August 21, 2006

European Adventure

It is with heavy hearts that Rob, Greg and I return from our brief stay in Dublin and even briefer stay in Stockholm. We left last Wednesday to meet our new Dublin-based client, Comhaltas (short for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, pronounced coal-tis kyol-tory air-in); a government funded non-profit that promotes and preserves the tradition of Irish music and dance. In the coming months we will be redesigning their website, so they invited us over to kickoff the project and get a taste of what it is they do. We had it in our minds that this would be a nice little trip, but I can honestly say we were all stunned at just how deeply moving it proved to be. Very few times are you able to get this much from a client meeting.

Comhaltas doorwayComhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann

We knew it was going to be a whirlwind of a trip, five flights (two of which would be quite long) in five days, but we were fortunate to have great weather and great company for the entire stay. Our client was kind enough to put us up for our two nights in one of the rooms at Comhaltas (which occupies a large building containing rooms for guests, a theater, pub, and mess hall). After a quick bite, the three of us laughed in the face of exhaustion and jumped on the Dart to head into town. We met up with Ms. Jen (thanks again for everything!), who helped us make the most of our limited time. We ran around the grounds of Trinity College, made a quick stop at the Book of Kells before they closed up, and had a jaunt around Merion Square followed up by a few pints at O’Donoghue’s (the Guiness really is much better over there). We grabbed some food at the Ely Wine Bar and, after some prime photo ops, jumped back on the Dart to catch the last seisiún (Irish for “session”) at Comhaltas before everyone left for the Fleadh in Letterkenny. Man, I wish we could’ve gone with them.

On Friday, we met with Comhaltas to discuss their website and the redesign we will be performing. At night we joined everyone at Comhaltas and the musicians at a local pub to celebrate and give them a good send off to the Fleadh. This was the point in the trip that truly left us speechless. After dinner, and after already playing every night for the past month, everyone took out their instruments and began another seisiún. These people live and breathe this music. They truly love what they do, and their affection for it is contagious. The thing that really blew us away is how these sessions aren’t deemed entertainment so much as just a communal gathering. All I could think is how if six or so people just started playing like that in a bar in Philly, the crowd gathered around would be 10 people deep. But, most people there just went on with their conversation and drinking, barely batting an eye. They weren’t playing for an audience so much as themselves and for one another.

One last sessionOne last session

The music itself was wonderful. All of the musicians were seasoned and energetic, which of course made it all seem so effortless. Seeing how much of a cornerstone this tradition is in the musicians’ lives made the music that much more infectious. In much the same way as when I was a child I thought that all Japanese people knew some form of martial art—I mean no offense, it was merely childhood naivety and media influence on a young boy’s mind—I couldn’t help but feel like a strong majority of people there knew how to play one (if not more) instruments. Perhaps it was because everyone we came across at some point picked up a stray instrument and joined in the seisiún. When sitting next to a seisiún taking place, you can’t help but feel like you want to join in and grab an instrument yourself. It had a profound impact on us all, so much that I feel compelled to look into the local Philadelphia chapter of Comhaltas.

After the pub closed, we headed back to Comhaltas to steal a few hours of sleep before an early flight to Sweden (with a connection through Helsinki). We arrived in Stockholm late in the afternoon and once again fought off exhaustion to experience a little bit of the city. As luck would have it, we wandered into many of the places recommended to us: Gamla Stan, The Stockholm Culture Festival, and the Absolut Icebar (we stayed in the Nordic Sea Hotel, so we couldn’t help ourselves). I wish we had more time in Stockholm, but my overall impression was one of awe: the design of everything, from chairs to the airport to the simplest of signs, seems fully considered and executed. It’s like an entire city focused on usability! Although, it does wear on the senses a bit when everyone you pass seems so impossibly beautiful, tall and slender.

Waffles in the windowmmmmm…

Even though it was a whirlwind trip, we crammed a lot into a small bit of time and managed to make it out to nearly all of the places some of you kind folks recommended. We are very excited and honored to be a part of this project, and already looking forward to finding a way to return to Ireland. It is a rare occurrence to be able soak in so much of what a client really does and there is really no way we could have garnered as much information and emotion about the culture and tradition of the music had we merely read about it or listened to a few CDs. This trip has already proven invaluable for pure research and understanding, and for that we are completely grateful to our new friends at Comhaltas.

As you can imagine, we walked away with quite a few photos. You can see most of mine in my Flickr set, European Adventure, and Greg’s in his set, Dublin & Stockholm. Some others will be popping up in my Daily Photos. Also, Greg and I took some low quality video (yay!) from the sessions on both nights, all of which you can see on YouTube. If you are curious to hear some more of the music we were delighted by, you should check out the Foinn Seisiún: Traditional Irish Session Tunes (from the iTunes Music Store).

Commentary (18):

1. Greg says… aug 21, 2006 | 6:06 pm

It was, as Stan said, a truly memorable experience. One can only wish to get projects like this. I felt like we had backstage passes the whole time.

2. Keith says… aug 21, 2006 | 6:08 pm

Wow. That sounds like a great trip and sounds like an amazing project. Consider me very, very envious! ;0)

Ok, off to look at your photos!

3. Des Traynor says… aug 21, 2006 | 6:29 pm

Glad to hear you had fun. Looks like you got to hear excellent musicians too.

Also, have to say, I am delighted to see Comhaltas had the wisdowm to hire you, this could be really good for Irish music around the world.

4. Greg says… aug 21, 2006 | 8:36 pm

I’m surprised they let Rob leave the homeland being that he’s a leprechaun and all.

5. Ms. Jen says… aug 22, 2006 | 5:11 am

Thank you all back for a lovely run around and dinner. It was so fun to have SXSW friends in Dublin…

On a music note, this year in my Audio class when we learned to use Pure Data to create our on synthesizer with our computers my Audio lecturer and I got in a fight. I programmed the synth, had the computer’s keyboard to work for 2 or more octaves of a piano keyboard and then just stared at it. The instructor came around and said, “Well, play it.”

I looked at him and said, “But I don’t play the piano.”

Instructor now irritated with me, “Everyone plays the piano and the guitar!”

Jen: “Where?”

Instructor: “Here! Now play.”

Other Classmate jumps in, “Uh, Nicky, lots of Americans don’t have any musical training.”

Instructor: “What!!! Everyone knows how to play an instrument!”

Jen: “Sorry, Nicky, my school disctrict cut all arts and music training after kindergarden. And my family felt it was very important to learn how to ski, kayak and canoe, and play volleyball competitively.”

This is a true story of when Ms. Jen learns at 30 something that being able to play volleyball competitively at 5 feet tall is useless but piano lessons at 10 may have come in handy one day.

And yes, all the Irish folk in my class could play the synth they programmed. Danged American educational system! ;o)

6. Piero Fissore says… aug 22, 2006 | 5:46 am

I was in Dublin too, from the 11th to the 18th of August. :) Amazing city.

7. David McDonald says… aug 22, 2006 | 5:58 am

You’re a lucky dog Jason!
I didn’t realise you were coming to Ireland to take on the Conhaltas website - what a great project. I’m a huge fan of Irish Trad music (used to play a bit in my youth) and it was interesting to read your take on the muscial lifeblood of Ireland. There’s a whole world of music in Irish Trad.
I’m really looking forward to see what you do with their website.
Glad you enjoyed your Dublin trip too.


8. Eoghan O’Brien says… aug 22, 2006 | 6:22 am

Hey, as an Irishman I can tell you that all the people I work with along with at least 70% of my friends can play some instrument. I play guitar, drums and bass, so you’re safe to assume that most Irish people can play some musical instrument. If you really liked Trad Irish Music and if you ever come back here, head down to Galway and Kerry for a week and maybe west Cork, thats where you get the ‘real’ trad, you may have to excuse the anti-brittish feeling down there though.

I’m also looking forward to what you guys do with the site, I’m sure it’ll be amazing considering the quality of work you guys do.

Slán leat

9. Daniel Curran says… aug 22, 2006 | 3:08 pm


You make me want to go back to Ireland also, I was much too young when I went and we were mostly visiting with family the whole time.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out The Quiet Man, a John Wayne movie filmed almost entirely an Ireland.. It’s an amazing story, very funny, and has some good traditional music in it (in fact, one of the songs on the youtube videos is in it).

10. Smallest Photo says… aug 22, 2006 | 5:16 pm

That whole trip sounds fantastic! Can’t wait to see what you do with their site.

11. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 22, 2006 | 6:41 pm

Yes, it was a wonderful time! Another thing that really floored us was how many songs everyone knew. We were told that the average musician knows upwards of 1000 songs by heart (the reason that they can just jump into a session and play). Some of the better musicians know upwards of 2000-3000 songs, and the majority of them are taught by playing (rather than reading music). That is just simply amazing.

12. Greg says… aug 23, 2006 | 7:48 am

The other thing that was amazing to us was when the group was fishing for a new song to play during the session. They’d noodle around a bit - one person would play a couple of notes of a tune but it wouldn’t ‘take’. Kind of like a pitcher shaking off a sign from the catcher in baseball. Eventually, someone would play a couple of notes that seemed to gel with the others and then everyone would soon join in. This was all done without one word being spoken. I have a hard enough time picking one song to play out of a jukebox - I can’t imagine how you pick one out of a repertoire of 3000.

13. Breandán says… aug 23, 2006 | 6:38 pm

Speaking as the client, I can say that you guys were great fun to have around! You’ll have to come back for longer next time! I think the folks in my office were expecting stuffy guys in suits, and I’m glad to note that you confounded the expectation.

I have to chime in on the 3,000 tunes question — though some people know that many, there’s really a core set of maybe 300 that would cover most session situations. It’s from that bag that you pick with you’re trying to decide on a tune … and once you do, there’s probably another tune or two that follows it just by tradition. So it’s really not all that bad. Of course, it’s still common to play marathon sessions and never repeat one!

14. Conánn says… aug 24, 2006 | 6:38 am

Glad you had a great time in my home town. It’s great to see CCE have gone this far to find great designers for their new site.

15. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 24, 2006 | 7:17 pm

Breandán: *phew*, only 300, I fell a little less inadequate now. Well, I can probably hum along with the next 300 songs playing in my iTunes :D

16. Mb. says… aug 26, 2006 | 2:49 pm


can you do us all a big favour and write a step by step guide to finding clients that are as friendly, generous and interesting as Comhaltas?

Next time you’re on this side of the pond, stop by Hamburg and I’ll buy you a beer or three.

17. Joe Clay says… aug 26, 2006 | 5:51 pm

When I was in Ireland it seemed like there was a lot of interest in the internet blooming over there. I’m considering moving there some day…I would definitely love to retire there. What a beautiful place.

Also, sessions and live trad music rocks. It’s too bad you missed the festivals they have on the west side of Ireland, that I believe Eoghan was talking about in comment 8. I’m hoping to hit those one of these years :)

18. Ashe says… sep 1, 2006 | 9:26 am

What a wonderful piece of information to wake up to this morning. Being a fan and an Irish dancer (and running an Irish dance website myself), I’m definitely looking forward to the result.

So glad you enjoyed your trip.