In 2005 Dervish’s A Healing Heart highlighted the band’s deft handling of slower-paced, more sedate traditional Irish tunes over a span of fifteen years. Their ability to satisfy listeners’ desire for the suantrá or soothing element of Irish music confirmed with that release, it might perhaps be time for a return to Dervish’s earlier, more geantrí or danceable Spirit. Released in 2003, the band’s sixth studio album contains some of the quiet showcased on A Healing Heart, but in combination with fast-paced reels and infant-dandling songs. The result is a highly textured record that aptly showcases Dervish’s ability to interpret, arrange, and compile older sounds from a contemporary standpoint.
As with previous albums, Spirit continues to tell the story of Ireland’s folk in a way that captivates listeners. In a world where ultra-modern, almost futuristic soundscapes accost the eardrums, Dervish’s knack for generating interest in the traditional is important indeed. Nothing heals the heart more than a reminder of how Irish roots continue to shape international, as well as Irish, cultures; and, correlatively, how both local and global cultures continue to shape the artistic reception of Irish roots.
The quality of Spirit‘s recording itself cannot help but remind listeners that Dervish is a contemporary band. Reeling flutes and spiraling fiddles are rendered stereophonically, and Brian McDonagh’s mandala, together with Séamus O’Dowd’s acoustic and electric guitars, suggest that modern media necessarily alter how one hears songs formerly restricted to the oral tradition. Dervish’s delicate balancing act, which is as amenable to live performance as much as it is the recording studio, is rounded out with Cathy Jordan’s lilting vocals. Although it is often difficult for non-Irish listeners to understand the words, the sound alone is enough to make one want to visit Ireland’s folk history. Taking full advantage of the teaching opportunities enabled by new media, Dervish nonetheless provides the lyrics, as well as some brief histories, of the songs featured on the disc in the liner notes to the CD.
This is a band that wants listeners to become familiar with the rich, cultural traditions of the region from which they hail, in this case Sligo County. Their determination to disseminate Sligo musical traditions manifests on their website, where they sponsor a series of CD-ROMs on how to play traditional Irish music. Dervish’s efforts to keep their traditions alive have not gone unnoticed. Not only is the band celebrated worldwide as the authority on all things Irish and folk, but they have also had the pleasure of performing at the world’s largest folk festival in Rio to an audience of approximately 240,000 people. Their achievements, moreover, have led to the formation of numerous cover bands, most notably in Russia and Israel. Attesting to the political efficacy of their musical mission, Dervish has also had a hand in furthering the postcolonial development of Irish language. They contributed to the establishment of the first Irish language television station (TG4), and they have acted as ambassadors of sorts, in an official capacity for Ireland’s prime minister in China and, on an unofficial basis, all over the world. Clearly there is a political impetus at work in Dervish’s continuance of traditional, Irish folk culture. Taking over where their ancestors left off means not simply advocating appreciation for older traditions; rather, Dervish implies that traditional values might temper contemporary beliefs.
What, then, is there to say about this well-respected folk outfit besides the obvious? Starting with their highly acclaimed HarmonyHill in 1993, the members of Dervish have proven that their artistic collaboration constitutes a significant intervention in the area of traditional folk in particular. Spirit lives up to its title, gilding older narratives with new frames.