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October 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
As a small crowd of patrons chats intimately, a man at the rear of the pub swaps a guitar for a mandolin and begins strumming a soft, spirited melody. A gentle stream of flute and whistle soon merges with the melody, shortly reinforced by the faint beat of a drum. At Paddy Malone’s Irish Pub in Jefferson City, the evening’s specials are boiled cabbage, soda bread and roasted potatoes accompanied by traditional Irish music.
Local musicians have played together in this area for more than three decades, but they haven’t always played to big audiences. Like many Columbia residents, Kate Akers used to drive to Kansas City and St. Louis to catch performances of her favorite touring bands. But after growing weary of traveling to listen to Irish music, Akers founded the Central Missouri Celtic Arts Association in 2001. She now acts as the group’s president, plays the tin whistle and bodhrán, a traditional Irish drum, and organizes Celtic arts classes and concerts for touring bands.
On the first Thursday of every month, the CMCAA holds jam sessions at Kayotea with local musicians, some of whom have been playing Irish music together for more than 30 years. But next week’s session will be delayed a week when members of the newly reunited, legendary Irish band Patrick Street will teach workshops for budding musicians interested in Celtic music — a precursor to the band’s concerts in Jefferson City the following nights.
From the lively, melodic swing of jigs to the somber ballads of the Irish rebellion, the sessions transport the music from the pub to the public. Far from the polished presentation of Riverdance, which brought a surge of popularity to Irish traditional music in the mid-’90s, the sessions are informal and open to anyone. For Akers, playing for audiences is a way of fostering interest in the music, but to her the unspoken, common bond of musicians is what is truly important.
“When you start playing music with a group of people week after week, it becomes more than just notes,” Akers says. “You get to know people for the way they play a tune as much as what they do for a living.”
As Akers witnessed while living in Ireland for six months in 2000, music permeates Irish life. The narrative of the music is one of genuine bonding and working-class stories, she says. Even kitchens are adorned with instruments ranging from Uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) to flutes just in case someone is in the mood for a tune.
“During times of oppression in Ireland, music carried people through,” Akers says. “It went underground and was played in people’s homes, and it has been preserved in very organic ways.”
According to Tim Langen, who started playing Irish tunes on the fiddle at age 9, the resilience of Irish music is due in large part to its adaptability and heirloom-like quality. Although other cultures and new instrumentation frequently influence the songs, they retain the same character.
Langen says each Irish song has a persona. “Each time you play that tune, you’ll play it slightly differently and you’ll get to know the different sides of its personality.”
Over a glass of Guinness at Paddy Malone’s, Allen Tatman, who owns the pub with his wife, Marilee, expands on the music’s multi-faceted personality and extensive influence. Tatman sees the roots of American songwriters such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams firmly planted in Celtic music. “Traditional American country is little more than Celtic music that crossed the water and evolved,” he says. Today, the likes of the Dropkick Murphys and Black 47 blend Irish music and rock. Tatman even sees traces in pop artists like Brandi Carlile.
An extraordinary sense of history is what sets traditional Irish songs apart from today’s pop songs, according to Tom Schultz, a Columbia musician who plays mandolin, guitar and bodhrán.
With the fervor of a true connoisseur, Schultz says the music of Ireland used to be a means of social entertainment and the glue holding predominantly rural communities together. To Schultz and many other members of the CMCAA, fostering interest for Irish music in young musicians is paramount to the continuation of this tradition.
“It’s truly gratifying to see that it’s not just the older generation enjoying this music,” Schultz says. “This music is a living thing, so it’s important that it continues to live with the younger musicians.”