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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 26, 2000. All rights reserved.

NJ Folk Fest: Irish Music & a Cool Accordion


It’s hard to hide an accordion. You can try to put

it in your pocket, but the keyboard keeps getting in the way. Nevertheless,

it is an established fact that Mary Rafferty, of the Irish traditional

band Cherish the Ladies, successfully concealed her squeezebox from

her friends all through junior high school.

"Oh, my God, no," says Rafferty, who grew up in the northern

New Jersey town of Hasbrouck Heights. "I wouldn’t tell anybody

what I played. How could I explain to my friends that I played Irish

music? It just wasn’t cool, especially the accordion."

Looking back from the ancient and honorable age of 30, she wonders,

"Why did I care? Because I was 14 and trying to fit in."

Nowadays, it would be hard for Mary Rafferty to disguise what she

does. Cherish The Ladies, now in its 13th year of existence, is one

of the foremost Celtic bands on the circuit. The all-women group

maintains a fierce schedule. A typical year finds them traveling all

over North and South America, the United Kingdom and Europe, sharing

the stage with the likes of James Taylor, Emmy Lou Harris, Joan Baez,

Tommy Makem and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Last year, they appeared

at the State Theater in New Brunswick; Saturday, April 29, they return

to top the bill at the New Jersey Folk Festival in New Brunswick.

All the women in the group share an inherited tradition: each of them

first played music at her father’s knee. Mike Rafferty emigrated from

Ireland in 1949. With a family to provide for that eventually included

five children, he worked two jobs for years. Mechanic by day and bartender

on weekends, he found little time to play his beloved flute in the

east Galway style of his youth, but somehow, as the years passed,

he started to play again.

"Dad started having the house parties," recalls Mary Rafferty,

"Particularly, the massive New Year’s Eve parties. Anytime any

musician was around, they came over and had a session. So I was around

it even as a baby. My father makes me cassettes of the old tunes,

and I can hear myself as a baby yelling and dancing to the music."

"The first thing I remember was my first tin whistle lesson with

my father. I was probably five or six, sitting in the basement and

him showing me some things. The music was in my mind anyway. I told

him, `I can do that.’"

It’s well for Mike Rafferty that Mary was talented. None of his other

children were interested in the legacy of Irish music. His two sons

were more into sports; and Mary recalls her two older sisters being

packed off to Irish step-dancing lessons and somehow never getting

there. Meanwhile Mary, the baby of the family, became something rare

in Irish music: a three instrument virtuoso. She plays flute, whistle

and accordion, studied with famed Irish fiddler Martin Mulvehill ("I

tried the fiddle for a year," says Mary. "Didn’t work. Too

much scraping."), and as part of a trio, won a competition in

Ireland at the age of 16.

She stayed with the music after high school, but only intermittently,

while she worked as an underwriter for horse insurance brokers. Then

came a phone call, and therein lies a tale. Back in Galway, the young

Mike Rafferty used to stop at a neighbor’s on the way to work, and

play a few tunes for the family’s delight. And the littlest of that

family, Joe Madden, jumped out of the window one day in his pajamas,

saying, "Daddy, I want to play that music." Years later, Joe,

an accomplished accordion player, spent many hours making music with

Mike, often bringing along his daughter Joanie, who had started playing

flute and whistles. And now Joanie Madden, leader of Cherish the Ladies,

was on the phone to Mary. Maureen "Dodo" Doherty Macken, the

group’s accordion player, was taking a break to have a baby. Could

Mary fill in for two weeks?

"I had two weeks to learn two CDs of fast music," says Mary,

laughing, "and I wasn’t used to playing at that speed. It was

quite a challenge, but I pulled it off. Dodo had her baby and was

back a week later."

And Mary went back to the working world, but her interest in music

was rekindled. "I joined a band, Raving Noah, an original music

band — Irish, groovy with a touch of Arabic. Not much money in

it, though. One night, I made $3."

Then another call came. Dodo was leaving Cherish the Ladies permanently.

Mary said, "I guess I could give it a try." That was four

and a half years ago, and as much as she enjoys performing, she is

still getting used to the sometimes hectic pace. The Irish music circuits

consists mostly of one-nighters.

"It’s tiring," confesses Mary. "I take traveling tough.

And I like to practice, but after so many hours on the bus together,

it’s like `Get away from me’. Of course, if we have new material,

we have to go over it, but it’s never really set until you do it onstage."

Mary has a unique style on her accordion, hand-made in France. "I

really like to play my left hand," she explains. "The bass

notes — that’s very important. You can just play the melody on

your right hand, but on your left you have the extra drone, almost

like the uilleann pipes. To me, that’s added flavor."

Festivals like the one on Saturday are Mary’s favorite performing

venue. "You get to meet other musicians, have fun afterwards,

maybe do a few tunes. The audience has such a good time — it’s

not a silent situation."

Nowadays, Mary has the best of both her musical worlds. Cherish the

Ladies’ most recent album, "At Home", was a tribute to their

fathers. Fifteen family members, including Mike Rafferty and Joe Madden,

joined the ladies for jigs, reels and ballads. Mary and her boyfriend,

Donal Clancy, composed a jig, "Jack’s Morning Feast," in honor

of another family member, Mary’s cat. Even more recently, Mary and

her father recorded an album together, "The Old Fireside Music,"

on their own Larraga Records label (available through the website, and through the Rafferty family

e-mail, traff5788

Following the departure of lead singer Aoife Clancy, Cherish the Ladies

added a new member this month. Deirdre Connolly sings, dances, and

plays flute and whistle. True to form, she learned much of her music

from her father. And if she’s anything like Mary, she will not soon

forget her influences, and her first, most beloved teacher.

As Mary puts it, "If Dad says that’s the way it’s played, I would

tend to agree with him." She adds simply, "I like the way

my father plays."

— David McDonough

Cherish the Ladies, New Jersey Folk Festival, Rutgers’

Douglass Campus, George Street & Clifton Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-932-9174.

"Women in Folk" is the theme of the 26th annual festival on

four stages led by Cherish the Ladies. Also featuring Anne Hills,

Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen, Risky Business Bluegrass, Klez Dispensers,

Four Potato Stew, Bonnie Leigh, Mike Agranoff, Rik Palieri, Shirley

Keller, Gary Struncius & Debbie Lawton, and Richard D. Smith, Gene

Lowinger, and Don Kissil. Website:

Free, rain or shine. Saturday, April 29, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Starting times: 10:15 a.m.,Risky Business Bluegrass Band; 11

a.m., Chinese American Dance Ensemble; 11:40 a.m., Rik Palieri; 12:15

p.m., Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen with Anne Hills; 1:25 p.m., Cherish

the Ladies; 2:15 p.m., Klez Dispensers; 3 p.m., Contra Dance with

Donna Hunt & Four Potato Stew; 3:55 p.m., Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen; 4:45

p.m., Cherish the Ladies.

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