Bringing Ireland's green fields to Blair

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Becca Sausville | 13 years, 6 months ago

Traditional Celtic group mixes fun with talent

The crowd claps along to the thumping beat of the bodhran, a
traditional Celtic drum, immersed in the ancient music of far off lands that emanates from the performers on stage at last summer's Washington Folk Festival. As their voices raise in a harmonic Gaelic chorus, it's clear that they are not a typical high school garage band.

The performers are the Kiltics, a group of Blair students who sing traditional Celtic music with the occasional Scottish and Irish Gaelic vocals, do not use electric instruments and, of course, perform every show clad in kilts.

Hidden talents

It all started two years ago, when Celtic music afficionados Tess Minnick and Nora Arnold, both seniors, discovered a shared passion for the genre during lunch. "I gave Nora this Celtic CD and we just started singing in the halls," says Minnick. The two found bandmates in old friends and peers, including seniors Sarah Janesko and Jon Musgrave and junior Laura Cole.

The Celtic music played by the Kiltics is characterized by the use of string, wind and reed-free instruments, according to the Ceolas Celtic Music Archive. Janesko provides the group with melodies on her mandolin, five-string viola and fiddle. The fiddle is a dominant aspect of all Celtic music, and Janesko's fast fingerwork gives songs a festive touch. Musgrave plays the guitar and bodhran drum, one of the few percussion instruments known to the genre. The band is rounded out with a myriad of instruments, including the pennywhistle, finger cymbals and jaw harp.

These instruments are combined with the Kiltics' most impressive gift - their voices. As with traditional Celtic music, the group members' voices rise and fall in passionate harmony. Minnick's Irish heritage has provided her with a knack for "conversational Gaelic," she says, a skill that has helped her fellow group members learn some of the more difficult songs.

For the Gaelic songs, Minnick writes out lyrics phonetically for her bandmates. Their methods from that point are varied. Arnold attributes her memorization to simple repetition. "You just say it over and over and over again, and at a certain point, it just goes into your head," she says.

Cole, who is Jewish, relies on her knowledge of another foreign language. "To me, it sounds a lot like Hebrew," she explains.

The memorization and practice can only go so far, however. Nothing can quite prepare the Kiltics for a stage show like last summer's Folk Festival.

The big break

Last spring, Minnick was looking for gigs for the newly formed band when she remembered the Washington Folk Festival, an annual event held by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. She eagerly e-mailed the event coordinator, who turned down her request to perform. "I pleaded with him, I begged him to come listen to us live," she says.

Eventually, Minnick persuaded the coordinator to visit a Blair
Coffeehouse to hear the Kiltics. The coordinator had to sit through more than 15 other bands before he could hear the band he had traveled to hear. The next day, however, he called Minnick to report that there was an open spot in the lineup.

The Folk Festival was the Kiltics' long-awaited first major gig. "It was really exciting! I've been going to that for years; my parents have been going to it for about 20 years and I finally got to play there," says Janesko.

The performance put the Kiltics on the map in a way they had never imagined. "We had so many people dancing in the aisles, clapping," says Arnold. "I literally got tingles at one point when I was standing and listening. I could see this older couple just slow-dancing in the aisles. It was so amazing, the greatest feeling ever."

The event was not without its difficulties, which the Kiltics easily overcame them with sheer charisma. During a song snafu, Minnick quipped to the crowd, "We're in high school!" They went on to score three encores, more than any of the band members had ever seen at any Folk Festival they had attended in the past.

Whims and fancies

Natural talent balanced with the right measure of charisma makes for an impressive stage show. The Kiltics' traditional songs range from the playful - "Under the Scotsman's Kilt" is about, well, what exactly is underneath a Scotsman's kilt - to the mournful to the downright impressive - "Puirt a Beul" is a musical genre consisting of Scottish or Irish Gaelic words spoken extremely fast.

The Kiltics' on-stage pizzazz stems directly from the close-knit friendships the group shares. They're a raucous lot; their conversations are full of laughter, stories and memories of the good and the bad times they've shared.

There was the time with the gig at Flannigan's Irish Pub. It was their first paying gig, from 9 p.m. to midnight. In short, says Cole, "it was going to be amazing!" Unfortunately, it had to be cancelled due to an alleged case of mononucleosis among four out of five of the Kiltics. As it turned out, only Janesko really had the illness - the others just had passing sicknessess.

The Kiltics' friendships generally enhance the atmosphere on stage, but occasionally boredom will drive them to change things up. Between Musgrave's impersonations and Minnick's unannounced song changes, the Kiltics are kept laughing throughout their performances.

In the hallway, when all the Kiltics are gathered, Minnick and Cole suddenly launch into an impressive swing dance routine - just because.

"We'll have days where Tess and I can't really concentrate for some reason, so we'll switch from dance to dance, going from belly dancing to Kiltics business to swing dancing and back," says Cole.

Even during performances, the Kiltics are kept guessing at each other's behavior. At one memorable performance, Minnick decided to split off and sing in Gaelic. She shrugs, simply attributing it to "keeping them on their toes."

"Getting somewhere"

Now, the Kiltics are working on raising money to record a CD. At a recent performance, they sold out of the low-quality live CD they had cut from a video recording by Cole's father. The money they have generated from tips, totaling about $100 at one performance, is also going towards a CD.

In 2006, four of the Kiltics will graduate. The group is not allowing this to get in the way of the Kiltics' future. "Me, Tess and Jon have committed to stay in the area for at least two years," says Arnold.

Musgrave is planning on going to London in the spring of 2007, and if the band is doing well, the other members will also consider making the move.

Cole, still a junior, is equally dedicated to the band. "I'm actually really considering taking a year off before college just to continue this," she says.

While fame is not a priority for the Kiltics, they are still ready to give it their all. "We're getting somewhere. I'm very serious," says Minnick. "There are so many other high-school groups out there, but how many go out and get gigs outside of school?"

Their reasons are simple. "I just wanna play!" Minnick laughs. "The best feeling in the world is coming off stage with everyone clapping, dancing in the aisles. I love it."

Becca Sausville. Becca is a senior who is keeping the dinosaur dream alive. She loves Silver Chips a lot, possibly more than life itself. More »

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