One of New York's most popular traditional music sessions is the subject of Elzbieta Szoka's revealing documentary
For those planning to travel to New York for the St Patrick’s Day Parade, be warned: it is not the carnival one might expect.
True, the sidewalks bulge with spectators young and old and novelty hats and GAA colours abound.
But the parade itself has a sombre martial atmosphere that is both unexpected and frankly a little disappointing. The various participants, suited and booted in their finest uniforms and pins, take their Irish heritage very seriously indeed.
Who knows what they would make of parades ‘back home’ in Ireland. ‘Isn’t that Indian music? Are they dressed as extraterrestrials? What has this got to do with Eire?’
It’s comforting to know, then, that in Dempsey’s Pub in New York’s East Village, a group of Irish-American musicians (and the odd Asian) come together every Tuesday evening to celebrate Irish culture as it should be celebrated, with a wink and a smile after a few pints of Guinness.
Not one of them wears a suit and there are no collections made for Republican causes. Anyone is welcome to join in the session, and people do whether they are Irish or not.
The session has been occurring weekly in Dempsey's for 12 years, and Polish filmmaker Elzbieta Szoka's 62 minute documentary – somewhat ambiguously entitled Beautiful People – introduces us to ten of the regular musicians who keep coming back to Dempsey's for more.
The film opens with a series of juxapositioned shots of New York coming alive – subways filling with commuters, sidewalks coursing with tourists and pedestrians distracted by mobile phones – and of trad musicians getting comfortable, tuning up and playing tunes in the cosy confines of Dempsey's.
It's a smart reflection on modern life. Maybe in ten or 20 years' time, we'll all be far too busy to worry about the arts or to benefit from their restorative qualities.
A brief interview with bar manager Colin Stewart, originally from Derry, provides context for the film. Stood on the stairwell of a typical New York tenement, Stewart – who is also credited as an actor on the film's website, having starred in several films and plays – talks with an American twang. 'People come from all over the world to visit the session,' he says. 'It’s accessible to everybody, from the expert to the novice.’
We meet them all, from the elderly Stanley – who is continually mentioned by the other musicians as a stalwart of the old school, someone to look up to and learn from – to the rising star singer and guitarist Sean, the classically trained fiddle player Kate, and Astushi, an Asian player who cheerfully admits to being completely obsessed with Irish traditional music.
The de facto leader of the session, John Nevin (pictured below), is hospitable and understated. He can turn the tide of a session from downbeat to upbeat with the drop of a shoulder, the briefest of nods. His democratic approach allows for every musician to shine.
In his interview Nevin confides that he plays for the memory of his mother and father, Irish immigrants who worked hard for a living on both sides of the Atlantic. 'Modern life is difficult for a lot of people,' Nevin observes. 'There’s a lot of alienation and isolation… the session is nothing less than a gift.'
It's wonderful to see and hear the collective playing old standards together, laughing together, encouraging one another and finding companionship and artistic expression at Dempsey's. Onlookers sip their drinks and nod their heads in time with the rhythm. I can imagine whiling away the hours there as a tourist myself.
I could also imagine coming away from Dempsey's with more knowledge of the place than I managed to garner from watching this documentary.
In effect, Beautiful People is a series of interviews that shed light on the session – who attends regularly, how they came to love trad music, why they choose to come back week after week – but do little to establish the provenance of the bar (who owns it, where are they from?) or how the locals feel about the session.
By spending so much time either talking with the musicians in their respective apartments, or filming them playing in the cramped surroundings of the bar itself, the film also begins to feel quite claustrophobic.
And while it's nice to hear the stories of charismatic people like bodhran player Mary Ford – 'I've been at Dempsey's since the start, one of the original crew' – it feels throughout as if a central character is conspicuous by its absence: New York City itself. 'Let's get out and about,' you feel like shouting. 'Let's interview someone in Central Park!'
At times I also wonder if Szoka is concentrating on the right subjects, or if there were perhaps better musicians – greater talents – who would flourish under the spotlight. Some of the playing and singing on show is, after all, decidedly amateur. But all of the interviewees admit that they have lots left to learn. They can only do so by playing with their peers. They will certainly do so at Dempsey's.
Beautiful People is an enjoyable and enlightening documentary – a worthy addition to the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival programme – full of interesting, articulate characters who share a passion for their art. More power to their elbow.
Beautiful People screens at the John Hewitt Bar on Saturday May 12 at 4pm, as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. The film is followed by a live trad session, and admission is free.