It’s mid-afternoon on another sun-splashed day at the north end of San Juan Island and the lobby of the historic Hotel de Haro is ablaze.
Lit up by a loosely formed circle of musicians, flutes, fiddles, concertina and banjo in hand, the cozy confines of the venerable room crackle with the unmistakable sound of a traditional Irish tune. A foot stomps softly in rhythm with a high-spirited melody that rises, captivating and crystallized, from the ensemble of instruments.
A stone’s throw from the hotel, a much larger group of devotees of Ireland’s musical touchstone are at same time gathered within the spacious arena of the Roche Harbor Resort bar and grill, shuttered for the winter season, and are immersed in putting an entirely different traditional tune through its paces.
Billed nowadays as a retreat, the weeklong annual Irish music extravaganza hosted by Roche Harbor Resort, the first week of March, might just as easily be called a revival. In either case, it remains a most hearty celebration and one that not so long ago seemed to be headed into the abyss.
Melody remains the same
The celebration underwent a transformation since its former identity, Irish Music Camp,
was canceled in 2012. The camp first got its start at the Friday Harbor Labs and culminated in a public performance at the community theatre.
It now functions more like a pilgrimage, of sorts, and the salons, workshops and jam sessions are organized either by the musicians themselves or materialize “organically” through the energy and infectious enthusiasm of kindred spirits.
Fiddle player Kerri Morris wouldn’t miss it for the world. A former “Music Camp” attendee, the 31-year-old Californian from Nevada City has high praise for the free-flowing structure and even higher praise for her fellow Irish music aficionados. There’s plenty of Irish music festivals around but the Roche Harbor retreat stands apart, Morris said
“This definitely is my favorite one,” she said. “It’s the people, for sure, and it’s the place. It’s beautiful.”
San Juan Island’s Dan Paulson doesn’t miss the good old days; the days of organizing classes, planning meals, recruiting instructors, collecting fees and securing immigration visas so that 10 or so professional teachers from abroad could come to the San Juans to lead camp classes and workshops. Those were the days of “herding cats,” said Paulson, a classically trained musician who cofounded the original camp in 2004, along with Randal Bays.
“This is much easier,” he said. “It’s more relaxed and in some ways it might be better too.”
The transformation from a highly organized “camp” into a loosely structured musical convention appears to be drawing new converts. Paulson said attendance this year, with about 90 retreat-goers, rivaled participation in the last year of the camp. California, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Calgary, they come from far and wide.
A large part of the attraction is finding common ground and kinship while in the midst of a melody, said Becky Deryckx of Mount Vernon, a longtime attendee of both the camp and the retreat, and the festival’s unofficial archivist. It’s those kind of connections that keep her up and playing until 4 a.m., every now and then.
Kindred spirits in company
“Originally it was dance music,” Deryckx said. “This is social music. When music is most alive is when it’s shared.”
In the first week of March, there’s more empty space to share at Roche Harbor than at many other times of the year. Hosting the retreat is a win-win for the resort and the musicians, and for many guests who simply stumbled upon an Irish music jam session out of the blue, resort general manager Brent Snow said.
“It’s been like finding a hidden treasure for some of our other guests,” Snow said. “I think the musicians like the fact that they can completely take over the resort.”
Relative newcomers to the retreat, fiddlers Julie Horner and David Chadwick of Boulder Creek, Calif. (near Santa Cruz) made the trip to San Juan Island from the Bay Area for the second season in a row. The dates are marked on the calendar at home.
“It’s the people and the leveling of playing, and the setting,” Horner said. “You just can’t beat it.”
Scenery and camaraderie notwithstanding, Paulson believes there’s something inherent in traditional Irish music that easily binds those who’ve been smitten by its spirit.
“There’s something about these ancient tunes,” he said. “They’ve survived the test of time.”