Dervish: Give it a Whirl!
By Stephen D. Winick
In the world of high-energy Irish music, a few bands stand out as truly magnificent, earning high praise from critics and the adulation and loyalty of fans. For many, Altan tops the list. Arcady, a hot Irish supergroup, and Patrick Street, a bit less ferocious but with all their teeth left, are also in the fray. Trian, those unassuming Yanks, and their flamboyant compatriots Solas, cannot be discounted, either.
This is a hard club to join, but Dervish are poised to do so, having taken the world by storm in the last five years. And storm is a good description; Dervish can be frightening, like a force of nature. The extraordinary tightness of the lead instrumentalists is breathtaking as the music soars, turns, and plunges. The accompanists keep pace, driving the music along with deftness and power. To top it off, Cathy Jordan's voice is warm and strong, like the sunlight breaking through the clouds. In the past five years, almost everybody who follows Irish music has been impressed with their talent, drive and irrepressible sound.
I spoke with Dervish at an Irish music weekend in the Catskill mountains in the fall of 1996. The conversation turned first to the tendency of critics to compare Dervish with other Irish groups, particularly the Bothy Band. Brian McDonagh, who is the band's main spokesman and mandola player, was unequivocal: "I think it's about time people stopped drawing comparisons like that all the time." But Jordan, the group's singer and percussionist, was more forgiving. "There are bound to be comparisons," she conceded, "and if you're going to be compared to anybody, we'd sooner it be the Bothy Band than practically anyone else we know."
The real problem with such a comparison, they all agreed, was that Dervish doesn't sound a thing like the Bothy Band. McDonagh felt that De Dannan was a far more sensible point of reference. "De Dannan just plays the tunes, where the Bothy Band had these Gothic arrangements, with things coming in and out...we don't have uillean pipes. We don't have a clavichord."
Comparison with the greats of Irish music's past is a cross that Dervish will have to bear. Since the release of their first band album, Harmony Hill, one thing has been clear: Dervish are the most exciting Irish traditional group to emerge, probably since Altan. Still, they maintain their perspective, remembering where they came from and where their musical heartland is. Asked to summarize the music of Dervish, McDonagh thought for a moment before replying, "We bring music from the session onto the stage." The other members of the band nodded their agreement. The members of Dervish locate their center in informal pub sessions in Sligo and the surrounding counties of northwestern Ireland.
This rootedness in Sligo traditions is one of Dervish's great strengths. Through both the brilliance of its traditional musicians and the accidents of history, Sligo has been the most crucial area for Irish traditional music in the twentieth century. It was men from Sligo, men like James Morrison and Michael Coleman, who recorded seminal 78 rpm discs in New York in the opening decades of the century. These records found their way back to Ireland, and became reference works, standards for musicians all over the country. As a result, Shane McAleer explained, "an awful lot of the tunes that are being played today originated around the Sligo area."
Sligo, and its neighboring counties of Leitrim and Roscommon, are well aware of their important place in Irish music history. The members of Dervish were quick to comment on all the weekend celebrations in honor of various important musicians: Coleman, Morrison, John McKenna. They also mentioned roadside monuments to great musicians as evidence of music's centrality to the lives of local people. Most importantly, they speak of the Coleman Heritage Center, where plans are afoot for a traditional music archive purely for local music.
Local tunes are important to the band. Liam Kelly, the group's flute player, said that their albums and concert performances contain a lot of local Sligo pieces. "We try and localize it a wee bit," he said, "do some tunes from the area. We did get a couple of tunes from that book that Bernie Flaherty put out called Trip to Sligo. You know, we listened to stuff like that, which is more localized rather than just picking tunes up from anywhere in the country."
If anyone should know about Dervish's musical policy, it's Kelly. Along with accordion player Shane Mitchell, he has been the core of Dervish's instrumental sets since the very beginning. Mitchell and Kelly are among the tightest duos in Irish music today, undoubtedly because they know each other's playing so well; like many musicians from small areas, they began to cross paths at an early age, traveling to feises and fleadhs (Irish music festivals and competitions) nearly every weekend. Curiously, although Sligo county is famed for its musicians, Sligo town itself had few youngsters involved in traditional music, so the two spent a lot of time together. "Liam and myself have been playing together since I was seven," Mitchell remembered. "When I was ten and he was twelve we used to play, for four pounds a night play waltzes all night in his dad's pub. That's how far back we go."
Kelly and Mitchell first formed a band when they were teenagers in high school. The group, called Poitín, earned considerable publicity and critical accolades. A highlight of their career was winning first place at the Ballyshannon Folk Festival; the prize was an appearance on Ireland's most important TV talk and variety program, the Late Late Show. "Gay Byrne brought us on the Late Late Show, and said, 'Watch these lads'," Mitchell remembered. "And he still says it today!"
Unfortunately, Poitín never made the transition to being a professional group, so they never toured or recorded. Kelly, Mitchell and the others were too worried about grades, exams and other concerns of school-age lads. But the two continued to play together. In college, they formed a rock group called Who Says What, in which Kelly played saxophone and Mitchell played accordion. Their bass player and songwriter was another Sligo native, Michael Holmes, who also played guitar and bouzouki -- he, too, is now a member of Dervish.
During those same college years, Kelly, Holmes and Mitchell played at numerous sessions in Sligo. One familiar face they met at those sessions was McDonagh, who was as close a thing to a celebrity as you get in Irish music circles. McDonagh had been a founder member of Oisín, one of the leading traditional bands of the late 1970s and early 80s. "I joined [Oisín] when I was 16 years of age," McDonagh said. "I made three records with them, and they went on to make another three or four after that. We played at most of the big festivals. We never played in the States, but we were all over Europe." Oisín were very well-known in Ireland and beyond, and anybody who was interested in traditional music in Ireland was aware of the band in its heyday. In fact, the other members of Dervish, who were in college when McDonagh quit Oisín and moved to Sligo in the early 80s, were able to joke with me about the cover art on Oisín's twenty-year-old LPs.
After college, Kelly and Holmes moved to London while Mitchell and McDonagh remained in Sligo. The four had no real thoughts of forming a band or even of recording their essentially session-oriented music until about 1988 (the band is notoriously vague about dates), when Aidan Mannion and Kevin Flannery of Sligo's Sound records were looking for a group of local Sligo musicians to record an album. The usual Sligo suspects were rounded up; Kelly and Holmes returned from London for a few weeks, and along with McDonagh, Mitchell and fiddler Martin McGinley, they recorded The Boys of Sligo, an impressive, though not groundbreaking, instrumental album. It was a one-off project of session music, not an album by a working band of any kind. "We just sort of did it for the fun," Kelly explained. "We never thought long-term, or 'Let's form a band.' "
Still, when the album was about to be released, the musicians decided to look for a group name. At first they were stumped. "The thing was going to print," McDonagh recalled, "and they said: do you want to have a name on this, for the band? In the space of ten minutes we came up with about three different names. Blackthorn was suggested and rejected in the same breath." Eventually, they settled on Dervish. McDonagh commented that they didn't want names that were self-consciously Irish, like Poitín or Oisín. But why Dervish? "In the English language," he explained, "things that spin around are called whirling dervishes for some reason, but I didn't actually know what a Dervish was. It wasn't until after that that someone said, 'Why are you called after a Sufi priest?' " Occasionally, the name causes confusion even today. "At one of the gigs we did in London," McDonagh said with amused regret, "a bunch of Islamic chaps thought they were going to see these Dervishes!"
After the release of The Boys of Sligo, the first album to bear Dervish's name, they were surprised to receive inquiries about the band, asking if they would play live. Kelly and Holmes knew a good deal when they saw one, and moved back to Sligo. The band got underway with a few growing pains, and its only lineup changes to date. First, they decided to add a singer, having realized that McDonagh's voice was not up to the task of fronting a touring band. This revelation occurred during a concert in Donegal, as Jordan related: "The place was full, and Brian sang 'Oh the Broom, the Bonny Bonny Broom.' He closed his eyes. And when he opened them, everybody was gone!"
Mitchell picked up the story: "The rest of us were doubled over laughing! We had to turn our backs to the audience. It was the most embarrassing night we ever had, honest to God!" Deciding that drastic measures had to be taken, the boys drove down to Longford the next day and asked Jordan to join up with them. At the time she joined Dervish, Jordan had been working as a pastry chef ("makin' a bit of dough," as Mitchell quipped), but they knew she was a first rate singer; during their time with Who Says What, Holmes, Kelly and Mitchell had often heard her sing.
There is no question that Jordan is one of the principal sources of Dervish's wide appeal. Her singing is often compared to Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill's, and she does have some of the same sprightly clarity. Like Ní Dhomhnaill, she is well-versed in the Irish language and sings Irish-language songs as well as English ones. Her voice is certainly earthier than the current ethereal vogue in Irish music. It is well suited to the rollicking ballads she favors; even the Gaelic songs she chooses tend to be about rambling journeymen, large garrulous women and unfaithful wives.
When she began singing with Dervish, Jordan had to build up a repertoire of traditional songs, since, as she admitted, "I had no huge traditional song background." But it wasn't hard to find material. "We're so lucky in Ireland to have such a wealth of material, and it's all in archives all over the place," she observed. Her sources include old records and tapes as well as Dublin's extensive traditional music archives. Through her work in the last five years with Dervish, Jordan has discovered the beauty and joy of traditional song. "It wasn't until Dervish came along," she related, "that I pinned down the traditional stuff, and that's all I do now. I think that was waiting for me, because I don't think anything else is as good as traditional."
Soon after Jordan joined Dervish, the band changed fiddlers as well. Shane McAleer replaced McGinley, who went to work for BBC and RTE. As McAleer laughingly explained, "He was too busy and, ah... I wasn't."
The line-up secured, Dervish set out to record their first album as a working band. It proved to be a daunting task for the band members, and especially for McDonagh, who produced it. He had an omen when he sent a tape of the tunes to McAleer so he could learn them in time for the sessions; something went wrong, and the tape McAleer received was totally blank. The real problems began in the studio, however. "[Harmony Hill] was a nightmare of glitches and drop ins and drop outs," Jordan remembered. "We didn't know anything about what we were doing." The low point occurred when McDonagh took the master tape over to the local radio studio to make copies. It was on quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape, and the radio station's decks had the protective covers removed to make switching reels faster. "We were fast forwarding," McDonagh recounted, laughing. "And the reel came off and went flying up in the air, and the tape came down like spaghetti!"
The ruined reel of tape turned out to be unsalvageable. Although McDonagh made a valiant effort and got it back onto the reel, it turned out to be stretched and unplayable. It was their only copy. The only solution: go back in the studio and do it again. "You look back and laugh," Mitchell said, "but I tell you, at the time, our hearts nearly stopped." After a lot of work and effort, they completed a new version of Harmony Hill, which was released in 1993.
The album was welcomed by critics for its boisterous energy and fresh, vigorous appeal. Indeed, with Harmony Hill, Dervish had made a name for themselves almost overnight, landing at the forefront of the Irish traditional music scene. They didn't have to hustle, pitch or publicize much. As McDonagh put it, "It had its own momentum," and offers for tours immediately came their way. They have since toured Europe, the States, and as far afield as Hong Kong, wowing audiences at every turn. Their tight, fast and fiery playing, and Jordan's lively voice and charming presence, all make for an irresistible package.
This success has not kept them from working hard to find more material. They scour printed collections for new tunes; others they learn by osmosis at Sligo sessions. Still others are composed by the band members, particularly Kelly and Holmes, whose tunes have been performed by the Scottish group Capercaillie, among others. Jordan continues to look for new songs as well, visiting various music archives. Other songs are sent to her by fans. "When they get to know your voice and get to trust that you won't make a hash of it," she said, "they start sending you the stuff. I got a few tapes in the post last weekend, and I'd say the next album will probably have most of them on it."
After they pick out material, the next step is to arrange it, a complex artistic process often overlooked by fans and critics alike. "A lot of the music that Michael and Brian come up with is very original," Kelly explained, "because they have to back that song for the first time, which might never have been backed before. So even though we don't actually do original songs, a lot of the music that goes along with it is original."
Jordan described the typical process for arranging a tune: "You play it as raw as possible, and you play it over and over again, and just when you think you have a certain fluency with it, you start pulling it apart, and taking it piece by piece, and composing bits for here and breaks for there, and riffs for here. And then it's a mess for another week. And then it gets shaped from doing it again, and you end up with a finished product."
To provide a record of their hard work in selecting, arranging and playing music, Dervish have recorded two more CDs, Playing With Fire and At the End of the Day. Their experiences with Harmony Hill drastically changed their approach to the studio. For Harmony Hill, they took the conventional approach of recording each musician separately and mixing at the end. The problem with this approach, according to McDonagh, is that "the nature of the music is that there's a push and pull, a give and take, a relationship between the musicians. When you're trying to do it to a tape... the tape isn't responding to what you're doing at all, you're just trying to respond to it all the time, so it's a one-way street, you know? And it doesn't work.
"The way to do it for our kind of music is to record it live, and if someone makes a mistake, record it again." This philosophy has certainly paid off; At the End of the Day is a brilliant album, filled with the subtleties of musical communication. From the opening strains of bouzouki and mandola (which are quite reminiscent of Planxty, that other sacred band from Irish music history), the album proceeds through sets of brisk dance music played with tremendous, ferocious intensity, through sprightly songs and a few plaintive ones, with the feel of a pub session wedded to the precision of a tight band and the sound quality of a good studio.
One novel feature of At the End of the Day is a collaboration between the musicians of Dervish and those of the Swedish band Väsen. The two bands met on the European festival circuit, and were very impressed with one another's music. In particular, the tune "Josefin's Waltz," written by Väsen guitarist Roger Tallroth, seemed to cross musical boundaries. Originally, the members of Dervish merely thought they'd cover the tune on their album, but after Väsen's Olov Johanssen gave Shane Mitchell a nyckelharpa as a gift and a token of musical esteem, Dervish decided to invite Väsen into the studio with them.
Like the rest of the album, the Väsen piece was recorded live in the studio; the version that made it to the album was the second take. "I'm down as producer of the record but [engineer] Paul Ashe-Brown, well, that's a massive bit of recording from his point of view," McDonagh noted. "He managed to get everything perfect, for one take, with 10 people. It wasn't mixed. That was the mix as it was on that night, straight down."
Dervish have other favorites among the bands they've met: they mentioned Llan de Cubel, Taraf de Haidouks, La Bottine Souriante and Steeleye Span as groups that have lately impressed them. But they're not about to start mixing styles or incorporating exotic influences into their music. "I think the way we did it on the album, inviting a group from another country to play with you, just as a kind of one-off thing, is a great way to do it," McDonagh said. "We don't really agree with the notion of mixing music, like 'let's get a bongo drummer' or tablas or other influences." While they have respect for people like Sharon Shannon, the Chieftains, and the musicians who perform with Riverdance, they would never choose to go that route themselves. "We don't get involved with other things like bongo drums and keyboards and digeridoos and synthesizers and all that sort of stuff," McDonagh said firmly.
Instead, stability seems to be the band's watchword. "It can only get better," Mitchell said, "the same people playing all the time and recording, rather than a different line-up happening, with a front person and a revolving door on one side of the stage with a different fiddle player coming in every gig or every album."
Conservative? Perhaps. But it's for the best of reasons. "We really enjoy what we're doing at the moment," McDonagh said. "I don't see why we should stop while we're doing that!"