Walk into the London Grill in downtown Kalamazoo on a lazy Sunday afternoon and you might forget you’re not in an Irish pub. There’s an old British telephone booth in the corner, pints of beer on almost every table, and the chatter and laughter of familiar faces playing together in an Irish session.
An Irish session is not like a jam session, says Ginny Shilliday. Shilliday sings vocals and plays the bodhrán—an Irish goat skin drum. She says, unlike a jam session, songs in Irish sessions aren’t improvised. Everyone is supposed to know the traditional songs beforehand. There’s also a certain etiquette to joining a session.
“In Ireland you have to turn a down request for a song at least two or three times before finally—and everybody knows it—and finally say like, ‘Oh you don’t want to hear me sing,’” Shilliday says. ‘Oh, really I’m awfully hoarse today.’ And ‘Oh, go on, go on give us a song.’ And then finally we do.”
Traditional Irish tunes are distinguishable by their time signatures and ornamentation—or flourishes that decorate the music. Jim Clawson has been playing Irish tunes for 15 years. He says the nature of Irish music can make it difficult to learn.
“The sheet music is like…it’s extraneous because you can’t really learn the music from sheet music. It can’t really be written down because the ornamentation and the timing is so complex that you can’t really write it down,” he says. “If you could write it down, you couldn’t play it from the music. So we really discourage people from bringing sheet music. Cause you really need to learn it from somebody else from hearing the tune played.”
Jenny Leckrone plays the whistle and the bagpipes. She says her favorite part about the sessions is the people, the camaraderie between musicians. And Dave Marlatt of WMUK’s Pure Drop might agree.
“I associate different tunes with every person here. I remember them by the tunes that they know, or tunes that they know that I know that I’ve played with them over the years,” he says. “So it’s something you would share with somebody.”
The London Grill hosts Irish sessions most Sunday afternoons from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.