Eileen Ivers:
Keeping the tradition alive

Eric Burdon of the Animals once said that if he was at a party and some rocker was talking about something other than music, then everybody there knew immediately that that guy wasn't going to make it. If Burdon met Eileen Ivers, he'd nod his head, shake her hand and say, "Welcome to a lifetime as a musician." Because Ivers doesn't just talk music, play music or live and breathe music. You can make a case that she is music.

Taking up the violin early, she became perhaps America's best and most successful Irish fiddler. Before she was out of her teens, she had won nine All Ireland Fiddle Championships, with an additional championship for her tenor banjo work. Today, she has more than 30 championship medals. A former member of such bands as the Green Fields of America, Cherish the Ladies (an all-female all-star Irish band that she co-founded with Joanie Madden) and Hall & Oates, she has played on somewhere between 80 and 100 albums, recording with such artists as the Chieftains, Afro Celt Sound System, Black 47, Brian Keene, Patty Smith and Al Di Meola.

The New York Times called her the Jimi Hendrix of the violin and the Washington Post proclaimed her to be the future of the Irish fiddle.

To speak with Eileen Ivers is to speak music. When she discusses her upbringing, she talks about how her interest in music was awakened. In fact, she credits her childhood with her initial interest in music: "In the early years, my folks played recordings all the time -- Irish music, bluegrass and country. My father, especially, loved bluegrass and country music. I fell in love with music at an early age. I don't remember this but my uncle says he remembers when I was 3 or 4 years old, going around our apartment with a pink plastic toy guitar and a wooden spoon, playing some sort of violin."

She feels privileged to have grown up in the Bronx, the child of Irish immigrant parents. "There is a huge Irish immigrant population in the Bronx, and growing up there was a wonderful upbringing. It's great to be a part of an immigrant culture, to have a heritage. My family tried to live up to that heritage. We went back to Ireland every summer. My father worked for the airlines, so we were fortunate to be able to travel easily and inexpensively. Spending summers in Ireland helped to build character." The Irish visits did not end when she became an adult, with a career and responsibilities to take care of. She continues to visit often and says, "Recently we built a house on my father's family land."

Regardless of her improvised toy-guitar-and-wooden-spoon fiddle, the violin would come a little later in her childhood. First, at her mother's urging, she took a little detour through stepdancing. When she was 7 or so, her mother tried to get her interested in that art. Since she wanted to please her mother, she tried it but really didn't like it. She kept asking her parents to get her a violin, and finally they presented her with one. The acquisition of that instrument changed everything, leading to a teacher who turned her life around.

The legendary fiddler and teacher Martin Mulvihill was born in Ireland and began to study the fiddle at age 9. Since his mother played the instrument, he learned the Irish traditional style and quickly developed a reputation as not only a fine musician but an excellent instructor. Later, after adding both button and piano accordion to his set of musical skills, he immigrated to the Bronx, where he played and taught. Says Ivers, "My cousin was taking both piano and accordion lessons from him, so I went to him for fiddle lessons. He turned out to be just the right teacher for me. He loved music and he loved putting little bands together. That was important because you know how playing in bands makes you learn."

Ivers recognizes how fortunate she was to be able to have Mulvihil as a teacher. Because so many kids wind up with the wrong teachers and lose their love of music, giving up on their instruments before they have a chance to fall in love with them, I asked if life would have been different for her if she had had the wrong teacher. She doesn't think it would be. "I was a driven kid. I like to think I would have stayed involved. When I was playing in fiddle competitions [she began competing in her early teens] I met a great adjudicator, Dan Collins -- he ran Shanachie Records -- who helped me a lot. He said, 'you have to listen to all these traditional players,' all these amazing fiddlers that I hadn't heard before, had to listen to how they bowed, how they played ornaments, all of that." She pauses, relishing the memory and when she resumes speaking, her voice has almost a reverence in it. "Irish music being such an oral tradition, there were all these great players who were drastically under-recorded. I had to listen to all of them. It was a great education." One major thing she learned: "The violin is an extension of the person."

Still, there's a danger of going overboard in the other direction; child prodigies often see their flame burning out like a candle, often because they are driven by something other than their own inner needs. In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut's alter ego, Kilgore Trout, meets a man who began training his daughter to become an olympic swimmer when she was 3. She is now grown and still swims just about all day, every day. When the father tells Trout how he trained his daughter all her life for the Olympics, Trout asks "What kind of man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?"

Ivers laughs at the story but recognizes the situation. "I hear that," she says. "It can happen. It happens. I don't think I sacrificed my childhood, though. I was a sporty kid, outside with my friends playing streetball, having fun. And on those visits to Ireland every summer, I was outside in the fields playing all day. I had great fun and a great learning experience. I stayed rounded."

One thing that kept her rounded was the fact that she didn't study music in college. Instead she was a math major at Iona College and went on to study math in graduate school (she is currently 3 credits shy of her master's). Of course, the fact remains that her college work was music-related. She is well aware of the relationship between math and music. "I am passionate about that," she says, "I love to go into the schools and talk to kids about math and music. It's so beautiful. You have a 2-to-1 ratio? There's your octaves. Insights into higher math lead to insights about music. Melodies, counter-melodies, ornaments, playing and memorizing a tune: all of these are mathematically related."

She says while music and math are bound like an old married couple, we all need to be aware of more than just music. "Plato says it is all important: poetry, politics, art, math, gymnastics and music. You need it all. You have to live a well-rounded life."

That need for a well-rounded life applies to her music, which is also well-rounded. When Ivers was in her late teens, she joined Mick Moloney's band, The Green Fields of America. Moloney "was a huge part of my early years. He is a great player and a great person. Mick opened my eyes to the stories behind the music. I was with him through the '80s and into the late '90s, in and out. The Green Fields is one of those bands with a floating personnel; if you were around, you'd come in and play."

After her time with Green Fields, she changed direction entirely, spending about a year with rockers Hall & Oates, which she says was another great experience, if a different sort. "The players in their band are so great. I learned a lot from them."

"I have no problem changing genres," she explains. "I love the music, I love the violin. I get goosebumps when we're invited to play with a symphony orchestra. I'm not a great classical violinist or jazz player but I love going from a traditional reel to an improvised section and bringing it back to the roots. As an Irish American, I feel close to the roots, but I love to go, say, into bluegrass, where the violin fits comfortably."

She has also dipped into world music, especially on albums with her band, Immigrant Soul. She loves the music and says her desire to play it was awakened by a world music concert she played in Flushing, New York. "I heard an ensemble playing before we went on. It was a 10-drum ensemble. It blew me away. I heard Irish music in it. All of that power from a goat-skinned drum. It was incredible, all those rhythms. It had the same feel as Irish music. Hearing it led me to meet the gentleman who played that drum, Kimati Dinizulu. The Africans were just as blown away by the similarities between what they were doing and what we were doing."

In fact, it was her exploration of world music that led to her first Grammy award. "I got to play with the Paul Winter Consort. We recorded inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with those wonderful acoustics and that was such a wonderful experience." The album she made there was one of Winter's bi-annual solstice celebrations, Celtic Solstice, which picked up the Grammy for Best World Music album of the year.

Although she has a modesty that causes her to downplay her accomplishments, Ivers is aware of the contribution she has made. When pressed, she says, "Without sounding egotistical or puffing myself up, I' m proud of what I've been able to accomplish."

Asked why Ireland is such a musical country, she says, "Ireland is a place where, when you see the landscape, you see why it is so musical. Music grows out of what the people have been through. The poverty, the emigration -- there's no word in the Irish language for immigrate. They did not want to leave, they had to. The famines, the wars, the occupation of the country, the shutting down of their religion. ... They keep rebounding. It's the spirit of the people, the poetry, the art...."

That spirit is what makes Irish music Irish. "It's the joy in the music. It's a music of emotion. It is wide and deep and difficult to play. If you're playing it and you're in the zone, you're tired when you stop. But the music is in the people. It is in their lives. It goes where they go. It came over here when we came over here. In this country, appalachian music came out of Irish music.

"It's the same thing with African music. When they came here, they brought their music. Since they couldn't bring instruments, they used homemade instruments, drums and banjos."

So what exactly is Irish in it? "It's hard to explain. There's a strain of Irish music in bluegrass, but bluegrass isn't Irish. It's hard to pin down If the spirit of the music is diluted, it isn't Irish. If it isn't diluted, that's Irish. It's in their diaspora, the sadness and the joy. If it's related to the essences, that's Irish and it's very accessible. I walked into a bar in Tokyo and there was a Japanese musician up there with his Japanese poured pint of Guinness, playing Irish music, and it was authentic."

In fact, her new album Beyond the Bog Road is about the spread of Irish music through the diaspora. Based on the live show she has been performing since 2009, a multimedia show with visuals, the CD has taken a long time to record. "We started recording in 2009, but it was delayed due to family life events, some very sad and some very joyful."

The album package contains a 16-page booklet and an 11-song CD. "The album is about the way the Irish influences America and America influences the Irish. We have incredible traditional songs on it, railroad songs, some blues -- we have traditional and roots singers on it. Since a lot of Celtic music entered this country through Canada -- there's a strong Irish immigration in Cape Breton -- we have original and traditional Canadian-Irish songs. There's also a few originals, like 'Walk On,' which is about keeping the tradition alive within you as you go through life."

Keeping the tradition alive as she goes through life is exactly what Eileen Ivers is doing.

interview by
Michael Scott Cain

20 December 2014

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