ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You know how it is. You’re in an Albuquerque bar or restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it’s one that serves Irish food and has a good, even an exceptional, selection of Irish beers and whiskies. Or maybe it’s a place that puts green dye in your Miller Lite and serves once-a-year corned beef and cabbage.
But for sure it’s crowded. And then, all of a sudden, a bagpipe band marches in and hushes the barroom din with its bold and boisterous blaring. Maybe the pipers even know “Danny Boy.”
Who doesn’t love bagpipers on St. Patrick’s Day? They’re so Irish.
Well, no. They’re not. Bagpipe bands may be rollicking-good fun, but Irish they’re not.
“Those are Scottish groups,” said Harlow Pinson, a member of the Albuquerque Irish music bands Saoirse (Irish for “Freedom”) and the Duke City Céili Band. “There’s no Irish in it. Their pipes are bigger and louder than Irish pipes.”
Irish music instruments – some more traditional than others – include fiddles, flutes and tin whistles, harps, banjos, the frame drum called a bodhrán, harmonicas, a complex instrument known as uilleann pipes, accordions and concertinas, mandolins and guitars. Irish songs or tunes include the likes of “The Wild Rover,” “Tá Mé ‘Mo Shui” (“I Am Awake”), “The Seige of Ennis,” “The Walls of Limerick,” “Whiskey in a Jar” and “Fields of Athenry,” a song of the Irish potato famine.
Today, which is St. Patrick’s Day, Pinson and the other members of the Duke City Céili Band will be playing at High and Dry Brewing, 529 Adams NE, starting at noon. Maybe you’ll hear “Father Kelly’s Reel.” But don’t count on bagpipes.
A lily pad community
Pinson, 55, a website systems administrator who grew up outside of Boston, was introduced to traditional Irish music by the Irish dance bands that performed in that area. He started doing the music when he was 12 and plays the fiddle, flute and most of the Irish instruments, including the uilleann pipes, although, he admits, not all of them well.
“It’s an infectious music,” he said. “You either like it or you don’t.”
In Albuquerque, enough people like it to make up at least a dozen or so Irish bands and to take part in frequent music sessions.
Jack Ehn, 66, who plays flute and tin whistle, discovered the Albuquerque Irish music community in 1978, the year he moved here to go to work as a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune. His first year in town, he found Yigal Zan, a talented tenor banjo player who was host to Irish music sessions at his home.
“Every Monday and Wednesday at noon, there are six to a dozen people who go to his house to play,” said Ehn, now a writing instructor at Central New Mexico Community College. “These are people I have hung out with for 40 years. There is a very warm sense of friendship and community.”
Ehn said that it’s possible for Albuquerque-area Irish music performers to move from one session to another, like frogs hopping lily pads.
“Almost every day you can play somewhere if you want to,” he said.
Thick as peas
Pinson is part of a weekly music session on Thursday evenings and daytime sessions on two Saturdays a month.
“We are just an informal group of people who have tended to get together to play traditional Irish music,” he said. “Usually we find a business venue to host us – a pub or coffee house. We move around a lot. But I enjoy the community, the friendship and camaraderie.”
Jim Crowley, 42, who plays the fiddle and is learning the button accordion, is from Mallow, in County Cork, Ireland. He moved to Albuquerque two years ago and quickly became part of the city’s Irish music family. He likes the fact there are usually more than a few music sessions from which to choose.
“If you think of musicians as keeping their chops together, once a week is not enough,” he said. “There are millions of Irish tunes. The process is to get them out of your head and into your fingers.”
Crowley, a member of the Duke City Céili Band, said that when he arrived in Albuquerque he found an Irish music circle that was vibrant and full of potential but lacked a binding element.
“That’s when we set up the Duke City Céili Band to play for the céili (Irish folk) dancers at the Irish-American Society (of New Mexico). Now, we’re thick as peas.”
People find their way into Irish music and the Albuquerque Irish music crowd by various avenues. Some come to it later than others.
Kathy Wimmer, 58, a producer at KNME-TV, Channel 5, was closing in on her 40s when she took up the Celtic harp and immersed herself in Irish music and culture.
“There is just so much – the songs, the stories, the myths, a lot of the wonderful poetry, wonderful plays,” said Wimmer, who has been active in Albuquerque theater over the years.
Now, Wimmer is a member of several Irish music bands – Shenanigans, Bardic Sisters, Iscuma (Irish for “It Doesn’t Matter”) and Colleens & Lassies. She is treasurer of the Irish-American Society of New Mexico and performs Irish music at festivals, libraries and various other venues.
Today, Colleens & Lassies, Wimmer and Mary Templeton, is performing from 2-3 p.m. at St. Paul United Methodist Church, 1000 Goad, in Socorro, and also, starting at 4:30 p.m., at Socorro’s Capitol Bar, 110 Plaza. From pew to pint, Irish music travels well.
An album by the Celtic rock band Scythian swept Grace Broadhead, 15, a highly-regarded fiddle player and member of the Duke City Céili Band, under the spell of Irish music.
“I listened to it over and over, and I really liked it,” she said. “Then I got a fiddle when I was 11 and learned mostly online from videos and recordings. It came to me pretty naturally. What I really like about it now is the community. We have sessions every week. And there are sessions wherever you go. I’ve found them in Phoenix, San Diego and Ann Arbor.”
There will be bagpipes today at Two Fools Tavern, an Irish-style pub at 3211 Central NE. But from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., fiddler Nikelle Gessner Garcia, 40, and her guitarist husband, David Garcia, will do traditional Irish music at the tavern. And then from 4-7 p.m., Nikelle and David will perform Irish music with their alt-country, indy-rock band Beloved at Canteen Brewhouse, 2381 Aztec NE.
Nikelle was infused with Irish music early on because her mother was a fan of the syndicated Celtic music radio show “The Thistle and Shamrock.”
“I started taking violin lessons at 7 and (Irish fiddle) lessons when I was 13 or 14,” she said. “I love the kind of feeling Irish music evokes. It’s timeless.”
In 2002, soon after graduating from California’s Humboldt State University, Nikelle took her fiddle and set off to follow her Irish music dreams in Ireland. She got a job for about a year tending bar at O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin, County Clare, Ireland. Doolin is a noted center of traditional Irish music.
“Doolin is a small town, 700 people,” she said. “There were just three pubs, but every pub had live Irish music seven nights a week and sometimes all day.”
She played fiddle at O’Connor’s, between bartending shifts, and at the other pubs, too.
“You got to sit down with world-class musicians and play with them,” she said. “At a pub session in Ireland, you could have a whole roomful of musicians playing at the same time.”
It’s different in America. But today at Two Fools, Nikelle will perform tunes such as “The Dunmore Lasses” and “The Star of Munster.” And at Two Fools, where she has been playing a couple of Sundays a month for about a decade, she believes her performance will be heard and appreciated.
“It’s kind of background music a lot of the time,” Nikelle said. “But at Two Fools, I think a lot of people come for the music.”