Wheel of fortune spins again for Dervish

Dervish is celebrating three decades of music with The Great Irish Songbook. That's Cathy Jordan front and centre. Photo: Colin Gillen

Cathy Jordan is the lead singer of the band Dervish which for three decades has been one of the leading lights of traditional Irish music.

These days the members of Dervish are celebrating the release of their first album in a decade. The album is called The Great Irish Songbook.

From her home in Roscommon, Ireland, she explained that the album is the band’s first on Rounder Records and it’s intended to be the label’s “tip of the hat to all the great Irish songs that are out there,” she said.

“There are so many Irish songs known the world over. There are very few people who don’t have an Irish song in them.

“Our job was to select some of the great ones and put them on the first volume.” Will there be other volumes? She’s not sure. “although there are 13 great songs on the record, there’s another 1,000 that could go on there.”

The band started with a long list of possibilities.

“We sat around the table and made of list of more that 100 songs. And on the second list, there might have been 150.” But then they got serious and whittled them down to about 25. “Then we started making demos.”

This album features a stellar list of guest artists including Andrea Corr, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda May, Kate Rusby, David Gray, Steve Earle, Rhiannon Giddens, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, The SteelDrivers and Abigail Washburn.

Once the demos were ready they were shipped to the guest artists to see which song they wanted to sing.

Then they contacted the artists to see what they would like to sing. The final lineup on the record was basically driven by these choices.

“For some of the singers, there wasn’t any thinking about it. They wanted to sing what they wanted to sing. David Gray, for example, just wanted to sing The West Coast of Clare and that was that. It made life easy.”

The West Coast of Clare is the most recent song on the album. It was written in 1987 by Barbara Dickson.

“One of the criteria we had originally was that the songs had to be older than 50 years and going back into history. But when an artist like David Gray asks to sing The West Coast of Clare on your album you’re not going to say actually our criteria is … We didn’t mention criteria to him.”

The oldest song is Donal Og (Young Donald) which has its origins in the 7th century. Jordan sings that one. The next oldest is She Moves Through The Fair which dates from the mid 18th century. The Irish performer Andrea Corr recorded it on the album.

“There is a vast time span incorporated on the album, she said. “We didn’t want to focus on one particular era. In that way it involves other songs from those eras. Traditional Irish music has been added to all the time and these songs adapt to the environment of the time.

Celtic music seems to have periods of revived interest. Jordan has lived through a few of these cycles. She believes one is happening now.

“Every 20 years or so the pendulum swings and resurgences happen. There is one kind of happening at the moment. There was another in 1970s and in the 1990s.

“We started in the early 1990s and a lot of bands started at the same time. There were lots of gigs and interest in the music again that had waned from the 1970s boom of the Bothy Band and The Chieftains.”

But even when the wider interest is low, she said, traditional Irish music is “ever present and ever evolving. People are always playing it. You might not hear it on the radio or there isn’t a big new album, but there are as many people playing Irish music today as there ever was.

“And there are more people singing the songs.” The standard is going up and up all the time, she added.

In North America, there has been consistent and growing interest in Americana and Canadiana music for some time.

For Jordan, “it’s a different take on the original article. It’s very exciting to see the music coming back (to Ireland) in some other form. The ebb and flow of the music across the Atlantic is quite something over the years. Tunes that wash up in Canada come back to Ireland slightly altered and on it goes back and forth.

Dervish is touring the new album and March 7 they will perform in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre. The last time they were in Ottawa was about a decade ago.

“We stopped by on our way to Yellowknife. We went Ottawa, Baffin Island to Yellowknife. I think every person in Yellowknife came out to the gig.”

Those were good times.

It is a good time for the band today too, she said. Getting a record deal from a label doesn’t happen as much as it once did.

“We are so privileged and grateful to Rounder for putting their faith in Irish music. We would play the music regardless but to get an endorsement like this matters.”

Dervish is an interesting name for an Irish band.

Readers may know that members of the Ismaili Muslim faith, in moments of religious rapture whirl in circles, and are known as dervishes.

One of the band members was watching a documentary on the faith and “the word had a kind of Irish sound,” Jordan said. “There is a Devenish Island off the coast near Sligo. I’m not taking the blame for it because the band was named before I got there.

“One time we played in London and a bunch of Sufis came along to the gig thinking they were going to be listening to Sufi music. They were pleasantly surprised and stayed.”

Three decades is a long time for a band to stay together. But Jordan says their have 20 more to catch up to The Chieftains.

But that’s the goal. “Absolutely. It’s a vocation to play this music. It’s not the one hit wonder kind of career… It’s more of a slow tugboat moving along in the river of sound. You don’t make huge leaps into the charts. You just chug along, bring out albums and tour. We are privileged enough with all the experiences we have had around the world.

“If we can pass that on to the next generation to inspire to play music or people to buy it.”

Sligo is hometown of the band. Storytelling and poetry are part of the fabric of the city which is connected to the poet William Butler Yeats.

When Jordan was young, the storytelling of neighbours and her own parents was all around.

“They would sing songs and we were surrounded by music all the time. It was a big part of our social life. There was no occasion that wasn’t marked with storytelling and songs.”

With Brexit now a fact the future of Ireland might be up for debate. Jordan is watching closely.

The recent Irish election saw an increase in support for Sinn Fein, the party of the republicans.

“Some of that vote is down to people thinking maybe it’s time for a united Ireland. Some of it was down to people who were sick of the government.”

She said the idea of a united island is coming up more and more in conversation but there is “an awful lot of work for that to happen in a way that is sustainable. There are a lot of people particularly in Northern Ireland who do not want that.”

That debate may also get people thinking about Irish culture too. Artists and musicians lead the way often.

For Jordan it would be a good thing if “there were lots of room for the old songs.”

NAC Presents Dervish with Anna Ludlow
Where: Babs Asper Theatre (NAC)
When: March 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.