In honor of National Poetry Month, Kojo explores new collections by local poets and finds out how poetry impacts our lives amid social, political and cultural upheaval.
You don’t have to look far to notice the influence of Irish culture in cities like Washington. But that influence is also embedded in musical traditions that live and breathe all throughout America. Kojo explores the legacy of traditional Irish music in modern America and why it still resonates with so many people without Irish heritage.
- Tina Eck Musician, "Lilt"
- Keith Carr Musician, "Lilt"
- Chris Teskey Senior Music Producer and Host of the Chris Teskey Show, WAMU's Bluegrass Country
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey say that everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, but Ireland's musical traditions may have done more to unite people around the world than any holiday or pint of Guinness ever has. And Washington has long been a rallying point for people in love with Irish music. Consider those sitting in this room.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA son of Connecticut whose passion for blue grass music led him down the rabbit hole to the Irish sound. A musician who grew up in Albany, New York whose strongest bond to his Irish heritage is the strangely named instrument he mastered later in life, and the German woman he now plays with who taught herself traditional Irish instruments by showing up to countless sessions at pubs in Washington, D.C. For the rest of this hour we'll be exploring the sprawling influence of Irish culture on countless musical traditions.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Keith Carr. He is based in the Washington area. He's a musician. He plays the bouzouki and the tenor banjo in the traditional Irish duo Lilt. Keith, welcome. Glad to have you in studio.
MR. KEITH CARRThank you, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDIJoining Keith is Tina Eck. She is also based in this area. She plays the Irish wooden flute and the tin whistle in Lilt. Tina Eck, thank you for joining us.
MS. TINA ECKOh, thanks for having us.
NNAMDIAnd our studio is graced by Chris Teskey. He is senior music producer at WAMU's blue grass country where he's host of the Chris Teskey Show and the Well Below the Valley. He's also the founder of Mad River Records. We work on the same floor. I run into him every day all the time going into and out of the elevator, but welcome nevertheless, Chris.
MR. CHRIS TESKEYThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood to have you in studio. Well, let's get a taste of what this music sounds like as it is played by the D.C.-based duo Lilt.
NNAMDIThat was a traditional jig called Coppers and Brass, performed by Lilt in studio with Keith Carr on the bouzouki and Tina Eck on the flute. We'll talk more about their instruments later. But we should point out first that neither of the people playing them is what you would call hardcore Irish. Keith, your family does have Irish heritage but it wasn't a big part of your upbringing. What is it about traditional Irish music that sucked you in?
CARRWell, I do come from an Irish family, but we were not close to our roots. But there was something about the music all along. I come from a family of professional musicians and there was always classical music floating around the house. They're instrumental music teachers. And one of the pieces that I remember from an early age was written by Percy Grainger, the Australian composer. And he took a couple of Irish tunes and put them together and composed a symphonic tone poem which is called Molly on the Shore.
CARRAnd I remember hearing that when I was a little kid. And I think ever since then, you know, the Irish style music, the sound of it...
NNAMDIIt was an earworm for you.
CARRIt was an earworm and it just kind of took root. And I think I just came to appreciate it more and more over the years.
NNAMDIAnd started playing it more and more. Tina, you're German, but this is the music you fell in love with. What was it that sucked you in? Why do you think this music is so universally appealing? When did you decide you wanted to play it?
ECKThat was the instant I walked into a bar. I had to move to Washington from...
NNAMDIA woman walked into a bar. I know that story.
ECKI walked into a bar and there was an Irish music session in the back room and -- a session, as we have many of them here in D.C. -- and I got sucked into the music right there and right then, and loved everything that was going on. And the universal appeal I cannot really talk about, but the appeal for me was the energy and the sadness and the rhythm as much as the melodies. I bought myself a tin whistle, a little instrument, and...
NNAMDII see your tin whistle.
ECK...sat down and tried to learn the music from my peers and never looked back.
NNAMDIShe went to every session she could go to and now she actually teaches, but we'll get to that later. It seems like since you learned it in a bar, the social aspect of traditional Irish music was very important to both of you. How would you explain the social nature of it, starting with you, Tina?
ECKTo me it was the whole community of it, learning this music from friends. It's an all tradition by tradition but learning this music from people that I really liked and admired for their musical capabilities and making new friends and having a whole different community and things to do really kind of almost led to a feeling, what was I doing before? Why -- how come I haven't discovered this before?
ECKSo the social aspect is having friends and spending a lot of time with them musically and sharing this language that we all speak in terms of music is really...
NNAMDIIs that an important part of it for you too?
CARROh absolutely. And I think the more I came to learn about the music and I began to realize that it really provides the soundtrack to life in Ireland, this is a long, long tradition. And people play this style of music at cultural events and parties and in kitchens and at dances. And, you know, it really is very much ingrained into the culture of that nation. So the more I became exposed to our scene here in Washington and I realized that our people here, our friends, we're all sort of operating in that mode. We're a little bit of a piece of Irish culture
CARREven though neither of us are purely Irish, there's still something about the way you conduct your business in the Irish music world.
NNAMDIIf you're a part of the Irish music or Irish cultural scene in Washington, give us a call. If you'd like to know more about it call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Chris Teskey, you're officially the chief of blue grass operations here at WAMU but Irish music has been a big part of your life. You worked for more than nearly two decades at an important Irish music label. You still host a Celtic music show here on blue grass country and you founded a record label that specializes in world and Celtic music.
NNAMDIHow did your love for blue grass music take you to this sound and how would you describe the relationship between traditional Irish music and the music that it influenced here in America?
TESKEYWell, you know, blue grass music and American country music really is a product of African music and Celtic music slamming into each other in the southeast part of the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. And the reason hillbillies are called hillbillies, for example, is because they were all named -- it was a bunch of Scottish guys named William after William of Orange living in the hills. They really were Billies.
TESKEYThe one thing for me about Irish music is that I didn't get it for a long time, and I loved blue grass. And then it all sounds the same until it doesn't one day. And you say, oh I get it today. Why didn't I get it yesterday? And that's what happened to me. But I was offered a job in Irish music without really knowing that much about it. But I took the job because I wanted to work in the music business and I just went from there. I lucked out.
NNAMDIThe rest, as they say, is history. Where does Washington, D.C. fit into the Irish music universe, if you will, here in the United States. There's obviously a community here that's vibrant enough to give rise to people like Keith and Tina.
TESKEYThere's been a -- there's a long history of Irish music here. The Clinical Park had an Irish festival every year that happened on Memorial Day. And I know we would travel down from Connecticut to come to it and spend the weekend. And all the musicians would stay over at the Phoenix Park Hotel and play in those two bars. It's the Irish Times and what's the other one?
TESKEYThe Dublin -- the Irish Times and the Dubliner. And if you really wanted a dose of Irish music you would stay up all night on Memorial Day weekend and hang around in the Dubliner and the Irish Times.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that job you had at the Green Linnet. How did you end up hooking up with that label?
TESKEYI was at an Irish music concert. A guy named Gerald Trimble -- Keith, you'd know his playing -- a bouzouki player from Kansas City -- and the owner of the label walked over to me and said, I need someone to help me run the label. Are you interested? And I was kind of floored and I said, I'll send you my resume. And she said, I don't have a resume file. Let's go out to a concert and talk about it. And the next thing you know I was working for an Irish record company.
NNAMDIGreen Linnet. Here is Bob in Washington, D.C. I don't know if you'll be able -- everybody'll be able to hear Bob. Bob you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBThank you, Kojo. I'm so pleased...
NNAMDIOh, wait a second, Bob. We got to get our earphones on. Do you guys have earphones over there?
NNAMDIOh well, Bob, I'm going to put you on hold until we can hear you. But I know you want to talk about Lilt. So while we're getting you hooked up so that Lilt can hear you, why don't we give another listen to Lilt. What we're listening to today is dance music, when we get down to it. What we heard first was a jig and now you're ready to play a reel. Can we hear...
ECKOh, a reel.
NNAMDIYeah, hit us with a reel, please.
NNAMDIA performance by Lilt, the Messenger and the Roscommon Reel. Can you tell us a little about the language of traditional Irish music? Like what's the difference between a jig and a reel?
TESKEYWell, these are forms of dance, and they are played to different meters. Musicians will know about the time signature of a piece of music. So reels are played in the 4/4 meter, and jigs are typically played in the 6/8 meter. And basically the way I tell my students how to think about there, there's a little mnemonic. A reel goes watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, watermelon. A jig goes pineapple apricot, pineapple apricot, pineapple apricot.
NNAMDIThat's a good way to remember it.
NNAMDIThe difference between a jig and a reel. We've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about Irish music some more, hear a little more of Lilt playing, and then Chris Teskey's going to dance for us. We're going to take a short break. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking Irish music with Chris Teskey, senior music producer at WAMU's Bluegrass Country where he's host of "The Chris Tesky Show," and "The Well Below the Valley." He's also the founder of Mad River Records. Joining us in studio to talk and perform is Tina Eck. She's a musician based in the Washington area. She plays the Irish wooden flute and the tin whistle in the group Lilt. Keith Carr plays the bouzouki and the tenor banjo in the group Lilt.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. It is my understanding that you two hooked up as musical partners and met through sessions here in Washington, but that one of your first gigs together was a wedding, right, Tina?
ECKIt in fact was, yeah.
NNAMDIYou were the one who had the gig. What happened after that?
ECKWell, I want to tell you what happened before that, because I had the gig and my guitar players bailed out on me, and I didn't even have Keith's phone number at the time. So I did some research and made some phone calls. I was on the road from the car. I was in Connecticut actually, and I reached Keith and said can you play that gig with me in a few hours more or less.
NNAMDIAnd he came?
ECKAnd he said -- he did, yes. He said and he came through and he did and we played that gig together.
NNAMDIAnd they have been presumably playing together ever since. What are the instruments you brought with you today? Keith, yours has a pretty funny-sounding name. What's the story behind the bouzouki?
CARRWell, it's an interesting story. It's not an old instrument. Bouzoukis have been played in Greece for centuries, but the Irish bouzouki is derived from the Greek bouzouki, and it really doesn't have an awful lot in common with the Greek bouzouki. The story goes that in the 1970s, a singer in one of the Irish bands, Johnny Moynihan who played with Sweeney's Men, latched onto a bouzouki, a Greek Bouzouki in Ireland. And the story goes that they -- bit by bit it became accepted as a sound that could be played in this form of music, and the Irish guitar players started to become interested, and they looked around for a luthier, a guitar builder, who could make them a new version of the bouzouki that had a flat top and a flat back like a guitar would.
CARRSo the Irish bouzouki was born in the 1970s, and it's become very popular, not just in Irish music, but here and there in other genres. Mine has 10 strings. They usually have eight, but I like that deep (makes noise) . My extra strings on the bass side, so I can get a chunka chunka rhythm going.
NNAMDISo Keith brought his bouzouki. What did you bring, Tina?
ECKI brought my flute.
ECKThat's an Irish concert flute, and this one is a replica of an English concert flute basically. The flutes that the Irish all over the -- through the years used to play this music on. This flute was made just 13 years ago by a wonderful flute maker in Charlottesville, and his name is Patrick Olwell, and it's a really wonderful, wonderful instrument. It's made from crocus wood and has silver keys, six of them. Basically they are called system style flutes because they are really just a stick with six holes and some keys.
NNAMDIExcept that that one is so cool looking.
ECKIt's cool looking, isn't it? Yes. I like it too.
NNAMDIYes, it is.
ECKThat's a really beautiful instrument. I'm very proud of it.
NNAMDIYou brought a whistle too didn't you?
ECKI did bring a tin whistle. Totally different animal, and they come in different keys, in the key of C and D. I brought a whistle in the key of C and it sounds very different than the flute here.
NNAMDIMm-hmm. Big difference. Chris, when you come back through, or go back through the annals of popular music in America, or folk music in America, where can you see the influence of Irish music most clearly? It's my understanding that you might not have found Irish music were it not for the Grateful Dead.
TESKEYWell, that's right. The Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan hung out with the Clancy Brothers in Greenwich Village at places like the Lion's Head, and actually lifted things -- if you listen to Bob Dylan's "Fare Thee Well," and listen to "The Leaving of Liverpool" by the Clancy Brother, they're the same song, but Bob kind of spruced it up and improved it and put his name on it. And then the Grateful Dead recorded things like "Peggy O," which was a Clancy Brothers tune, although it always sounded to me like they stopped by Bob Dylan's house to pick it up.
TESKEYSo that whole -- the Clancy Brothers were really who brought Irish music into that Greenwich Village scene, and then out from there, Dylan and Tom Paxton and people like Jerry Garcia took it to wherever they wound up taking it.
NNAMDIWhere do you see the scene for this music headed, not just in Washington, but around the country? Obviously you've got a pretty unique perspective on this as both a radio person and a music label person.
TESKEYWell, you know, it's cyclical. There was a huge increase and interest in Irish music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it became huge. I mean, there were bands selling hundreds of thousands of records. All the major labels jumped on the bandwagon, and like all fads in cycles, it waned a bit and all the majors were the first ones to leap off, of course, you know.
TESKEYAnd now it appears to be waxing again. There's a whole new generation of musicians. I like to joke that I used to know all the musicians, now I know all the musicians and their children who are all playing, and there's a whole new generation of Irish musicians who are very good in carrying on the traditions. So I expect to see an upswing in interest once again.
NNAMDIIt's waxing and digitizing too. Here is William in Fairfax, Va. William, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WILLIAMHi, Kojo. My question is what kind of resources are there for amateur musicians to get into playing Irish music?
NNAMDIWell, there Tina, and -- but go ahead, please, Tina.
ECKThere's many resources. For instance there are workshop and music camps. There's a wonderful music school happening here in the summer locally. It's called MAD Week, Music, Arts, and Dance Week, and it's happening in July and Mitch Fanning is the Director, and there are workshops for almost every instrument imaginable for this music. You can also learn dancing, and there's the Washington Conservatory of Music where Keith and I are teaching, and there's also the session you can just walk in like I did. You cannot play right away, but you can listen and you tape the stuff and you can listen to it at home and try to pick up an instrument. And there's of course, countless individual teachers also here in the area who teach this type of music.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, William. Good luck to you. Here now is Bob, again, in Washington D.C. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBThank you, Kojo. I'm so pleased that you have Tina and Keith on your show. They played at my house last Sunday.
NNAMDITina just covered her mouth in embarrassment. But go ahead, please.
BOBEver since our first trip to Ireland in 1990, we've had an annual Irish party to introduce our D.C. friends, particularly the political friends to Irish-American culture. We focus on food, drink, live traditional music, and original poetry. And a few years ago, Mayor Williams read one of my wife's poems. So we think they are a terrific duo, and they really do example what is available in the area.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you your call, Bob.
ECKThank you, Bob.
NNAMDIHow do you feel when your group serves essentially as ambassadors for Irish culture given your respective backgrounds? Keith?
CARRWell, you know, I would like to be able to say well, I'm from Ireland and I have, you know, deep roots in Ireland, and so -- but I can't. I'm just a big, big fan of the music, and I can play it, and I do, you know, have connections among the community here and elsewhere in the United States and a little but overseas as well. So when I am in the position of, you know, being an exemplar for this kind of music, I basically think that well, Irish music is not necessarily confined to Ireland, and there are proponents of the music all over the world.
CARRTina, for example, knows people in Germany who are wonderful musicians, and there are bands here and there. Japan has a big Irish music scene, and Russia does, and you name it. There are Irish musicians here, there, and everywhere. So I figure that I can, you know, as long as I can play the music and talk the talk...
NNAMDIYou can be an ambassador for it. One of the words in the vocabulary here that I liked was hornpipe. This is another kind of dance, and the rhythm of another kind of tune. Can you play for us -- can we hear a hornpipe?
NNAMDIHornpipes McMann's Dance, The Birds, "Happy Hornpipes" with Lilt, Tina Eck and Keith Carr. It's my understanding Chris, that a pretty big event is headed this way next month. What's going to happen in Bethesda in April?
TESKEYWell, that's the Comhaltas National Convention. Comhaltas is the International Irish Culture Organization, and their mission is to promote Irish culture, music, dance, and literature and it's in a different place every year, but this year, April 4th through 7th, I think, it's here in Washington.
NNAMDIWhat are you looking forward to most there, Tina?
ECKOh, to the showcase performances, to the many, many (word?) , there's going to be workshops. There's going to be a film program, there's going to be a literature program, and all of our friends who talked about the social aspect, everybody's involved. I mean, there are people coming from all over the United States, and from Canada and from Ireland, and all our local friends and bands and musicians and teachers, everybody's there.
NNAMDIAnd what they'll be looking forward to when they get there is the performance of Lilt. What are you looking forward too, Keith?
CARRWell, it's a social scene, you know. We'll see everybody, and we have musicians coming and dancers coming in from Ireland and from all over the United States and Canada. It'll be a whirlwind, high energy, lovely social event for all us.
NNAMDIIt'll be hot, hot. Keith Carr is a musician based in the Washington area. He plays the bouzouki and the tenor banjo in the traditional Irish duo, Lilt. Tina Eck plays the Irish wooden flute and the tin whistle. Chris Teskey is senior music producer at WAMU's Bluegrass Country where he's host of "The Chris Tesky Show," and "The Well Below the Valley." He's also the founder of Mad River Records. Polka is a kind of music most people associate with eastern Europe, but people play Irish polkas too. I'd like to have you all play a few polka tunes in your repertoire, and that's what we're going to go out on. Can we wrap things up with a Polka tune? Thank you all for listening, I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Here we go.
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