The renaissance of Irish traditional music in New York has for the past decade been centered in the Rockland County suburb of Pearl River. Known primarily for its huge annual St. Patrick’s Day parade held this past weekend, it has become a creative cauldron for teaching, learning and playing traditional music the year round, sparking yet another Golden Age for the transmission and appreciation of the pure drop around the Big Apple.
From that deep wellspring in Pearl River comes a teenage band of young women called Girsa, the first full flowering generation from the current talented student crop to produce a CD.
Last Saturday night, the Girsa octet launched their self-titled new recording, "Girsa: Traditional Irish Music," in awesome fashion at Club Vertigo in the artsy village of Nyack northeast of Pearl River.
The unusual venue had three floors that overlooked an atrium and a narrow stage on the middle floor that provided an easy focal point for the Girsa girls (Girsa in Irish means girls) and their special guests who helped create a spectacular occasion for their first formal presentation of the new CD.
Like many Pearl River music ventures, it was a community affair with home cooked food and sandwiches and snacks provided for the several hundred people who made their way there on a late Saturday afternoon to encourage and root for these talented teens ranging in age from 14-19.
Interspersed among the three sets by Girsa that sampled material from the new CD were guest sets by some musicians who offered inspiration to them as they honed their craft. Box player John Nolan, fiddler Bernadette Fee and flute player Linda Hickman played some top-notch jigs and reels.
Fiddler Brian Conway, uncle of two Girsa girls, Maeve and Bernadette Flanagan, led an array of fiddlers, including his sister Rose Conway Flanagan, Fee, Maeve, Caitlin Findley, Shane Cornyn and Dylan Foley in some Sligo New York-style tunes, a staple in the repertoire of the Girsa fiddlers Maeve, Deirdre Brennan and Kristen McShane, all taught by Rose.
Box player John Whelan came down from Connecticut and joined in some tunes. They were all accompanied by the venerable Felix Dolan, who looked hale and hearty after some recent surgery.
Teachers Margie Mulvihill, Rose Flanagan and Patty Furlong offered a set along with fiddler John Reynolds and singer guitarist Gabriel Donohue, who recorded and produced the CD at his Cove Island Production Studio in Hawthorne, New Jersey.
Of course, the stars of the evening were the eight gals who have spent so much of their young lives learning, playing, competing and performing with one another. To make an a comparison to current female ensembles professionally touring for many years, Cherish the Ladies and Liadan wouldn’t be fair at this juncture for several reasons, but most importantly because Girsa deserve to have a full hearing on their own because they have developed an act that reflects their own take on Irish music collectively and individually.
The new CD contains 16 tracks that are well-balanced and reflective of the multi-talented Girsa ensemble featuring Deirdre Brennan (fiddle/vocals), Margaret Dudasik (fiddle/vocals/steps), Bernadette (piano/bodhran/steps) and Maeve Flanagan (fiddle/whistle), Pamela Geraghty (accordion/guitar/vocals), Blaithin Loughran (accordion), Emily (piano/vocals/ bodhran) and Kristin McShane (fiddle).
Deirdre and Maeve are sophomores in college and Kristen a freshman, while the others are still in high School (and supplemented by Lindsay and Sarah Buteaux and Naidin Loughran when the college girls are away).
They have all competed successfully in the New York Fleadhs and Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, including several first place championships.
The group is blessed with four very fine singers (Deirdre, Emily, Margaret and Pamela) who each display a real singer’s sensibility as they tackle the songs on the CD, many of which resonate with the immigrant experience of their grandparents or songs that we have heard for years on WFUV that had a compelling storylines or melodies.
In fact, all the songs are not merely covered by Girsa but thoughtfully arranged and suited to the voices who bring them to life.
They share lead singer roles and harmonies with a sophistication that one doesn’t ordinarily find in their age group, which is further enhanced by some tasteful musical accompaniment and arrangements exhibiting a real flair for performance.
Having watched and listened to these children for a number of years, it still is quite astonishing to hear how far they have come as poised performers and entertainers, well able to mix in with any group of musicians on either side of the ocean with spirit and confidence.
One song in particular from the Saturday launch performance kept rolling around in my head as Pamela sang a beautiful version of “Fare Thee Well Lovely Mary” with a sensitivity that brings out all the best qualities of a singer adhering to a haunting air with lovely lyrics.
It is not a common ballad, so when it is well sung it kinds of floats around the brain. I was trying to think of where I had heard it last, and it dawned me that it was just a week ago at an early hour session in Virginia, Co. Cavan, with the very fine Fermanagh singer Gabby McArdle creating the memory.
At the launch night, special attention and gratitude was extended to producer Donohue, who has been an ardent supporter of their music, and Patricia Geraghty, mother of Pamela and aunt of Emily and Kristen, who became the stage mother (in a good sense) to them all in readying them for this greater challenge.
She developed their public persona, sensing their potential early on, and encouraged them to glean as much as they could from their teachers and other choice influences with a kind of dedication and organization that has paid off in spades.
If you have a chance catch Girsa at Rory Dolan’s for a Sunday session or other appearances. For the CD, visit www.girsamusic.com.