|Girsa. (Photo by Christina DeSalvino|
Six years ago in the midst of the frenzied Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham at a special afternoon reception on the Quill Festival Grounds, some young students were asked to perform sampling how the CIAW was influencing the generational passage for traditional Irish music.
Among those displaying their talents that day were some very young teenage women who made a deep impression for their vocal and tune-playing skill and poise on stage and behind a microphone.
Coming from the Pearl River cauldron of music education and promotion, they hit their stride at the upstate summer school as they were exposed to more master teachers who encouraged them along with their parents.
It was the nascent days of Girsa, the all-female ensemble who were developing an approach to Irish music and performance that belied their age but not their background and training.
Following on an impressive debut two years ago of their first self-titled CD, they have just released their second CD A Sweeter Place, and not surprisingly it is once again sure to please the listener and show pride for a younger generation that gets the music and grows along with it.
To outside observers the intervening two years between the CD will probably seem like one of those “growth spurts” that we associate with child-rearing, but we might underestimate the ensemble collectively known as Girsa (or young girls as Bearla). Sure, the first CD sent signals worldwide that the music scene in Pearl River, where seven of the eight members hail from, was developing talent at an extraordinary clip, and that these young women were in the vanguard as some of the earliest and most successful student crop.
After all, now college women, last summer they headed off to three of the largest Irish festivals in the country in Dublin, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Kansas City, Missouri where they learned about performing for larger audiences and the wider world of entertainment and how to position themselves for more work for the musical passion they possess.
From that day in the Catskills, it was clear that the Girsa girls took their music seriously and listened attentively not only to their teachers but other musical influences in their daily lives and sought to make their own way individually and also in a group format introduced to them through the ceili band format.
Like Cherish the Ladies and Liadan, and many years before either of them Macalla, there was a performance path beyond the Fleadh Cheoil for discerning women in the music. If Cherish the Ladies was spurred on by the daddies, it was the mammies who helped mold the Girsa package. With a lot of seasoning under their belts, the Girsa girls have come of age now.
There are 16 tracks on the new recording which primarily shows off the four vocalists in the group, and to their credit they have differentiated themselves on this CD.
There is a well-founded confidence in the singing of Deirdre Brennan, Margaret Dudasik, Pamela Geraghty and Emily McShane displayed not only in the song selections but in their individual delivery as well. They can harmonize and complement each other, but they are all blessed with beautiful voices and are finding out more and more how to tailor them to their own strengths and feelings.
With two songs each they have ample opportunity to stretch and differentiate and interpret songwriters like Dougie McLean (Emily McShane), John Spillane (Emily McShane), Van Morrison (Deirdre Brennan) and even the Dillards (Margaret Dudasik) while giving the tradition its due through a wonderful rendition of “Ar Eireann Ni Neosfainn Ce Hi,” a/k/a “For Ireland I’ll not Tell Her Name by Pamela Geraghty.”
After a log-cabin liaison in the Catskills last year, Galway singer Don Stiffe joined the girls in the recording studio and laid down a duet with Pamela on the Mountains of Pomeroy. Also guesting on the CD are Joanie Madden, Anna Colliton, Jason Sypher and Gabriel Donahue who produced both CDs.
Girsa’s alter egos are also recognized as great musicians led by All-Ireland fiddler Maeve Flanagan, who did a lot of research and arrangements for the new CD ensuring that side of the CD wouldn’t come up short. Her own compositions feature as well and her whistle playing.
Blaithin Loughran’s accordion playing gets a well deserved solo nod, also and the deft keyboard work of both Emily McShane and Bernadette Flanagan (who does bodhran as well) stands out.
The blending of four voices in the group is also matched by four fine fiddlers in Maeve Flanagan, Brennan, Dudasik (who is from Nutley, New Jersey outside the pale of Pearl River where she studied under Rose Flanagan) and the eighth member Kristen McShane (Emily’s older sister).
You will find great variety on the CD and like so many great young artists in Irish music today, less of a pigeon-hold approach to what should be sung by Irish musicians.
You can purchase this CD and the earlier one at www.girsamusic.com. They will be performing at the Catskills Irish Arts Week on Monday, July 11 and also at the Andy McGann Festival on July 16 in East Durham where they will be at Gavin’s Resort on August 7.
Once again the Midwest Irish Festival beckons for them with appearances at the Cleveland Irish Festival July 22-24 and Kansas City over Labor Day.