By Kristi Kates
Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, activist, purveyor of roots Americana and folk music.
These are all worthy subtitles given to not one, but two performers, namely Siusan ORourke and Zig Zeitler, the talented folk music couple who will be performing An Afternoon of Irish Music at Boyne Citys BAC (Boyne Arts Collective) as part of local St. Patricks Day celebrations.
ORourke is daughter of a first-generation Irish family from Brooklyn, NY, while Zeitler is a gentleman of Irish, Scottish, French, and German heritage (His Irish family was actually from the same county as mine - Maigheo, or in English Mayo, ORouke explains, the twist of the story was that we were feuding families, with an actual murder happening between the families - one dying and one being hung for it - amazing, but true.)
The pair met, fortuitously, in Zeitlers own recording studio in Freeland, Michigan (Mojatona Studios), when ORourke and another musician she was working with, harmony vocalist Joyce Hagerman, were seeking a facility to work on a serious recording, as ORourke puts it.
We asked around the area for recommendations for studios that would be good at mixing acoustic recordings, she explains, and we were sent to Zigs studio. Zig had shown interest in playing Irish music, so he, I, and Joyce ended up as a three-piece for a year - and then, when Joyce moved out of the area, we ended up as a duo.
ORourke playfully calls the personal relationship that developed between her and Zeitler The Bonus, and says that being a couple has definitely made their music even better.
While their music most definitively falls into the folk category - and has heavy Irish influences - its difficult to pinpoint an exact folk genre. ORourkes pretty alto vocals add a dense, classic, retro feel to their sound, while Zeitlers talents on instruments from the harmonica to the guitar, fiddle, banjo, and Irish bouzouki add even more European flair and texture.
Their current home of Michigan occasionally finds its way into their songs (Up on Saginaw Bay being perhaps one of the more obvious), but for ORourke, its her Irish heritage that finds its way into everything she writes.
It is very difficult to separate myself from a part of my life that is very much like a living limb in itself, she explains, I believe when I write I try to incorporate humor and light heartedness in my Americana material, more so certainly than when I write for the Irish genre, but I find very close similarities that maybe most folks wouldnt recognize.
What folks do recognize is an emotional component of the music, which ORourke explains is all about connecting with other people.
I know this will sound corny but the truth is, the best part of a performance is finding the gem of the evening that might have helped me connect with someone, and it seems like it is never the same song that does it. Irish music seems to bring out a lot of experiences for the listener. I very often have had folks tell me a song might have reminded them of someone or something they had not thought of in years. We are always amazed at the common thread we find between ourselves and our audience, and we pretty much always leave feeling like weve met some great folks, having more in common with each other than we ever thought possible.
Many stories of the old country find their way into ORourke and Zeitlers songs, as well - whether in traditional form, or repurposed to reflect some of the happenings of today. ORourkes own view of what Americans call Celtic music is an interesting look into both musical and cultural misperceptions.
I find the common phrase Celtic to be a bit like calling the Chinese and the Japanese all Asian, she says. We as Americans lose the sense of the importance of those individual cultures because we are a melting pot society. Irish music in the country has that as a battle - Irish, Scottish and Welsh all lumped into a pile. Renaissance festivals are billed as Irish festivals. Irish rock bands abound at some of the biggest festivals in the U.S. - but with very few traditional players present.
These festivals fill beer tents, but do nothing to actually pass on the culture, she points out, in an effort to bring in new fans of the genre we see a lot of diversion from the traditional pieces, so much so that the original music is unrecognizable within the new works.
ORourke points out, however, that this doesnt mean theres zero room for growth.
On the other side of the table, the traditionalists are grasping the Irish music so tightly in sessions that they are strangling it, she says, never varying from the written note. A lot of this certainly has to do with the history of the music itself, and how closely the Irish people came to losing their music entirely by the oppression of their culture. But when you travel to Ireland and sit in at a session, they are much more free with the movement of the music than we are here in the U.S. Maybe because we as Irish Americans cling to it more as a part of our connection to Ireland.
The beautiful thing though, is regardless of how old the piece is or how you arrange the music, whether you sing it note for note or bang it out in an Irish rock band, it is always, and will always, be contemporary, and folks will be drawn to it, these songs that are steeped in love and grief, separation and want, unrequited love and death.
These are the constants throughout history that we all connect with, regardless of age, year or country of origin, she concludes, the human element is present in Irish music and thats why it crosses borders and time and finds its way into so many other cultures.
The Boyne Arts Collective Concert Series presents Siusan ORourke and Zig Zeitler live in concert on Sunday March 13 at 4:00 pm. Tix are $15 via www.boynearts.org, in-person at the BAC, or by telephoning Michael Lee Seiler at 231-582-2226.