FolkFire Articles

March / April 2001

  • Celtic Convergence
  • Electric Balkan at Its Best!
  • Switchback

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  • Celtic Convergence
    by Allison M. Brock

    On the back patio of a pub, a group of strangers forms a circle. Their noisy ring is littered with bulky instrument cases and overflowing pints. A uilleann piper begins "Kitty Come Down from Limerick," and is immediately joined by three others. A fourth eyes the performers closely. As his focus narrows on their instruments, he plays the tune on his fiddle, slowly absorbing each note. Midway during the slip jig, a flute player pulls up a chair. People begin trickling from the back door, eager to hear masters and novices.

    St. Louis will once again be filled with such scenes when the 2001 Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival returns, April 20-22. The popular festival was the brainstorm of St. Louis native Mike Mullins, uilleann piper Michael Cooney, and Judy Stein of the Focal Point Traditional Arts Center. Back in 1997, the trio discussed the need for a weekend of Irish music workshops in the Midwest, like those available on the east and west coasts. They began organizing the Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival. The response to the event was very positive. "Everyone kept asking, 'When are we going to do the next one?' So we decided to make it an annual event," said Mullins.

    In April, the Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival will bring together masters of Irish music and those wanting to learn the craft from all over the country. Over 100 devotees made the trip to St. Louis for last year's workshops. Mullins hopes attendance will rise, considering the additional classes available in 2001. As always fiddle, button accordion, uilleann pipes and reedmaking, flute, whistle, guitar accompaniment, bodhran, and singing workshops will be offered. This year new classes are concertina, harp, banjo, and set dancing. Many workshops will be broken down into intermediate, advanced, and beginner levels, so all skills will be accommodated. Mullins continues to bring in top-notch musicians to teach, well-known and well-respected names like Liz Carroll, Joe Burke, Michael Cooney, Gearóid ÓhAllmhuráin, and many others.

    The weekend will begin with sessions at Seamus McDaniel's Pub on April 20, where musicians will meet, or in many cases reunite, for conversation and tunes. For those more inclined to dance, there will be a céilídh at Focal Point. Saturday April 21 brings a full day of workshops at Nerinx Hall High School. Later that evening, students will be able to take a break as their teachers perform at the Sheldon Concert Hall. Tickets are available from Metrotix; (314) 534-1111 or through the Sheldon Concert Hall Box Office; (314) 533-9900. Saturday night's performance will include a special tribute to Al Purcell, a uilleann piper from Dublin, who passed away in September. Al taught advanced piping during the festival from the beginning, and his playing was always a highlight at the concert. "I first met Al when he came down to St. Louis for our first festival in 1998. He was such a help and inspiration to me in so many ways that I could not begin to recount them. His cheerfulness and willingness to share his knowledge were legend among pipers and musicians everywhere," said Mullins.

    The weekend will end Sunday with sessions at Focal Point and John D. McGurk's, a pub famous for its long-standing history with Irish musicians.

    For more details on the Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival, visit, or contact Mike Mullins,

    Electric Balkan at Its Best!
    by Gretchen Tomazic

    On March 9-11, 2001. IFDA will present Steve Kotansky along with the band Édessa for a dance workshop on Rom and Albanian dances. This promises to be a fantastic time for those who enjoy learning from an energetic and knowledgeable teacher. Steve is certainly one of the premier folk dance instructors in the U. S. Raised in the San Francisco area, Steve moved to southern California after high school and danced with the prestigious Aman Folk Ensemble in Los Angeles. Sojourning in Germany for over 7 years, he worked with ethnic communities in Munich, while teaching dance, performing and pursuing his interest in the study and research of Balkan and eastern European dances. He also lived in Bucovina, learning local folklore. In 1979, Steve returned to give his first workshops in the U.S. He has since taught at every major North American dance festival and camp. He is known as a fantastic dancer and remains in demand as a teacher, due to his infectious energy and enthusiasm and knowledge.

    Édessa will provide the music for this workshop. The band is composed of four outstanding musicians. Dan Auvil plays the doumbeléki, daoúli, and defi. Due to Dan's skill and reputation, he is known as the "dancers" drummer. Dan teaches at BalkanMusic and Dance Camp in Mendocino, California.

    George Chittenden from the San Francisco Bay Area plays the clarinet, saxophone, gaida and zourna. He studied music abroad, focusing primarily on regional styles of dance music from both rural and professional musicians of northern Greece and Anatolian Turkey. George performs regularly for ethnic communities, folk music and dance events.

    Ari Langer is an electric violinist with an eclectic range of musical worlds and composition experiences during his life. He toured Europe with the Irish group Draiocht (on the Shananchie label) and produced music with quirky underground dance favorites, Voice Farm. He played sessions on ambient/world music albums by Six Degrees/Island Records and immersed himself in Balkan music with Édessa. Ari composes music for film and corporate videos. His work is heard on Bravo and

    Lise Liepman plays the santouri (Greek hammered dulcimer), baglamá and accordion. She and her husband, George Crittenden moved to Athens, Greece where she studied santouri with master musicians. Lisa has toured internationally and has taught santouri at Balkan music workshops on both the west and east coasts.

    Édessa is known for playing the high-energy dance music of the southern Balkans. Édessa has toured internationally and has played at all of the Balkan music and dance camps throughout the United States.

    by Donna Eckberg

    Switchback, Chicago's dynamic duo comes to Focal Point, Wednesday, March 7 at 8 p.m. A switchback is a zigzag course or trail, which ascends a hill. Switchback also refers to a dynamic musical duo that compares their exploration of musical styles to taking the switchback trail instead of charging straight up to the top. They want to enjoy the journey and people as they explore and present their craft. Brian Fitzgerald on guitar, mandolin and vocals is superb. His finger picking is phenomenal. Marty McCormack excels on tenor vocals and bass guitar. He often kicks into a Celtic frenzy on the dance floor during an Irish tune, still holding the bass line. Their voices blend beautifully like those famous brother duos. The percussive style gets their feet tapping, the sum resulting in a sound greater than one expects of its two musician parts. Often their audience is unable to resist applauding with their feet by dancing too.

    You will experience many styles of music on the Switchback trail including rock, blues, country, swing, Celtic and lovely ballads. Most of Switchback's music is original, much of it downright dance-able. They write about things they know and experience in the Midwest. Clever songs compare love to a twister in a trailer park or describe a rendezvous in the hay barn followed by a furious fiddle tune. A passage in their frequently requested favorite, "The Nursing Home Song," was inspired during a nursing home gig in Memphis. One of the residents claimed to have been Elvis' chauffeur and they sing of him mopping the floor with his socks as he dances into the room. This duo has played songwriter haunts, such as the Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee and you've guessed it, many nursing homes with bars and clubs in between.

    Don't miss a chance to see the dynamic duo, Switchback, at their Focal Point debut. You will also get to experience the new adjoining bar, designed by the City Museum's Bill Christman and perhaps dance with delight in the warmly acoustic concert hall. Come as you are. Focal Point is located at 2720 Sutton, Maplewood, MO. 314-781-4200 Show is at 8:00pm, $10.00.

    Get all the details at the Focal Point website