monday nights. The Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton holds a session every fourth Sunday.

Then there’s the Northern Virginia Irish Session, sponsored by the O’Neill-Malcom Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, an Irish cultural organization with branches all over the world.

The NoVa session is unusual: While most sessions are pub-oriented, the NoVa session’s musicians meet at the John Wood Center in Fairfax. The session, which began in October 2000, has a very specific educational goal: to prepare aspiring players to sit in on those pub sessions.

Under the guidance of seasoned guest leaders — folks like Mr. Varlet, uilleann piper Mark Hillman, and fiddler Dennis Botzer — players gather in impromptu fashion and help along the novices who hope to sit in one day at Ri-Ra or Nanny O’Briens.

The NoVa sessions are called “slow” sessions to differentiate them from more high-speed and advanced sessions. The repertoire is limited to well-known Irish tunes, yet they must be played from memory. The NoVa session’s basic list of “frequently played” tunes, which it keeps on its Web site at www.geocities.com/novairishsession/tunelist.htm, numbers 110 — airs and songs, double, single and slip jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas and marches.

• • •

To an audience, pub sessions are usually free-wheeling and might resemble jams. But there are loose rules, one of which is that musicians ought to have a certain level of proficiency before attempting to join.

While there is a large repertoire of tunes, there is always an element of follow-the-leader in a session. The sessions leader or leaders set the tone of the evening, initiate renditions and pieces of music, make sure the group is attentive and together.

“See, what happens sometimes is that someone will come in who thinks they can keep up, or who plays a different sort of music than the kind of music we’re playing even though they may have a fiddle or a flute,” Mr. Varlet explains.

“They can throw the whole night off, doing that. You have to avoid too much free-lancing. The best situation is where everybody’s together, and the music just sort of builds, and builds, and picks up speed, and then returns to its point of origin.

“It’s amazing what happens on occasion. One night in here we had, I don’t know, about eight or ten fiddle players at once. That was something.”

So, if sessions by definition sound informal in construction, that doesn’t mean anything goes. There are points of etiquette, and it’s useful to know the parameters.

“Anything can happen,” says Mr. Varlet, “but you have to be together on the music.”

• • •

Sessions, it’s noted, are eclectic and electric, rousing and warm, an experience of note. But they also speak to the seriousness of the musician who has become enmeshed in traditional Irish music.

Sessions are as common as stories and poetry in Ireland, of course, and visitors to the Emerald Isle return with tales of sitting in on seisuns in pubs and homes across the country. In a place like Ri-Ra, the Wednesday night session in the pub section of the restaurant is very much a part of an effort to recreate an authentic Irish pub atmosphere.

Angela Grogan, 32, the Bethesda Ri-Ra’s manager, is from County Mayo, and opened this Ri-Ra branch in October. Ri-Ra has restaurants in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., Burlington, Vt., Providence, R.I., Portland, Maine, and Atlantic City, N.J., niche markets far removed from hotbeds of Irish culture. Two old Dublin pals, David Kelly and Ciaran Sheehan, who had emigrated to the United States, started the restaurants in 1997 with their first effort in Charlotte after careers in design and marketing.

The chain tries hard to replicate a genuine Irish atmosphere and builds its decor around authentic Irish bars that have been dismantled and shipped to the States, then put back together again. Bethesda’s Ri-Ra is the actual Olympia Theater Bar, which first opened in Dublin in 1879.

“Many members of our wait staff are Irish as part of an exchange program, and that adds to the flavor for customers, hearing a real Irish accent. The food is geared toward Irish cuisine as well as American, with lots of seafood,” Ms. Grogan says.

“And of course, we have the sessions. I checked around when we first opened and that’s how I found Philippe, who set up the sessions for us.”

Ms. Grogan frequently goes to Ireland to scout items at auctions or flea markets to add to the Ri-Ra. “I think the owners have a great deal of respect and affection for an Irish ambience,” she says. “I think the pub especially could pass for any small village or city pub in Ireland.”

At Ri-Ra, the musicians gather around a table by a window in the pub. Coats and hats have been doffed and the instruments — a fiddle, a guitar, flutes and the like — sit waiting. Half-full pint glasses are scattered around. It’s not far off Wisconsin Avenue, and young professionals are walking by around 7 p.m.

Mr. Varlet and his fiddle are in the corner, and he’s flanked by his sessions co-leader Rob Greenway, on one side, and Rick Rider, a thin, bearded writer, who is playing the bodhran this night. There’s John Kerr on flute, flanked by Diana Havlin, a 23-year-old American University graduate student who plays a small, thin flute.

Mr. Varlet and Mr. Greenway set the pace, tapping their feet as they launch into a reel — the fiddle first, followed by the guitar, and then the drum coming, and the flute, tentative at first and then more assured. Ms.Havlin first encountered the music in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan.

“I’m the baby of the group,” she says.

You can see people walking by outside, couples, men in suits and warm coats, their ears to their cell phones. A blond woman stops by the window, talking into a phone, a busy professional — and then she comes into the pub, takes off her coat, walks to the table and sits next to Mr. Varlet by the window. She orders a draught, brings out her flute and in short order commences to join in one of the reels. This is Ms. Eck, the German radio correspondent, a native of Munich.

Not much later, a young couple who have just gotten back from a tour of Ireland and playing in some session there, also join in.

It’s the way of sessions, like a wheel moving outward. It’s also the way of Irish music, expanding, embracing. The presence and the passions of Mr. Varlet and Ms. Eck suggest its abiding appeal.

“I was young when I heard Celtic and Irish music, a band called Planxty who were very popular then,” Mr. Varlet says. Planxty, a hugely influential band of the 1970s, was one of the first to repopularize traditional Irish music for a new generation.

“You heard a lot of people then and I got interested and started playing and listening to everything I could get my hands on. When I came to Washington, I went to all the places and I heard the bands and the musicians.

For Mr. Varlet, who plays the fiddle, as well as mandolin, banjo and guitar and the tin whistle and button accordion, and who’s on his way to earning a degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Maryland, Irish music has become a major part of life. He runs Celtic Grooves (https://celticgrooves.homestead.com/CGhome.html), a supplier of imported Irish music CDs, videos and books. He teaches, he’s been heard on albums by groups like Hesperus. For Mr. Varlet, this is the beautiful, serious stuff of life.

Trad music hasn’t completely taken over the life of Rob Greenway, 39, a program assistant at the National Academy of Sciences. But he finds his time spent at sessions “exciting, electric” and “really cool.” He plays the flute, the guitar, the fiddle and a “not-so-good button accordion.”

“It’s where musicians let their hair down a little,” he says of sessions. “Tunes and themes get passed around. It’s pretty exciting. I wish there were more sessions in the area but it’s kind of calmed down a little.”

• • •

For Mr. Greenway, sessions reveal the music’s universal appeal. As he says, “I’m not Irish. I’m from Atlanta.” But there’s Staff Sgt. Dukes, who’s going to tour Ireland with his fiancee soon, and whom Mr. Greenway describes as a “fantastic” bodhran player who has been playing for only a while.

And there’s Ms. Eck, who came to the music through the Bothy Band, another landmark trad group of the explosive 1970s. Ms. Eck admits that for a while she became “a little obsessed with the music.”

“The first time I played, I think it was a polka…But Americans are so open, so generous and inviting,” she says. “I now own over 300 CDs of Irish traditional music…I love the flow, the swing of the music, and I think it’s a compliment to be accepted and to be able to play. There’s a great deal of camaraderie in sessions.”

Some Wednesday, you’re likely to see them all there. The slip jigs, the hornpipes, the reels will do cartwheels, and as the crowd walks by outside, inside the leader will set the pace and the tone with his feet, tapping out a beat.

They might do a number like “Cooley’s Reel,” or “Mayor Harrison’s Fedora,” or “The Galway Rambler,” and the flute will come in, or several fiddles, all gamboling along with the beat of the bodhran and the heart of the world.

Where to hear Irish music

Traditional Irish music sessions are rare but worthwhile in the Washington area. Here’s a look at four ongoing sessions.

District

• 3319 Connecticut Ave. NW. 9 p.m. Mondays. Sessions are informal but popular with visiting and local musicians. There is no scheduled set leader, although owner Brian Gaffney sits in on occasion. A young people’s session for children aged 8 and up takes place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. the first Monday of the month. Call 202/686-9189 or see www.nannyobriens.com.

Maryland

• Ri-Ra: 4931 Elm St., Bethesda. 7-10 p.m. Wednesdays. The new restaurant’s Wednesday evening sessions are led by Philippe Varlet and Rob Greenway in the pub. On Sundays, there’s a more family-oriented session between 3 and 6 p.m. in the restaurant space. Call 301/657-1122 or see www.rira.com.

• Royal Mile Pub: 2407 Price Ave., Wheaton. Sessions at 7 p.m every fourth Sunday are led by fiddler Dennis Botzer. A children’s session begins at 6 p.m. Call 301/946-4511 or see www.royalmilepub.com.

Virginia

• Northern Virginia Irish Sessions: John Wood Center, 3730 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax. 10 a.m.-noon every second Saturday, with some exceptions. These are intermediate sessions sponsored by the O’Neill-Malcom Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, an Irish cultural organization with international chapters. Guest leaders include Patrick Cavanagh (banjo) on Saturday, Dennis Botzer (fiddle) on April 17, Mark Hillman (uilleann pipes) on May 8 and Philippe Varlet (fiddle) on June 19. All are welcome, but players should have command of their instruments and be able to play music without reading. Howard Rhile is the coordinator and facilitator. Call 703/591-4058 or see the Web site at www.geocities.com/novairishsession.

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