The New York Times has hailed Eileen Ivers "the Jimi Hendrix of the violin." Born to Irish immigrant parents and raised in the Bronx, this virtuoso of the fiddle has a signature sound that is grounded in traditional Irish music while embracing African, Latin and American rhythms.
Upon sifting through a pile of mail which accumulated while I was on a trip to Ireland, I came across a lovely letter from the good folks at Thistle & Shamrock. They were wondering if I would put down a few thoughts for their listeners. I was absolutely thrilled and honored. Like all you readers, I have been a major fan of Fiona and the show for many years now. Wow, more than twenty years and going stronger than ever.
While thinking about what I should write, I couldn't help but reflect upon the trip to Ireland we just returned from. My husband Brian and I just finished construction of a house on my father's land in Mayo...an absolute dream come true! After this generation, there was a good chance that the land would be out of the family forever - a thought that we could not bare. Seeing this little house up on the hill is a gift that we and our families can now cherish for generations. I guess that kind of sums up a bit of the feelings I have about the gift of Irish music. It has been passed down from generation to generation.
The Irish part of being Irish American and Irish music is so much of what I am. As a little girl, I was fortunate to have a wonderful music teacher, a Limerick man named Martin Mulvihill, in our Bronx neighbourhood. Martin selflessly taught hundreds of kids throughout the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia area. He embodied the spirit, joy and life of Irish music and passed that invaluable gift on to his students. There were no fancy teaching techniques - you just tried to not sound like "a cat scratching at the door to come in" as he would often say. The lessons were simple...basically "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing". Duke Ellington might have said it first, but that sentiment sure applies to Irish music also.
The mere thought of playing Irish music as a career never entered my mind back then. With my under-grad and graduate studies in Mathematics I was totally set on working towards a career in Math and Science. The ambition of working in some capacity for the NASA space program and playing the ol' fiddle on the side would have been a pretty cool life for me, but God does work in mysterious ways. It is wonderful that so many traditional musicians today have the amazing opportunity to have careers playing the music which we love and the chance to hopefully touch listeners and pass on the tradition. I feel blessed for so many of the opportunities that have come and only wish Martin were here today to see the healthy state of Irish music.
Since leaving Riverdance at the end of 1998, I put together a group of musicians from different backgrounds and we started touring pretty extensively. We play throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and many other parts of the world. The shows range from performing arts centers to festivals to appearances with symphonies. We finished up 2002 with three incredible performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC with the National Symphony Orchestra and Marvin Hamlisch conducting. Then it was off to a ten day tour of Japan. These shows represent two pretty diverse performance arenas, but it is simply a testament to Irish music that audiences of all cultures and generations do find that connection to the music.
The very original and well thought out name of the group, the Eileen Ivers Band, was changed to Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul. It's funny, but the American part of my being Irish American is a big part of our sound and also very dear to my heart. 'Immigrant Soul' is true to the heart of Irish music while incorporating the multiculturalism of American life. My folks had to leave Ireland in the early 1950's, and like so many other brave immigrants to this country, brought a strong sense of their culture with them. My folks instilled this in both my sister and me but also taught us to respect and embrace other cultures. For many years, I've been intrigued with the parallels in African, Caribbean and Irish rhythms. These are some of the diverse immigrant cultures I grew up with in New York. As we know, these rhythms, along with strong Celtic melodies, helped form the roots of Appalachian and Old-Timey music. It is all these connections that we celebrate in our music. Historically, mathematically and of course musically - it all just seems to make sense.
The world of music is not all Top 40 and Hip-Hop and we are all very grateful that there are outlets, such as The Thistle & Shamrock, that provide listeners with Celtic music and the history and culture which surround this genre of music. We are also thankful for media, such as NPR (National Public Radio), for presenting radio programs of such diverse nature, thus enabling the cultivation and growth of music in more diverse ways. We have just finished the daunting task of creating our own record label, Musical Bridge Records, and spent the last year securing various world-wide distributors who understand and care for this music. We did this so that we can continue to produce music as it naturally occurs rather than to force it into the commercial formula. It is The Thistle & Shamrock program and the NPRs that enable us to share our music with audiences larger than just our family and friends...once again, we are very grateful.
Thanks for allowing me to share a little bit of my story and thanks for allowing me to share the gift of music.
For more information about Eileen and her band, visit www.eileenivers.com.
Copyright Eileen Ivers and Fiona Ritchie