BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Please, don’t call them “kids” any more.
This past year, the Cape Cod-based ensemble of school-age Irish musicians formerly known as “Keltic Kids” changed its name to “Celtic Roots.” The time was ripe, members say: When the group began about five years ago, most of them were eight or nine years old, without much performance experience. Since then, the band has appeared locally at BCMFest (Boston Celtic Music Fest), been on radio, done some school and benefit concerts and – by the way – opened for popular Irish/Americana quartet We Banjo 3. In addition, some of the members have enjoyed success in the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil and other Irish music competitions.
“We just felt we should have a more mature name,” summed up fiddler Ashley Dawn, 14, who added that members also decided to adopt a “band uniform,” complete with ties, to affirm its shared identity.
So everyone got into a circle and fired off suggestions.
“It was a huge debate,” recalled fiddle, flute, and whistle player Jonathan Ford, 13. Ultimately, Ashley said, Celtic Roots was “one of the only serious names that came around.” However they came up with it, Ashley, Jonathan and their Celtic Roots colleagues – Jonathan’s sister Bailey, 11 (piano, concertina, step dancing); Lili Hay, 13 (fiddle); Fern Tamigini-O’Donnell, 13 (fiddle, vocals); Alex Birdsey, 14 (fiddle); and Gavin Rice, 14 (banjo, mandolin, bass) – have embraced the name and its connotations.
“Celtic Roots” suggests a sense of connection to the music tradition that the group members have made their own, individually and collectively. But the word “roots” could also have a generational dimension – a reference to the caring adults who encourage and assist young musicians’ immersion in the tradition.
Foremost among these, in the case of Celtic Roots, would be fiddler Clayton March, a co-founder of West Bend Music in Dennis Port, which provides lessons for all ages in several different kinds of music. March formed the band to get the youngsters to see music as a means of personal growth and fellowship – rather than an activity defined only by lesson and practice schedules.
“I didn’t start out with the idea that they’d be a performance band,” said March, who expresses gratitude to the Keltic Kids/Celtic Roots families for their support. “I just wanted them to look at music as something they could enjoy with peers, and not simply regard it as an obligation. It was really up to them where this was all going to lead.”
Some of the Celtic Roots members, like Jonathan and Bailey, were familiar with Irish or other Celtic music, but others had had little or no exposure. So at the outset, March took things slow and easy, having them work on easy-to-learn melodies like “Camptown Races.” As they progressed, he began to fill their repertoire with Irish tunes – beginner-level at first, then of increasing degree of difficulty – and to arrange these in sets. Nowadays, each member of the group has an opportunity to share with the others a tune he or she has learned.
“They’ve also taken on a lot more leadership of the arrangements: ‘Hey, why don’t end with this chord instead of that one?’” said March.
It’s worth noting the important experiences outside Celtic Roots that have contributed to its members’ development, such as getting instruction from other accomplished musicians like Laurel Martin, Sean Clohessy, Liz Carroll, and Kathleen Conneely, or attending the music school run by Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch. Ashley, Gavin, Fern, Jonathan, and Bailey all have competed in the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil – individually, in various combinations, or as part of the Boston Comhaltas School youth ensemble – and finished at or near the top, in some cases going on to the All-Ireland Fleadh.
These kinds of experiences, March said, serve to broaden the group’s perspective on Irish tradition, and bring them in contact with the wider Irish music community.
“What they’ve seen is how music can be a lifelong love for many adults. Some make a career out of it, others play just for fun, but music is a part of who they are. I’m very proud of what the group has achieved, and how they’ve now come to ‘own’ the music they play.”
On one afternoon, Celtic Roots gathered in West Bend Music for a rehearsal, going over some new and more recent additions to their repertoire. March offered some direction and guidance, and played along with them, but there was plenty of discussion and back-and-forth among the members, too. Once they were in the midst of playing a set of tunes, you could hear the progress of five years. Better tonality. Less bum notes. Smoother rhythm. And an overall sense of confidence and purposefulness.
Spend some time chatting with the Celtic Roots members, and it’s quite plain they do in fact “own” the music, as March noted. They will talk enthusiastically about favorite tunes, major musical influences and formative experiences, like attending a traditional music-focused camp or taking part in a fleadh.
And because they have a history, and a perspective on things, they can kid with one another. At one point in the conversation, the topic shifted to group dynamics and roles. Jonathan is usually the one who handles the stage patter at gigs, and he clearly has the tools for it (such as employing the canonical “How’s everyone doing?” line) – but his band mates good-naturedly chide him with anecdotes of jokes or quips gone wrong.
Jonathan shrugs it off with the aplomb of a show business veteran. “Hey,” he said with a smile, “everyone learns by making mistakes.”
Most of all, the Celtic Roots gang likes to talk about what Irish/Celtic music means to them, and the place it holds in their lives.
“I started out playing classical violin before I became interested in Irish fiddle,” said Ashley. “A while back, I played classical for the first time in quite a while, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is why I love Irish music.’ Irish music has its own discipline, but at the same time there’s a freedom to it that you can really enjoy. Irish music also has a sense of community that is very strong – I think about all the cool, fun people I’ve met through the music.”
“I just think it’s interesting what you can do with this music,” said Fern. “I feel like it’s something I have that I can share with others but also keep for myself, for my own enjoyment.”
Added Bailey, “It’s just so much fun, and it’s taken me lots of places – I wouldn’t have gone to Ireland if not for the music – and helped me meet new people.”
“If you play enough tunes, you can take different parts from them, put them together, and it’s like you wrote it,” said Jonathan, who avers that getting involved in Irish music is “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
“I love it for the stuff you can do with it,” he added. “There’s just so much that’s wonderful – even crazy – about it, and I love it.”
Celtic Roots will be among the performers at BCMFest, which takes place in Harvard Square Jan. 18-21; see passim.org/bcmfest for information.