“Well, they should be somewhere… back there… at the bar.”
That’s what the waitress answered me at City Steam Café when I jogged in, asking for the Irish Jam Session. I wondered what kind of place can be where a waitress doesn’t know where exactly they have put 15 Irish musicians with full gear…
“Somewhere back there” turned out to be a half-lit small corner behind the bar and the tables crammed with people; I elbowed my way through the crowd and finally arrived to the small but cheerful island of Irish culture, where the jammers were just tuning up to start. Chairs were arranged in a circle; when I found one for myself and sat down to do a quick headcount, I came up with a following list: 3 guitars, 4 accordions, 1 violin, 2 Irish bouzoukis, bones, 1 wooden flute (12 people). When I looked around two minutes later, it was all mixed up and I just gave up the idea of keeping a proper list. Partly because there were new people coming in all through the first hour of jamming (finally there were 16 musicians, plus a baby – “she does the jig”), adding more and more instruments to the band (1 bodhrán, 3 harmonicas, a tin whistle, spoons, guitars, bouzoukis, a double bass and more accordions). I was quite happy to realize that except for the Irish harp and the uilleann pipes all traditional instruments were there for me to watch and listen…
And I listened.
First they just played medleys, one short piece after another; they were talking to each other while playing, and once in a while someone would stop to tune his or her instrument, or switch to another. Somebody went to the bar to order beer (Guinness I guess, judging from its color and the fact that we are talking about Irish musicians…) – the jugs and the glasses were put down in the middle of the circle and finally everything was ready to start…
The group was quite mixed, and people from various places just came to join in; but it did have a leader, and he played no instrument, but he started the songs with clapping and shouting, and he was the lead singer too. Once the jamming started, English and Gaelic songs got added to the program, and it went like this:
Someone (people took turns) would start a melody; then the whole band would join in, paying the same melody over and over again till everyone managed to pick it up and play correctly (sometimes the others would clap to help them adjust to the rhythm – sometimes some of them would even stop playing so the others can hear the bones or the clapping better). When everyone picked it up, they would play the piece for a while before someone came up with a variation or a new song; times like that the leader would point him/her out, and the others would stop playing or quiet down to listen and pick up the new melody, and then it started all over again. Sometimes during a longer piece, the leader would point out someone who would then play a solo (it was usually either an accordion or the flute) while the others continued playing the same tune. There were dozens of variations and solos during a medley (especially because the pub itself was so noisy that sometimes they couldn’t hear each other at all, and the two halves of the circle would start playing two completely different tunes before realizing where the dissonance came from…)
The songs were a completely different matter – someone would ask for one by title, and then the leader (or someone else) would start singing; the others would join in, and some of the instruments would follow, but only as background music – the emphasis was clearly on the words and the act of singing together as loud as possible with human throat and lungs, louder and louder till the final chorus.
Audience participation was limited to say the least (means I was the only one who actually went there just for the jam session) but highly encouraged (means the leader would show me what rhythm to clap, and sign me to join in during the singing too) and extremely enjoyable (means I kept clapping and slapping my tights all through the 3 hours straight – and I have bruises of nice shades of black, blue and green on both of my tights to prove it).
The essence of the jam session was the socializing part. The whole event was totally informal; people would talk, laugh and drink while playing, would pass instruments around, pass the poor baby around, walk away to talk to other people and then come back. They would start playing songs and then agree on something else. There seemed to be some kind of hierarchy in who could decide what to play – I only guessed that because the two youngsters in the group, two high school guys, were only allowed to start a song at the end of the whole 3-hour session (but it was greatly appreciated, and they played very well).
I talked to some of them at the end of the session (by that time they seemed to accept me as some kind of “clapping person”, sitting on the edge of the group and enjoying myself, dangling my legs from the barstool and drumming on the table with a huge grin). They gave me several addresses and dates for other sessions in the Hartford area, including “slow jam” – that means the place where new musicians can pick up the basic tunes and learn how to “Irish jam” (they told me that most of the jammers came from different Irish bands and music groups – means they are professionals – as well as from other jam circles, just like the youngsters who were picked up by the band leader at a high school concert).
All in all, it was a great experience – not only because of the amazing music but also because of the nice little community that gathered to spend an evening together, singing and drinking and making music. Irish music.