With its trilling tunes, traditional ballads and maybe even a few lightning-fast dance steps, the musical get-together called a session is the authentic heart of Irish musical culture.
But not every session -- or seisiun, as the Irish would call them -- happens on the Emerald Isle. They're springing up all across Western New York, from Williamsville to South Buffalo, from downtown to Allentown.
"Only in the last year or two has a critical mass of sessions locally been achieved," says Laurence Shine, an Irish native and Joyce scholar at Buffalo State College who leads the popular monthly sessions at the Glen Park Tavern in Williamsville.
The word itself, "session," which the Irish use to describe everything from a romantic tryst to an evening of drinking, has a specific meaning here. Irish sessions, which differ musically and structurally from jam sessions or jazz sessions, have a unique structure and etiquette.
A group of musicians, singers and possibly a dancer or two gathers, with a few regulars augmented by an ever-shifting roster of supporting players. Usually they sit around a table, which holds a pitcher or two of beverages supplied by the house. A de facto leader, who probably also sings or plays a few tunes, starts things off, and people play, sing, recite or dance as their turn is reached. Others may join in, sometimes on such seldom-seen instruments as the Irish drum, called a bodhran (BO-rawn), or the uilleann (ILL-in) pipes, which are bagpipes pumped with a bellows held between the body and the right arm. The fiddle is a mainstay, and tin whistles, guitars, flutes, mandolins, accordions and possibly even a harp might round out the instruments.
"A session is a public, amateur event -- this is not a professional gig," says Shine. In a charming remnant of the rural Irish tradition to feed and house musicians who traveled to play at celebrations, he says, "To this day, even here, somebody who performs at a session drinks for free."
"The melodies are set, and there's structure, but there is a lot of room for the way that you play it," says Stephanie Cornelius of Pembroke, a fiddle player who is active in local session culture. "Having grown up playing other kinds of music that was basically prescribed, I find this music to be very personal, which allows you to put your own spin on it."
"Maybe you insert a grace note, or play one note differently, or maybe the way you bow the phrase, it comes out sounding completely different," says Cornelius. "Ten people sitting in a room might be playing 10 slightly different versions. For me, the ideal is sitting down with a couple of different people, being able to hear what they're doing, and changing my playing a little bit so we're all doing the same thing together. That's when it's really good."
>'A hotbed of Irish music'
Many people who have enjoyed sessions in Ireland are surprised to find that the custom has crossed the ocean and is thriving here, says Shine.
"People who've been to Ireland recently come in and say, 'Oh, look, it's just like in Ireland!' A lot of Americans go to Ireland, and session culture reigns supreme over there now. Almost any night of the week in any town in Ireland, musicians will gather. Travelers and visitors to Ireland are used to that, so when they see it here there's a recognition."
Session culture is growing here, too, participants say.
"This whole area -- Buffalo, Rochester and Toronto -- has just become a hotbed of Irish music," says Alec Cheney of Buffalo, who plays the uilleann pipes. "Almost any night of the week, you can find a session in one of the cities."
But you certainly don't have to be Irish or interested in Irish culture to enjoy yourself at a session. The combination of varying musical forms, the recitations and dance, make each one an enjoyable event even for the uninitiated.
On this bright autumn afternoon in the Glen Park Tavern, the spirit is rollicking, the pace varied between slow tunes and lively jigs and reels. While most of the songs are traditional, a few people showcase their own work, including Rich Meyers' folk tune, "Irish Angel," and Cornelius' ode to the hosting pub, "The Glen Park Tavern Reel."
The experience levels around the large table range from the credible bodhran work of Justin Donahoe, who has played the flat goatskin drum since April, to the lightning fiddling of Eamon "Ed" Dillon, who hails from the richly musical land of County Clare. Dillon let his fiddle do most of the talking, but noted, "I was born into this."
Mary Blake, a fiddler, is persuaded to slip on her hard-soled shoes and dance along to a jig, her feet blurring with the quick, precise dance steps.
That's a familiar sight for Dr. James Warde, a co-founder of the Irish Classical Theatre Company and a lifelong proponent of Irish culture. During his childhood, Warde spent summers at his grandparents' house in County Mayo and recalls neighbors, after a lull in conversation, asking, "Jim, would you give us an aul' bar," meaning a bar of music. "It was spontaneous and informal," he says, with storytelling and dancing, and when the dancers stepped up, they were urged to try "to break the hearthstone" with their flying, stamping feet.
Clare Sweeney, 14, silences the room with an ethereally sweet rendition of "The Water Is Wide," while her cousin, Joe Saeli, strums a guitar. "It's a very friendly atmosphere," says Saeli. "I think we might have more fun than the people watching us."
As the musical torch passes around the table, Barbara Miller soulfully sings "The Sally Gardens" before Shine belts out a rousing ballad in Irish about "a mad goat that got loose one day and brought Dingle to its knees." Halfway through the first hour, brothers Colin and Patrick O'Donnell of the band Seanache walk in, to the delight of the assembled players and listeners, and add a mandolin and guitar to the mix.
The overall effect is friendly, varied and interesting. Those who turn out to hear the familiar fast-paced tunes might find themselves savoring a slow ballad. And almost everyone is getting their first look at the uilleann pipes. "Every single time I play, at least one person comes up to me and asks me about the pipes," says Cheney.
>Every session varies
Local music-lovers are spoiled by being offered at least five regularly scheduled sessions around the Buffalo area. "Each session has its own flow and flavor," says Cornelius, who plays closer to her home in Pembroke, too.
Jim Daley, owner of Ulrich's Tavern on Ellicott Street, says the Monday night sessions there draw between six and 12 musicians and vary widely in tone.
"We had one that was a rowdy session of drinking songs, and the next time there were different people, quieter tunes and a completely different mood," says Daley. "We have had some pretty talented musicians. A lot of them are band members, and they do different things from what they do in their sets.
Cheney says the Thursday night session in Bia Irish Deli on Main Street in Williamsville is a small get-together that might please families who would like to hear the music in a non-pub atmosphere.
But no matter which session a person attends, Shine promises that a listener might well be asked to take a turn in providing the entertainment.
"The name of the game is participation," he says. "Sometimes there's somebody sitting outside the circle of the session thinking, 'Ooh, I'd love to try something.' Many times the person who is leading will say, 'If there's anybody out there who wants to do something, please do so. Give us a song, recite a poem -- even sing a few advertising jingles you remember from childhood!' "
A person who gets pulled in by the fun and fellowship at a session might want to explore the musical possibilities further, and Cheney urges people with musical inclinations to speak to a member of a session group.
"If people want to get into this, they should just come to a session," Cheney says. "Maybe they want to learn to play the fiddle or the tin whistle, and we can steer them to a person who can help them. Part of this whole thing is the arms-open, welcoming nature of it."