Metro-East Living

Sounds of Ireland: Celtica treasures traditional Irish music

Michelle Hauser and her family stopped in Tigin Irish Pub in St. Louis last Sunday for dinner, not expecting to hear live Celtic music.

But a merry band of musicians, known as Celtica, had staked out a corner near the door for a jam session, rotating between jigs, reels, polkas, hornpipes and airs.

“We love it,” said Michelle, 41, who had traveled from Oklahoma for a basketball tournament. “We like the atmosphere, and my husband likes Irish beer.”

Four teenagers gathered around another table, eating giant cheeseburgers and thick-cut fries. They couldn’t help swaying and tapping their toes.

“We’re all band geeks,” said Renee Lemieux, 18, a senior at O’Fallon Township High School. “We don’t have just one genre of choice. We listen to a way bigger variety of music.”

The teens had turned out to support their friend Luke Hutton, 19, of O’Fallon, a Southwestern Illinois College student and flute player with an interest in Irish music. Members of Celtica have been helping him learn the ropes.

“It’s a casual atmosphere, and there’s no judging,” Luke said. “You’re not performing for anyone. You’re doing it for yourself.”

Celtica has a core of five members who perform at venues such The Abbey, Bellecourt Manor and the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville.

Other musicians show up for structured jam sessions on the second and fourth Sundays at Tigin and first Tuesdays at Roemer Topf Bravarian restaurant in Mascoutah.

“We only have a couple of rules,” said band leader Paul Niesen, 53, of Fairview Heights. “The first rule is it’s all traditional music or in traditional style. The second rule is, you play what everyone else is playing.”

Paul works as a civilian employee at Scott Air Force Base. In his free time, he plays guitar, Irish penny whistle and, occasionally, a squeeze box.

Paul sees the jam sessions as important, not only to preserve Celtic music, but also Celtic heritage.

“Traditionally, at the end of the day or week, people would gather in somebody’s barn or kitchen, have some drinks, play some music and start dancing,” he said.

Celtica’s banjo and box accordion player, Eric Oistad, has strong family ties to Scotland. Sometimes he wears his authentic kilt to performances.

Other band members just happen to like Irish, Scottish and other Celtic music.

“It’s for the same reason people enjoy rock or country or jazz,” said Paul’s daughter, Allison, 27, of Belleville, a government help desk administrator who sings and plays whistle.

Celtica percussionist Charlie Nesmith also performs with a jazz band and rock band. But Irish music transports him to a happy and peaceful place.

“You become one with the music,” said , 61, of Bel-Nor, Mo., a radiology film librarian for BJC Healthcare. “And when that happens for the audience, it’s marvelous.”

Charlie played a bodhran (hand drum) at the Tigin jam session. He also wields a triangle, although that instrument isn’t considered traditional in Celtic music.

Celtica member Cheryl Schaefer is a classically trained flutist. The band gives her an opportunity to expand her musical horizons while sticking with her favorite instrument.

“I’ve tried piccolo, ocarina, recorder and whistle,” said Cheryl, 33, of Collinsville, a software developer. “But (the flute) is the one who is me. I didn’t want to change that much.”

Cheryl’s husband, Seth Schaefer, is a regular at jam sessions and performances. At Tigin, he sat at a table up front while working on his computer tablet.

“I have a feeling for Irish music,” said Seth, 38. “I like English music better, but I’m fond of any traditional music from the British Isles.”

Celtica has collaborated with the Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra and Clarkson School of Irish Dance. The band is working on its second CD.

On St. Patrick’s Day, the musicians will add to the merriment at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Belleville, which is serving a corned beef and cabbage dinner.

“People really enjoy (the jam sessions),” said Tigin bartender Kari Martin, 29, of St. Louis. “And I love it. I went to Dublin, and I listened to Irish music every night.”