An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey


Dervish, ten years on the road


After ten successful years in the music industry Dervish are now regarded as one of our premier ambassadors of Irish music. They have done all this on their own terms, on their own label, without the backing or interference from the big boys of the record industry. Sean Laffey met three of the Boys from Sligo at Chief O'Neill's in Dublin, the night before they flew out to Spain.

Cathy Jordan, photo by The MollisDervish are a BUSY bunch! In January they had a hugely successful appearance in Rio de Janeiro, where they made their Brazilian debut at what is being described as "the biggest music festival on the plane." The Saturday night performance by Dervish at the festival with a capacity crowd of two hundred and fifty thousand will go down as the highlight of the band’s colourful career to date. But you can't rest on your past achievements in the music business, their next port of call was Holland for two shows followed by a trip to a festival in Spain. This involved a stop over in Dublin and that's when I was able to catch up with Brian McDonagh, Liam Kelly and Shane Mitchell, three of the original band, their first album was called The Boys of Sligo and featured Michael Holmes on bouzouki , he is still with the band and Martin McGinley on fiddle. Martin ran the Sail Inn pub in Killybegs for a time and is now a regular freelance correspondent for Irish Music Magazine. 

Chief O'Neill's in Dublin's Smithfield is home for a night for the band and we meet up around five o'clock for a half hour conversation. Later they'll be off to the Shelter to catch up with old friends and relax, but for now it's another interview with the media and another hotel bedroom. (The bedrooms by the way in Chief O'Neill's appear to be designed by the Irish Dental Association, lots of industrial chrome and frosted glass sinks, we joke about the mysterious whereabouts of the complimentary bottles of pink mouth wash).

After Ten years on the road are they at all surprised by their longevity and their success? "We knew from the beginning we could make this work and we set out deliberately to make a go of it, " says Brian, and he continues, " we all took the plunge and said this is it, this is what we want to do. We were all doing other jobs and not to any spectacular success, so we thought why don't we do something we are good at and enjoy."

Shane interjects here." I suppose it's the dream of many musicians who meet up for a few tunes after work; maybe they think we could do this full time? It's not something you can come into lightly though. We all had commitments, mortgages and steady salaries; so we had to be sure it was the right thing for us. Professional traditional music is a vocation, it has to be a way of life and if you are not willing to commit to it then you'll be far happier still playing the tunes down the pub after work! "

Can he recall the time he finally decided to give up the day job? " I used to be a rep. for a builders providers back in Sligo. I remember one day I was going to a job and listening to traditional music on the car cassette player (I think it was the Bothy Band), I suddenly realised that I had driven two miles past the building site, it was a moment when I knew I was in the wrong job. And now after ten year I am thrilled I made the change. Travelling, meeting other people from other cultures has been really great and I owe all that to traditional music."

Liam has his own spin on it " We are lucky to be able to be doing what we love most. A lot of musicians might be afraid to make the change and it was the same with us in the early stages. We were semi-pro for at least two years and it wasn't really until five years ago that everything came together."

Shane Mitchell has some sound advice to young players. "Whatever you do, don’t rush headlong into the music until you have all your support structures in place, your manager and publicists, your contacts, the music business is very cruel and it will be an up and down ride, it takes time to build up regular work and to develop a loyal following. It also takes time to build up trust, promoters, and festivals have to know that you are serious, that you will turn up on time. "

Brain develops the point." Assuming you can play the music and you are good at what you do, that's just the first step. There are many more layers you then have to build up if you are going to be anything like a success. The crucial element is before you can say you are making it as a band you have to win the confidence of the people who are going to support you."

Support they obviously do get with the Dervish engagement book filled well in advance and the money is obviously there to allow them to globe trot. Playing in new territories many without an obvious Irish Diaspora, I wondered how they fit into the general commercial music picture. Brian is lucid on this. " Irish music outside of the Irish communities is seen as a very strong part of World Music. Our experiences in South America were such that I really believe it could be even bigger there than it is already in the US. In Europe too, it is very popular and has retained audiences and fans, whereas some of the African acts are not drawing the crowds they once did. It seems as though the fashion for African music is drying up, Cuban music is the flavour of the month now, the Buena Vista Social Club will be playing in Dublin in late spring and that’s great. But, what many people in Ireland don't realise is that when Irish traditional groups play abroad they have that same kind of exotic effect. When we played Rio we were front page of the local News papers, and most of that isn't down to us but to the music we play."

Cathy Jordan, photo by The MollisShane Mitchell is sure it is the rhythms and the technical complexity that attracts people to Irish music. Everywhere they go they are questioned about how to play the music, how do they 'make that sort of sound, how to play particular tunes'. "It's a hard question, after playing the music for twenty or thirty years as we have each been doing, it's a natural thing to do. But it is gratifying to think there are so many people from different cultures who appreciate the art and craft of Irish musicians."

Brian is critical of the appreciation shown by officialdom in Ireland to our native music. "When we visit foreign festivals we find that many of the groups are being sponsored by their Governments, they are funded to perform abroad, the attitude here is 'sure you' re doing all right why do you need the money?' That's fine for the established acts but there are many young bands that could do with that kind of support. Perhaps it is partly because they don’t get much exposure in Ireland and the debacle of TG4 the main conduit for traditional music on TV being inaccessible to vast areas of the country is a national scandal."

With five albums under their belt the next step is to open their own studio, and it will be in Sligo naturally enough. Liam explains why. "So far with our past five albums we have rehearsed before hand and just walked into the studio and played live. Because we are not signed to a major label we have never had the luxury of sitting back and developing things in the studio. There have been times when we listen back to a recording and say, 'look what we could do there,' but we have been fighting the clock, now well have time to begin to work more on the arrangements and the elements within the music." Will that involve any collaborations with other musicians from other cultures? Shane is adamant here " Well we all know it doesn't always work especially if it is done for purely commercial reasons. And we all know in our guts when something is rubbish!"

You couldn't accuse them of the quick buck ethos in their collaboration with Vasen (the tune Josefin's Waltz appeared on their At The End of the Day album)."We were really impressed by Vasen and the great fiddle tradition in Sweden, Vasen knew more Irish tunes than we did Swedish ones that's for sure!. That collaboration came about naturally because we really liked each other 's music, not because some record company executive had seen a niche in a market for us."

That honesty and integrity are at the heart of Dervish and I would think one reason why they remained good musical friends for so long. Being grounded to a real home place is another reason for their lasting freshness. Throughout those ten years they have remained loyal to their hometown of Sligo, where they are still based. They have promoted the North West town from the world stage and most importantly, Dervish have donated proceeds from any concerts in Sligo over the last few years to local charities. They actively retain their links to the hometown and the Sligo Institute of Technology where they have their administrative office. It's from there that all the international connections with media, festivals, tour co-ordination with agents and promoters and record company liaisons are handled. Dervish had hoped to perform at the Aura Maxima in the Sligo Institute of Technology, but this was canewcceld due to the restrcoition over Foot and Mouth Disease. The concert will be rescheduled and is in aid of the Irish Sudden Infant Death Association (ISIDA), the Sligo Bay Life Boat (RLNI) and the Sligo Cancer Support Group.

Watch out for a ten-year celebration album from the band to be released in March. Dervish will be returning to the studio soon after to record a new album. Shane says "We'll be having a bit of a birthday celebration in September, in Sligo (of course), it's going to be mighty! And you are all invited."

Photo Credit: Cathy Jordan Photo by The Mollis


Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around.


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