Can Culture Create Community?Share
Ethnic music and dance specialists set the tone for a community Arts renaissance.
AMERICA’S SUBURBS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN designed as transitory places — stepping-stone communities for a mobile population whose tentative social networks can be dislodged by the slightest economic hiccup or technology shift.
Suburbs are all about newer and faster, tomorrow not yesterday. Pretty much the last location one would expect to find a flourishing enclave of centuries-old music and dance traditions rooted in a distant immigrant past.
Yet over the last fifteen years, the Rockland County town of Pearl River, New York, has become a cultural epicenter, home to nearly 400 hundred performers of Irish Traditional Music and more than 1,000 active exponents of Irish Traditional Dance.
And that’s just counting kids under 18.
In pure population density, it breaks down to a statistical average of 220 human beings fiddling or jigging within each of Pearl River’s 6.80 square miles … a magical, mysterious Irish Culture Vortex twenty miles northwest of Manhattan containing the most concentrated mass of Irish musicians and dancers in the U.S. today.
It’s partly the result of demographic happenstance. The 2010 U.S. Census cites 46.7% of Pearl River’s 15,876 residents as possessing some degree of Irish ancestry, so right from the get-go almost half the citizenry are inclined to nod heads and tap feet when they hear the opening strains of Garryowen or She Moved through the Fair.
But heritage alone is no guarantee that the current generation will keep the tradition moving forward. There are numerous localities around the country with large Irish-American populations that have minimal representations of Irish music and dance.
In Pearl River, it’s been a collection of dedicated Arts activists who have taken responsibility for making sure the tradition stays alive and healthy — a handful of performers-turned-teachers passing on their knowledge one student, one lesson, one tune at a time.
A prime example is the Pearl River School of Irish Music with around 100 students taught by flute and tinwhistle player Margie Mulvihill, fiddler Rose Flanagan and accordionist/pianist Patty Furlong.
The three first-generation Irish-Americans first met as youngsters attending the celebrated Irish music school operated in New York City by fiddler Martin Mulvihill, an older cousin of Margie’s from Limerick, Ireland. In the mid-1990s, the women re-kindled their personal and musical friendship after each moved to Pearl River with their spouse and children.
Flanagan and Furlong began hosting monthly sessions in their homes, informal parties where friends and family mingled with local Irish traditional musicians, singers and dancers. “It was a way to have something fun to do on a Friday night,” recalls Furlong. “Before long, people started to ask us if we would teach Irish music to their child.”
Despite the profusion in recent years of pedagogical products that include CDs, DVDs, instruction books and online tutorials, Irish music is still largely transmitted to beginners using time-honored methods that are thoroughly and unapologetically “old school”.
A teacher and a student sit down together, and the teacher plays the simplest version of a tune that the student learns and memorizes note-for-note. Once the student has the basic melody down, the teacher introduces variations and embellishments. Then the process starts anew with teacher and student tackling another of the more than 20,000 individual tunes that constitute the Irish traditional music repertoire.
It’s a labor-intensive process; for Flanagan, Furlong and Mulvihill, teaching Irish music morphed into second careers. A few years back, they merged their individual efforts into one school. “Our students had progressed to the point where they wanted to play in a band with other kids,” says Mulvihill. “Organizing the music in a group context gave them the chance to extend their musicianship beyond their normal competitions.”
That would be the numerous competitions during the year which are an important part of the development process for aspiring Irish musicians (fleadh cheoil) and dancers (feis).
In the dance realm, Pearl River-based Inishfree School of Irish Dance sent 26 qualifying dancers to the Irish World Dancing Championships this past spring, including 16-year-old Ann Paige Turilli, a two-time World Championship winner.
The Pearl River School of Irish Music regularly has dozens of winners at American competitions; this year at the annual Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (All-Ireland Music Competition) held in Cavan, Ireland, the school’s céilí band in the Under 12 Division won 1st place — an honor rarely achieved by non-Irish competitors.
The school also scored with the All-Ireland Under-18 Fiddle Championship won by Sarah Buteux, a student of Rose Flanagan. Altogether, seven other area musicians captured prizes at the 2012 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.
To date, the school’s greatest musical export has been Girsa, an 8-piece band that came together as the first crop of students entered their late teens and tried their luck at organizing an ensemble geared to perform at festivals, clubs and concert halls. Since 2009, Girsa has released two albums and toured North America and Europe, winning lavish praise for their professionalism and musical vision.
However, teacher knowledge and student talent are only two of the building blocks responsible for the town’s extraordinary blossoming of Irish music and dance. The Pearl River School of Irish Music interacts with churches, schools, community festivals and the Rockland Center for the Arts in nearby West Nyack; for years the school regularly took part in cultural programs arranged by a librarian at a local elementary school.
“We try to be part of the community year-round, not just on St. Patrick’s Day,” says Rose Flanagan. “It’s important that students see their music is appreciated outside of recitals and competitions.”
Another critical component: student parents, for whom the lessons, competitions and excursions create an ever-broadening extended family spanning generations. “Traditionally, Irish music and dance was nurtured in private homes,” says Patty Furlong. “Our parents don’t view this as just another kid activity but as something they’ll invest in learning about as well. It makes the experience much more enriching for everyone.”
Here’s a formula explaining The How … How 18th-century Old World performing arts can thrive in a 21st-century American suburb:
Skilled Teachers + Curious Kids x (Supportive Parents + Community Interest) =
Successful Culture Preservation in Today’s World
But then there’s The Why … certainly these youngsters could learn ballet or “modern music” and have just as much fun acquiring the same basic performance skills … in today’s fast-changing American culturescape, why does it matter at all if there is a heritage haven like Pearl River?
The simple answer is that a young performer acquiring command of a second expressive language via feet, fingers or voice gains a vocational asset as valuable as knowing two or more spoken languages.
In the inter-connected global future that’s already arrived, those who are knowledgeable about and comfortable with different customs and belief systems will be better equipped to navigate the volatile currents of social and business change.
And because fortune favors the bold, and the bold of tomorrow will be energized and empowered by their arsenal of creative skills.
When the world’s performing arts emigrated to America over the last couple of hundred years, they inevitably looked backward, intent on resisting influences from other cultures that would negate the essence of the traditional forms.
Irish traditional music and dance are exceptions; their basic structures have allowed for a sizeable degree of repertoire fusion and stylistic innovation that never substantially altered the tradition’s fundamental “character”. They’ve absorbed change for centuries, and they’re still thriving — educating and entertaining in ways no one could have imagined even a generation ago.
The teachers and performers and appreciators of Irish traditional music and dance in Pearl River aren’t looking backwards. They’re looking ahead.
And having a grand time getting there.
Featured image: Pearl River School of Irish Music students perform at a local community hall.