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October 3, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Rewind to Aug. 18. Katie Alexander, along with Shannon and Jennifer Kelly, are in Derry, Northern Ireland, participating in the “Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann,” which translates to the All Ireland Music Competition. The crowd hollers as Alexander, Irish flute and tin whistle, Shannon, who plays the Celtic harp and the button accordion, and flutist Jennifer, win third place with a band of 20 from St. Louis.
Now it’s September. Alexander has arrived at Shannon Kelly’s Anthony Street apartment for practice with the Pure Irish club at MU. The other band members include Dominic Chambers on the fiddle, Nick Daugherty on the guitar, ukulele and harmonica, and John Taaffe on the banjo and guitar. While sitting in a circle in the sisters’ living room, the band begins to play.
Although Irish music is often compared to bluegrass, there are differences that define the two. “Bluegrass is less technical,” Chambers says about the genre’s more mellow sound. In Irish music, however, musicians learn how to play the song by ear. They learn the theme of the music and practice it until they get the melody down and are able to perform it.
What makes a sound Irish is the tradition of its creation and the learning process. “The tunes are passed down from ancestors years ago,” Shannon says. “That’s the traditional way of learning. You don’t get sheet music or anything.” Playing in a circle, members share eye contact and knowledge of the music. These things keep band members on the same beat and in tune with one another.
Daugherty says he has been learning and playing without sheet music his whole life, so it was nice to find people to do it with him. With passing down music comes variation, which is influenced by musicians’ personalities and the geographical locations of the performers.
“People put in their own styles,” Shannon says. “In Ireland alone you have styles from all the different counties. The southern part of Ireland has a totally different sound of music than if you went to the northwest or the east coast. You can be playing the same tune but in a totally different way and accenting different beats.”
The Irish step dance sprang from the music. “During the oppression of the Irish from the English, it was illegal to play Irish music, Irish dance, gather and have a session,” Shannon says.
“What people would do was gather in their homes, and musicians would sit by the fire playing tunes while dances would be created in the same room.” The custom of dancing with arms close to one’s side originated because of the cramped spaces.
Although the music and dance are historically and culturally rich, Irish descent isn’t required to be in Pure Irish at MU. Alexander, who is a musician, a dancer and the club’s president, says it’s for anyone who wants to learn about the Irish culture and its music and dance.