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His Irish eyes are smiling

Winnipeg doctor, musician serious about promoting cultural traditions of his ancestral homeland

"Never get one of those cheap tin whistles. It leads to much harder drugs like pipes and flutes."

-- Unknown

David Strang (from left), Kyle Borley, Cathy Rayner and D'Arcy Stearns of The Barefoot Ceili Band:

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

David Strang (from left), Kyle Borley, Cathy Rayner and D'Arcy Stearns of The Barefoot Ceili Band: "It's happy music. It's hard not to tap your foot along." Photo Store


David Strang is glad he never took the advice from that famous anonymous quote, although it's partly true in his case.

The whistle was a musical gateway drug, of sorts, for the president of the Winnipeg chapter of Comhaltas (pronounced coal-tis), one that led down a path to the concertina, a hand-held, bellows-driven instrument similar to a button accordion.

He plays the instrument in two different traditional Irish ceili bands -- the Flatland Ceili Band and the Barefoot Ceili Band -- that play regularly around town at different events, jams and sessions with people hooked on other instruments such as the Uilleann pipes, bodhran, guitar and fiddle.

"I've just always loved all sorts of music. I don't know what it is; that's how I'm wired," Strang says.

"I've always liked the traditional music. The folk festival was my exposure to it. I'm told my maternal grandfather played the fiddle as well, so there's probably something genetic about it."

The 50-year-old doctor's love of traditional music from the Emerald Isle led to his involvement in the local chapter of Comhaltas, which aims to promote Irish culture in the areas of music, dance and language.

The organization was founded in Ireland in 1951 and now boasts 400 branches and 75,000 members around the world. The Winnipeg group was founded 25 years ago by Irish expats. These days, most members of the volunteer non-profit organization were born here but share a love of the culture, from the music to Guinness beer.

"People get enthusiastic about it. They want to share the word and spread it to people to keep the traditions alive. The people that are in Comhaltas all love this kind of music. We like to play it and find other people that like to play it. It's happy music. Jigs and reels are all pretty catchy. It's hard not to tap your foot along. It's all dance music," Strang says.

The bands sometimes, but not always, perform with dance groups, including the McConnell School of Dance and local set-dancing groups, which differs from the more famous step-dancing (Riverdance) by being more like square dancing, with four couples dancing together, performing different figures and sets.

Comhaltas organizes regular set-dancing nights at Riverview Elementary School and a drop-in music night at Sam's Place bookstore and café on Henderson Highway the last Friday of every month.

They tried to organize Gaelic lessons but couldn't get enough members to hold a regular quorum, Strang says.

Comhaltas' most well-known event is the annual Irish Fest, which takes place every October and includes concerts at the Irish Club and the West End Cultural Centre, along with workshops at Gordon Bell High School.

This year, the parent Comhaltas chapter in Dublin will send its touring music group to Winnipeg for the Oct. 12 and 13 festivities, which will be a boon for lovers of authentic traditional music, Strang says.

"I think all these traditional cultures are valuable. They do go in cycles or waves. If you don't watch out, in a downturn you lose it, and once it's gone, it's gone. Traditionally, it was by aural tradition -- people learned tunes by ear. It's only in the last century people have started writing it down," he says.

To help get Irish Fest off the ground, Comhaltas started a fundraiser called Reels on Wheels, featuring three bands playing at three different houses. The bands play three sets a night and the crowd moves from house to house during the course of the evening, catching music everywhere they go. By the end of the night, every participant has seen a set from each of the bands. "It's like a progressive dinner party," Strang says.

Information about the event will be posted online at the group's website, comhaltaswinnipeg.ca

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J13

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