San Juan Island goes Irish; concert, sessions this week

The seven-day Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp got under way Monday in Friday Harbor with classes at the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs. The week includes seisuns — or music sessions — at Downriggers and The Place. The week is capped by a concert Saturday, 7:30 p.m., in the San Juan Community Theatre.

The seven-day Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp got under way Monday in Friday Harbor with classes at the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs.

The week includes seisuns — or music sessions — at Downriggers and The Place. The week is capped by a concert Saturday, 7:30 p.m., in the San Juan Community Theatre.

The classes at the Labs were filled long ago. But you can still hone your skills in Irish fiddle, sean-nos, uilleann pipes and more at public music workshops Saturday. Cost for each workshop is $50. E-mail To learn more about the Irish Music Camp, visit

The lineup for Saturday’s concert: Andrea Cooper, tinwhistle; Tom Creegan, uilleann pipes; Randal Bays, Liz Kane and Yvonne Kane, fiddle; Roger Landes, bouzouki and mandolin; D. Marshall, pianist; Catherine McEvoy, flute; Aine Meenaghan, sean-nos (old-style form of traditional Irish singing); and Daithi Sproule, guitar.

An informal music session will follow at The Place.

“The real heart and soul of Irish music is the small session in a house or pub, just a few players gathered together for some tunes and fun,” said Randal Bays, co-founder of the Irish Music Camp.

“You start to play and the next thing you know, the sun is coming up. That’s the feeling I try to recreate in my concerts,”

Bays is a professional Irish fiddle musician and instructor who tours throughout the United States and Canada. He is also an album producer and composer who created original scores for several award-winning films and documentaries. He lives on Whidbey Island.

Since 2002, about 80-90 serious musicians from throughout the United States and Eastern Canada have attended the annual camp. A large number of attendees are returning students.

“We try to create an immersion environment,” Bays said. The San Juan Island landscape has been compared to parts of Ireland. The U.W. Friday Harbor Labs provides a warm, inviting, relaxed atmosphere for sessions. “The experience is hard to find, unless they go to Ireland,” Bays said.

Local musician Dan Paulson is a co-founder of the camp. He and Bays have been friends for 25 years. Their love of traditional Irish music drove their desire to help preserve and pass on traditional Irish music to the next generation.

“Irish music is the most complex and satisfying music I’ve ever played. There is something about ancient melodies that withstood the test of time,” Paulson said.

In Irish music, different musicians might play the same melody simultaneously: bazouki, button accordion, cittern, fiddle, flute, pipes.

“Randal is one of the top Irish fiddlers in the country,” Paulson said.

In 1993, Bays attended the prestigious Willie Clancy Summer School. Every year, professional Irish musicians from throughout the world attend classes taught there by experts in Irish music and dance.

Clancy, known as the “great piper,” earned an international reputation for his work preserving Irish traditional language and music. In pursuit of Irish native music, musicians travel from across the world to Clancy’s home in Miltown Malby to learn traditional Irish music.

“All the best Irish fiddlers in the world were there,” Bays said in a recent phone interview.

Bays wrote in an article, “Irish Traditional Music: A Survivor from the Distant Past,” “The key to understanding Irish traditional music is the fact that it’s all about melody, as opposed to harmony. Musicians play single-line melodies in unison, and that’s still the way the music is generally passed on and shared. A good traditional musician knows hundreds if not thousands of the tunes, all retained in his or her memory.”

Musician Kirk Fuhrmeister, owner of Isle be Jammin’, a performance showcase and music resource center, supports the annual camp and believes in building a sense of community through small musical gatherings.

“Irish music is the attempt to keep the purity of the old music alive,” he said.

He described the importance of learning skills from old-school musicians as a sharing of bloodlines — from traditional Irish melodies that have been passed on throughout generations.

He said there’s a similar sharing going on in the island music scene: Small informal musical gatherings of blues, rock ’n’ roll, classical, chamber, and old-timey.

Old-timey music, a form of North American folk music, has roots in England, Scotland, Ireland and Africa.

Fuhrmeister is one of about 15 island musicians who gather Monday nights to play for the public at the Grange. The musicians see the weekly informal gatherings as a way of building community.

Faculty members at the Irish Music Camp include Bays, the Kane sisters, Landes, McEvoy, Gearoid OhAllmhurain, and Sproule.

The Kane sisters are fiddlers and hail from the west coast of Ireland. They were born into a musical family and were heavily influenced by their grandfather, Jimmy Mullen, who was a renowed traditional Irish music figure. They have produced several albums and tour throughout Ireland, United States and Canada.

Landes is one of North America’s pioneers of the bouzouki and performs on mandolin and tenor banjo as well. He has performed and recorded with many professional Irish musicians. He was a member of the popular Celtic band, Scartagien. He has produced several albums and toured with Irish musicians. He has produced several albums and hosted the first international gathering devoted to the Celtic bouzouki, “Zoukfest.”

McEvoy has been a senior flute tutor at the Willie Clancy Summer School. She is considered one of the leading flute players in Irish music today.

OhAllmhurain is professor of Irish Studies at the University of Missouri — St. Louis. He has dedicated his career to promoting and preserving Irish traditional music and culture.

His book, “A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music,” is in its third edition. He won five world Irish music titles as a concertina player and uilleann piper. He has performed in more than 1,000 concerts and multi-media lectures throughout Ireland, Canada and the United States.

Sproule has produced a number of albums and tours throughout the United States and Ireland.

Watch a performance of the Kane sisters HERE.