Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 11,
1998. All rights reserved.
Cherish the All Irish Ladies
There can be no better confirmation of the Irishness
of a performance than winning the annual All-Ireland festival. American-born
Joanie Madden, leader of Cherish the Ladies, and winner of multiple
awards at the competition, gloats quietly over her successes in Ireland
during the course of a phone interview from Denver where the group
was in a music and dance festival known as the Mile-High Hoolie. The
six-woman ensemble of instrumentalists and singers appears at New
Brunswick’s State Theater Sunday, March 15, at 3 p.m.
"We used to go to the All-Irelands just to hear the people competing,"
Madden says. "I’m proud of my roots and my ancestry and my culture.
We’re always out there educating Americans about Irish music. Meeting
the Irish is a bond. But going to Ireland was the scariest thing we
ever did. It’s tough competition."
Madden’s fear was unjustified. In 1984 she was the first American
to win the Senior All-Ireland championship on the whistle. She reports
that after a performance an Irishman from Galway came up and said,
"You put the Irish to shame." Madden considers that remark
the best compliment she ever received. "It’s great to be the daughters
of immigrants and winning against the natives," she says.
The success of individual members of Cherish the Ladies at the All-Irelands
led to the creation of the group. Folklorist Mick Moloney was the
"A bunch of us American kids were coming back from the All-Ireland
festival in 1983," Madden remembers. "We had won three gold
medals. There was no gender class. Most of the winners from the United
States were women. Mick Moloney got interested and started to research
the role of women in Irish music. He learned that it’s normally insignificant.
In the 1950s, there were 2,000 members of the Irish Society in Philadelphia,
and none of them were women."
Moloney decided that it was time to showcase an Irish women’s performing
group. The skeptical Madden decided to humor Moloney in what she thought
was an outrageous idea, and three concerts were scheduled in New York
in the fall of 1983. "What shall we call the group?" Moloney
wondered aloud. Madden quipped "Cherish the Ladies," citing
the title of a well-known Irish song. The name stuck.
A series of NEA grants in the 1980s and early 1990s started Cherish
the Ladies on its way by making possible the New York concert, then
a two-week tour, and additional performances. "Much to my surprise,"
says Madden, "there was a lot of interest. At first Cherish the
Ladies was a weekend affair. We were going to disband. Suddenly in
1991 we got another NEA grant. If not for the NEA we would not exist."
Eventually, the NEA support dried up, and Madden saw to private promotion
of the group, which now performs more than 200 dates a year. "As
leader of the group I do everything," she says. "I wear a
lot of hats — I take care of bookings, handle accounts, and make
recording arrangements. If I ever get too old to blow the flute I
could be a booking agent."
Madden, 32, was born in New York City, and grew up in the Woodlawn
section of the Bronx in a family that included five sons and two daughters.
Her mother, who calls her "Joan" is from County Clare, and
her father, who calls her "Joanie," is from County Galway.
Of the seven children in the family, she was the only one to become
a musician, though her parents had an active musical life. Her father,
Joe, is an award-winning accordion player. "My parents knew that
I was musical," she says. "When they had parties, I wouldn’t
go to bed, but would hang around with the adults who were making music."
"My first instrument was the violin. I hated it. Then I had three
weeks of piano, and I hated that. When I told my father that I wanted
to take whistle lessons, he told me to get lost," Madden says.
She persisted, however, and convinced her father to let her study
whistle with his friend Jack Coen. "I took my first lesson on
the whistle," says Madden, "and I was hooked. I used to run
home at lunch from Catholic school in order to play the whistle."
"The whistle is considered a stepping stone to the flute,"
Madden explains. "It teaches the fingering. When Jack Coen taught
me the whistle, he told me to put it away when I learned the flute.
But I could never put down the whistle."
When Madden’s family moved up to Yorktown Heights, she
continued working on both flute and whistle, teaching herself. "I
studied in the bathroom," Madden says, " because the acoustics
were good there." Formal training is alien to Irish folk music.
"This music was written by people who didn’t have a clue what
key they were in," says Madden. "They were emulating the birds
and the bees, and creating music because it sounded beautiful to them."
There would be no point in looking for academic credentials among
the members of "Cherish the Ladies," all of whom come from
musical families that form a close-knit circle. "We learned from
our fathers," Madden says. "When I won my All Ireland award,
it was 25 years to the day from when my Dad won his All-Ireland for
She sketches out the lineage and connections of the other members
of the ensemble. Aoife (pronounced "Eefa") Clancy, vocals
and guitar, is the daughter of Bobby Clancy of the Clancy Brothers.
Mary Coogan, guitar, banjo, and mandolin, like Madden, is the daughter
of an accordion player. Mary Rafferty, accordion, flute, and whistles,
is the daughter of flutist Mike Rafferty, a musical partner of Madden’s
"Mary Rafferty’s father is my idol on the flute, just like my
father is her idol on the accordion." Donna Long, piano and fiddle,
daughter of a jazz and classical pianist father, began studying piano
with him at age five. When she heard the Irish fiddle for the first
time as an adult in the late ’70s, she was inspired to master it.
Siobhan Egan, fiddle and bodhran (an Irish drum), has siblings active
in the Irish music scene, and a musically active grandmother.
Habitually, Aiofe Clancy is the lead singer while Donna Long and Madden
harmonize, to produce three-part harmony. The State Theatre show includes
dancers Eileen Golden and Sinead Lawler, and here another interlocking
connection arises: Madden’s boyfriend, Donny Golden, a dancer with
the Irish performers, the Chieftains, is the brother of Cherish the
Ladies dancer Eileen Golden.
"We’re lucky," says Madden. "We all come from different
backgrounds, and everybody brings their own interests to the group.
Donna has a jazz-classical background, loves airs, and researches
17th-century ballads. Siobhan is into the Donegal style; it’s very
fast and flowing with high and bouncy tunes. The two Marys and I are
especially interested in Galway music, which is slow and minor. We
meet in the middle and it works."
Despite the sectarian divisions in Ireland, Cherish the Ladies is
uninvolved in political controversy. "We’ve always stayed clear
of politics," Madden says. "Music is a universal language.
It crosses all borders."
"All the members of the combo were taught and trained to put the
music on a pedestal," Madden says. "We want to be making sure
we’re adding to the music and never taking away. Naturally, the tradition
has to grow. The music has to bend and go with the times without abandoning
the tradition. If we didn’t stay with the tradition, all of our fathers
would disown us."
Madden considers it justified to use instruments from outside the
Irish tradition. "Guitar, banjo, and mandolin are borrowed from
other ethnic backgrounds, but we made them Irish by how we play them."
She also considers it appropriate to write new pieces. "We write
a lot of tunes ourselves," she says. "I wrote a tune about
the West Side Highway not too long ago. I was on my way home to Yonkers
when it occurred to me. I had to pull off the road and write it down."
She even thinks a possible inspiration for a new piece might lie in
the attempts she and I made to establish an interview date by leaving
messages on telephone answerers. "Sure," she says. "There
could be a tune about the answer machine."
"Our show covers the full range of Irish culture," Madden
says about a Cherish the Ladies performance. "We do a balanced
mixture of music, dance, and songs. A lot of people love it because
they don’t know what’s coming next."
Glasgow’s Celtic Connection festival, which started
six years ago, has invited the Ladies back every year. At its current
tempo, Cherish the Ladies tours Europe six or seven times a year,
and the rate is accelerating. This season, the ensemble presents itself
to areas it has never before reached. In April a 25-city tour of England
takes place. In July Norway, Sweden, and Finland are on the schedule.
Tours have been planned for Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Italy.
"We’re booking for the year 2000," says Madden with astonishment,
thinking back to the days when nobody expected the group to last.
Madden considers Celtic music, of which Irish music is a part, a basically
irresistible endeavor. She quotes a Boston Globe review of Cherish
the Ladies, which declared, "It’s simply impossible to imagine
an audience that wouldn’t enjoy what they do."
A growing discography with a growing audience keeps Celtic music an
active affair. Madden’s 1996 release "Song of the Irish Whistle"
on the Hearts of Space label has sold over 100,000 copies. Cherish
the Ladies most recent recording is "Threads of Time" on the
RCA Victor label. Madden observes, "If people buy their first
Celtic record, it’s not their last." Although Cherish the Ladies
considers itself veterans of the recording studio, Madden considers
the group to be in its most typical state in live performance, rather
than in recordings. "In the studio you have to be cautious, while
with performance you let it all go," she says. "In performance
you’re getting the true band. There are no inhibitions."
Madden is pleased with the renown that Cherish the Ladies is acquiring,
and pleased that the group holds its own, with no consideration of
gender. "People are not looking at the fact that we’re all women,"
she says. "They’re looking at the fact that we’re good."
— Elaine Strauss
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. $19-$25. Sunday, March 15,
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