Musical duo Virago mix ethnic melodies and rhythms with original songs, roots-rock, folk songs and blues to create their own unique gumbo of musical styles in their performances. The Freehold-based duo of Maire Tashjian and Amy Schindler give a compelling show as they lead the audience on a geographical musical journey to places like Brazil, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico, and back to the USA. Tashjian plays a variety of drums and percussion instruments, while Schindler plays guitars and some percussion, too.
Tashjian is a Freehold native who still lives there with her partner, Amy Schindler, who was raised in Long Island, and Tashjian’s mother, Elaine, a visual artist and teacher.
"I took to the drums at a young age, and I remember playing whenever I could," Tashjian says in a phone interview. When she was very young, her mother got her a conga drum. "It was like a toy that I played with all through grade school. I kept it up in high school and played in the marching band. I didn’t start getting into ethnic percussion until 1993, when I studied at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, for a two-week summer session."
While at Omega she got to know legendary Nigerian drummer, impresario, and bandleader, Babatunde Olatunji, who led a group called Drums of Passion for many years. The late Olatunji, says Tashjian, "taught me the language of the drum and how to speak it. He was very encouraging to me to take it back to the community and share it. That’s what I’ve been doing since then."
Tashjian credits her mother for encouragement. "From the time I was eight, she was encouraging me to do what I wanted to do. That turned out to be drumming."
Tashjian and Schindler have been working together as Virago since 2000. They performed their first Virago concert at a benefit for a battered women’s shelter at Ramapo College in Mahwah. "There was a musical spark right away," Tashjian says. "I hadn’t worked with anyone else in a while, and Amy was doing the same thing, and we hit it off. We shared a passion for Brazilian music. She had done some percussion as well, even though guitar is her main thing.
"Virago is all about using our music to build community," she adds. As part of the after-school program in North Brunswick, the pair teach ethnic drumming to children one day a week, and they have a variety of other educational presentations they deliver to school-aged audiences. "Amy goes to one school and I go to another. It provides an opportunity for kids to experience hands-on percussion. They also learn about different cultures and why drumming is important to these cultures."
The duo also work for Contemporary Music Studios, which operates out of the Freehold Music Center. Tashjian teaches drums and percussion while Schindler teaches guitar. Like so many other folk-based musicians, the two have discovered the advantages of a steadier income by pursuing school presentations. Virago’s presentations are interactive; kids are encouraged to play the two dozen percussion instruments Tashjian carries with her to shows.
Schindler was raised in West Islip, New York, and spent six years in the Army Reserves. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music from the Long Island University C.W. Post campus. She has been playing guitar since her early teens, inspired initially by Nancy Wilson from Heart, she says. "She inspired me initially, but later I discovered people like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. After I seriously began studying, I got into jazz performers like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. With our shows, I try to keep a soulful edge to my playing, and what attracted me to Joe Pass was I heard some blues lines and country picking in his playing as well." The late Pass, born in New Brunswick and raised there and in New York, made a name for himself in the jazz world, issuing dozens of recordings for a variety of jazz labels.
Tashjian and Schindler traveled to Brazil in June of this year, where they spent several weeks performing and studying with Emeria Biancardi. Virago first met Biancardi at a women’s drum retreat in upstate New York. "We had a first-hand opportunity to learn Brazilian percussion styles at the Festival of Sao Jao, a time when people come out to all these festivals from the interior. We had the chance to hear and learn all kinds of different folk music forms that were being played," Tashjian says.
Aside from all of their school-based programs, "we’ve also been doing a ton of gigs lately," says Tashjian, who majored in performing arts at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft and studied at the Drummer Collective in New York City. The duo frequents ethnic restaurants at the Jersey shore, including Casa Solar in Belmar and Mira Sol in Sea Bright, a Portugese restaurant where Virago will perform on New Year’s Eve.
In concert, Virago cover the gamut from Brazilian standards and pop songs to Spanish ballads and Latin influenced music, with a smattering of American blues and roots-rock thrown in. "Our originals could best be described as a unique sound of rock with an ethnic twist," Tashjian says. "Our live shows these days are made up mostly of our original songs; it’s a good feeling when we can play our own music and find audiences that are receptive to it."
At the Mine Street performance Tashjian says, "We’re going to do originals from our album called `Here Be Dragons,’ and we’ll likely have the audience participate in a samba or something like that. They’ll also be encouraged to participate with percussion instruments that we’ll pass out to them, just like we do with our children’s’ programs."
Virago, Saturday December 17, 8:30 p.m., Mine Street Coffee House,
First Reformed Church, Neilson and Bayard Streets, New Brunswick.
Album release party for "Here Be Dragons." $8. Also, official album
release party, Saturday, January 7, 9 p.m., the Saint, 601 Main
Street, Asbury Park. 732-775-9144 or www.viragomusic.com.