Irish Music at The Ould Sod

In this second in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of traditional music that can be found around the world, Mike De Smidt tells us about Irish music sessions in San Diego, California, USA.

Many people became familiar with Irish traditional music in the 1990s with the emergence of the stage phenomenon Riverdance. Some may also be aware of something that has existed far longer and continues to be a vibrant affair for musicians and spectators alike: the session, best described as a group of musicians playing a spontaneous selection of dance music. Irish music has a very long history, dating back thousands of years, but the music that is heard today developed primarily in the past two hundred or so years.


Photograph by Michael Eskin

One important aspect of Irish traditional music that makes it distinct from many other European musical traditions is that it has a contiguous history, unbroken by shifts in the political climate or changes in cultural taste. Sessions are a great venue for the transmission of this tradition from one generation of musicians to the next. The purpose is thus not only musical, but also social. Friendships are forged and reinforced through the sharing of tunes from the participants’ repertoires. Sessions, moreover, play a very important role in building a sense of community.

The session at The Ould Sod on Adams Avenue in San Diego has engendered a fantastic musical climate for over a decade and a half and serves as an anchor for the local community of Irish musicians. Every Tuesday night, between five and ten musicians gather in an alcove by the front door and play a variety of tunes—jigs, reels, hornpipes, slides, and the occasional song—for themselves and for anyone else who wishes to listen. This is an important thing to note about Irish sessions: the musicians, while certainly happy if other pub patrons enjoy the music, are primarily playing for their own enjoyment. That being said, it is a fairly inclusive affair as well. New musicians—of varying experience—are welcomed into the group, learning the shared repertoire and often adding to it with music they bring to the gathering on their own. While it is a regular weekly event at The Ould Sod, the session still maintains an air of informality that adds to its charm and sense of inclusion. There is no amplification, the instruments are acoustic, and you will find a wide variety of them at that! You’ll find the fiddles, flutes, banjos, and guitars that most people are familiar with, but also  more unusual instruments such as the uilleann pipes and the concertina.


Photograph by Michael Eskin

A session is an occasion to celebrate, enjoy a musical culture, and have a great night out with your friends. Tuesdays at The Ould Sod are certainly no exception.

— Mike De Smidt is a musician, ethnomusicologist, and instrument builder living near Santa Cruz, California.

See a short video of a typical Irish session, from Joe McHugh’s Pub in the village of Liscannor on the west coast of Ireland.

The first in a planned series of reports on the fascinating variety of traditional music that can be found around the world. We start the series in the United States with an article about jug band music and the human capacity to make music from an object one might find mundane. 

As the leader of San Diego’s G Burns Jug Band, two questions follow me around every show we play: “Who is G Burns?” and “What is a jug band?” I’m saving the answer to the first question for another time, but let’s talk about what a jug band is. Style aside, jug bands are defined by their use of a ceramic jug as a bass instrument. Technically, the jug is a wind instrument because the players buzz their lips and blow into the jug, using it as a resonator. By adjusting their embouchure, or the tenseness of their lips, the players create a musical tone resembling an upright bass being bowed with a weedwacker.

Some of the earliest accounts we have of jug blowing in America trace to the turn of the 20th century around Louisville, Kentucky. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; Kentucky, after all, is the storied land of bourbon and moonshine. It was inevitable that someone would come up with something funny to do with all of the byproducts once emptied. The instrument was most popular in African American string bands, where it was combined with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and fiddles, and even clarinets, saxophones, cornets, and tubas.

The first bands to record jug blowing in the mid 1920s were also rooted in Louisville. Bandleaders Earl McDonald and Clifford Hayes formed numerous bands which included the jug, and sought to emulate the hot jazz coming out of New Orleans and Chicago. Though their names are not well remembered now, they worked with legends like Johnny Dodds, the New Orleans clarinettist who also worked with a young Louis Armstrong. Listen to Earl McDonald’s composition “Banjoreno,” performed by his Dixieland Jug Blowers, for a beloved example of this exuberant, wonderfully strange music.

The Dixieland Jug Blowers. Earl McDonald poses with jug in center.

The Dixieland Jug Blowers. Earl McDonald poses with jug in center.

Recordings of the Louisville bands caught on among black musicians across the South, who applied jug playing to other styles of music. The bands of Memphis and Birmingham, for example, drew on the rowdier sounds and instrumentation of country blues, itinerant songsters, and minstrel shows rather than more modern and urban jazz sounds of Louisville and New Orleans. The sound could be jubilant, like The Memphis Jug Band’s “Memphis Shakedown,” but it could also be tender and moving, like the remarkable “Cold Iron Bed” by Jack Kelley and his South Memphis Jug Band. The jug even found its way into church, with “sanctified jug bands” cutting records like “Thou Carest Lord” sung by the Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers.

Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers from Memphis

Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers from Memphis

When you collect all of these examples, the idea of a “jug band” or “jug band music” becomes hard to define stylistically. They just don’t fall easily into the categories of American roots music we’re most familiar with. Their music spans nearly the entire gamut of black music-making in the early 20th century, and yet their place in American music history often seems marginal. In the grand narrative of jazz, Louisville jug bands seem like a strange cul-de-sac on the roads connecting New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Meanwhile, the grand narratives of blues music have valorized rural soloists of the acoustic age like Robert Johnson, and electrified urban bandleaders like Muddy Waters. In between them, the acoustic urban jug bands, with their bluesy fiddle or bluesy mandolin just don’t seem to fit.

So, to return to that original question: what is a jug band? Trying to define it in terms of musical style might be futile. My favorite answer (though maybe not always the best answer) comes from the last of the black jug band musicians of Louisville, Henry Miles, who said, “You can have a symphony orchestra. If you got a jug player in that band, that’s a jug band.”*

*Jones, Michael L., Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), 98.

Clinton Davis, Ph.D. is a freelance musician and educator born and raised in Kentucky and currently based in San Diego. He performs music from a variety of American traditions on guitar, banjo, piano, and mandolin, most visibly for the award-winning G Burns Jug Band. For more information, visit his website at

Alex Khalil

A Supercomputer Center is an unconventional place to find an ethnomusicologist. Yet, this is where we find Dr. Alex Khalil, an unconventional musician-scholar in whom the disjunct worlds of musicology and neural computation converge. This makes him, in a word, “eccentric.” No, not the “zany, frizzy-haired and absent-minded genius” type of eccentric. (Well, the “genius” likely applies, though Alex would deny it vehemently.) Rather, he is eccentric in that he makes a habit of pursuing those questions that carry him far beyond the comfortable center of any one world of standard practice or academic discipline.

Alex Khalil performing on gender wayang

Balinese Gender Wayang Performance, Seaport Village

Alex holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Music Composition and Performance from CalArts and a PhD with an emphasis in ethnomusicology from U.C. San Diego. He has spent more than twenty years conducting research on several Asian musics (primarily those of China, Japan, and Indonesia), speaks Mandarin and Indonesian, plays a host of traditional instruments (specializing in Balinese gamelan and Chinese guqin), and has worked extensively with the Center for World Music for over three decades, including stints as Executive Director and Teaching Artist in Residence. His current post? Project scientist at UCSD’s Institute for Neural Computation and research fellow for the Temporal Dynamics in Learning Center. How did this happen?

What may appear as a dramatic career shift is really a natural continuation, a fulfillment of Alex’s varied abilities and ideas that were sparked while he was teaching in the CWM’s Balinese gamelan program, which he established alongside Center founder Robert Brown back in 1999. In gamelan, rhythmic precision and tight group synchrony are vital. Gradually, Alex noticed that most children synchronized relatively easily, while a few struggled. “It clearly wasn’t for a lack of effort, nor did it correlate with their musical ability in anything other than rhythm. This was strange.” He later discovered that all of these struggling students also had attention deficits. Through further testing he established a definitive correlation between attention and rhythmic timing.  

Further study could show that musical practice might facilitate improvement, not just in musical timing but beyond gamelan and into interpersonal communication, which is also fundamentally rhythmic.

“Attention is dynamic, that is, changing in time, and so it is rhythmic in nature.” Alex believes that developing proficiency in music, especially rhythm, may improve communication skills in children with ADHD or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and perhaps even for all children. His road from the classroom to scientific research has been a long and difficult one, but it is starting to pay off. Recently, he and partnering institutions were awarded a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation (Science of Learning Center) to further study synchrony in group brain dynamics. “If the hypothesis is true,” he says, “we have an army of skilled music teachers who can offer help.”

“We tend to wonder what happens when music is included in cognitive development, but a musical brain is a normal brain . . . and music just isn’t in our lives in the same ways it used to be.”

Alex Khalil embodies the heart of what the CWM promotes in its youth education program, World Music in the Schools: we solve problems better when we are skilled at listening and acting across the boundaries between cognitive worlds, even those that seem so stubbornly divergent as “science” and “the arts.” Something as seemingly simple as learning an unfamiliar musical style can, in a sense, make us bilingual. Nine-year old Olivia, a gamelan student from The Museum School, makes this crystal-clear when she says that “it’s fun to learn another culture’s music because then you can kind of speak with them, in a way.” You’re right Olivia!  

Cultural fluency can be fun, and, as Alex demonstrates, it can also provide a lens for viewing and solving old problems in new ways.


Japanese Shakuhachi Performance, USD

Speaking of cultural fluency, can you guess Alex’s central passion since childhood? It’s unlikely that Byzantine chant came to mind. But for Alex, who still frequently performs as a cantor in a Greek Orthodox Church in San Diego, this is not just another thing he does. Just as gamelan rhythms might improve communication skills, on a cognitive level our various activities don’t stay in neat compartments as we might expect.

The many worlds in which we participate converge, integrate, and become the world we know.

As we depart the supercomputer center where we found Alex Khalil, our world has already grown. But it also imparts a question, really a personal challenge: how will you expand your horizons today?

Read an article written by Alex on the value of music education for kids for The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art here.

Learn more about the CWM’s World Music in the Schools gamelan program at the Museum School.

James Gutierrez, PhD, Northeastern University