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Madden, Begley Are True Masters

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Joanie Madden and Seamus Begley at the Irish Arts Center.

IT was a ramble and a gamble, and one of the principal performers was a long way from home. The younger artist hailed from the Bronx infused with the music of master musicians from the old country, attracted by her magnetic father who played the accordion from Galway.

The older one grew up in the Corca Dhuibne (West Kerry) Gaelthacht speaking Irish as his first and primary language, where house dances and ceili music and songs were second nature. Music, song and dance seeped into their marrow and their lives and careers given over to it, so it made for an intriguing week-long interlude when New York’s Joanie Madden met Kerry’s Seamus Begley for the fifth edition of  “Masters in Collaboration” at New York’s Irish Arts Center that concluded on Sunday after three weekend shows.

Madden, the founder and leader of the well-known Irish American ensemble Cherish the Ladies, is a well-known quantity around here, and she had the opportunity to select the Kerryman as someone she would like to partner with for the week in the innovative series started at the center in 2008.

Begley, a lesser-known artist in America, is recognized as one of the foremost singers in the Irish language (and equally good as Bearla) as well as powerful accordion player in the Sliabh Luachra set dancing scene. Both are known for their penchants for sparking fits of laughter and jokes into their performances wherever they go. So there was an advanced expectation that this would turn into “Jesters in Collaboration” more readily than a heavy exchange of the varied
musical styles that characterize their music as artists.

Madden, with parentage from Galway and Clare, has become one of the foremost dance musicians in the world of reels and jigs where those forms predominate, while Begley comes from the world of polkas and slides played at such a fast clip that the set dancers don’t have time to misstep as they square the house. In this collaboration there was no need for one to dominate over the other because variety is the spice of life, and nowhere is that more true than in Irish traditional music and country set dancing.

I caught two shows over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) and also some of the “overtime research and development” they put into their efforts last week pulling their performance together. Begley was a guest in Madden’s Yonkers home which allowed a more relaxed approach, which by day involved rooting through a number of song books in Irish and English that Madden collected in her travels over the years, and by night sampling the nightlife along McLean Avenue and even a late night excursion to An Beal Bocht in Riverdale after the Wednesday interview session with series creator Mick Moloney.

What Madden and Begley produced was more akin to those lovely rural house dances charmingly called  A Rambling House or a Gamble Night where people in the country came together to entertain themselves with music, song and dance and yarns in the days before television stifled that kind of sharing among family and friends.  Even American wakes turned sorrowful departures into memorable parties, and helped give Seamus a start in his musical career playing for them.

Madden, while used to a more controlled environ with Cherish the Ladies, can roll with the punches, and with the dangerously spontaneous Begley she faced a real challenge. Begley is blessed with an angelic voice but a personality that defines devilment, a term of endearment that my parents always used to define an individual who was full of fun and craic. And that is what people got all weekend in merry measure in the weekend soirees that ran a little looser and more unvarnished than the earlier editions without disturbing the wonderful track record of collaboration that the center is achieving with this imaginative series.

A special shout-out to Gabe Donahue, the brilliant accompanist on guitar and keyboards, and to the dancers who complimented Madden and Begley, whose fiery tunes put spring into their steps. I look forward to whatever is coming next.

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