Dervish adds its own twist to traditional Celtic sound

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Before the Celtic tide swept North America in the ’90s in the wake of the Riverdance spectacular, a group of musicians around Sligo, on Ireland’s northwest coast, came together to form Dervish. Their friendship was forged in innumerable porter-soaked pub sessions playing traditional tunes and songs with the Sligo stamp—brisk and bright, with a touch of swing, as also heard in the playing of legendary fiddlers Michael Coleman and Kevin Burke.

Dervish adds its own distinc­tive twist to the sound, with a broad palette of instrumental colours—accordion, flute, fiddle, and above all a driving mandola rhythm section sometimes backed by the percussion of singer Cathy Jordan, whose clear Irish country voice has a brogue so strong you could walk a mile on it. The band is still together after 25 years, and touring the world, performing music from a great new album, The Thrush in the Storm.

The day after the Georgia Straight interview, the six-piece is headed out of Ireland to perform at Glastonbury, the U.K.’s premier rock-music festival. “It’s our first time there,” says Jordan, reached at her home on the edge of Sligo town. “We’re driving over in a camper and we’re going to stay in it—finding accommodation within a hundred-mile radius is ridiculous.”

For Jordan, who joined Dervish soon after its formation, the prospect of crossing the sea with her bandmates awakens thoughts of growing up in rural County Roscommon, in the flat middle of Ireland. “I didn’t even see the sea until I was 17. While others at school were going on summer holidays and taking elocution lessons and piano I was in the meadow or the bog or picking stones somewhere, pulling weeds, doing the chores of country life. But now the sea is just three miles away for me.”

On many of Dervish’s songs and sets Jordan thumps a bodhrán (Irish frame drum); occasionally, she rattles the (cow) bones. “I started soon after becoming a member. There was no bodhrán or bone player. So I locked myself in a room, and started with a corn-flake box and a bottle, and a year later I graduated to a real bodhrán and a stick. It allows me to be part of the sessions, which are mostly instrumental. If I were to sit waiting for the songs, I wouldn’t be as happy as I would be beating the rhythm out.”

While most of the tracks on The Thrush in the Storm are traditional, the melody of “Shanagolden” will be familiar to fans of vintage pop and rock as the ballad “The Twelfth of Never”, adapted from an old folksong and made famous by Johnny Mathis.

“The air of ‘Shanagolden’ is from there, all right,” Jordan explains. “The writer of the words is Sean McCarthy from Kerry, who took existing airs for his poems. I had to inquire whether ‘Shanagolden’ was robbed from him or he robbed the air from ‘The Twelfth of Never’—and it was the latter.”

As for Dervish’s three-decade longevity, Jordan ascribes that to band basics. “We all live in the same area, Sligo town. We’re friends, we love the music we play, and even if we’re not together on the road we could be together in a pub session down the way. It doesn’t seem to matter. There’s like an invisible gel that sticks us together.”

Dervish plays the Mission Folk Music Festival on Sunday (July 27).

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