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Portal Irish Music Week

By Judy Carlstrom

Portal, Arizona is nestled on the Eastern side of the Chiricahua Mountains in the Southeastern portion of the state. It is easiest to arrive there by crossing into New Mexico and heading South on State Route 80 toward the town of Rodeo. Portal is the definition of “middle of nowhere.”  But it is actually quite famous among birders, and the American Museum of Natural History has a field station there.  That is because the Chiricahuas are defined as a “Sky Island”  They rise above and are surrounded by arid desert, providing a refuge to many unique species of plants and animals found only there or in Mexico.  It is a stopping point for many species of migrating birds.  And it is a mere ten hour drive from San Diego!

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So who would look there for Irish music?  The population of Portal is 200.  The nearest gas station is 34 miles away.  But after spending a great deal of time in  and around Portal as “Gypsy Carpenters” Susan and Burt Mittelstadt recognized that the small store, café, library and tiny post office, basically, the entire  business district, was dying.  Since they were musicians themselves, but more in the folk genre, they decided it would be an ideal spot to host a music camp.  They reached out to friends who were involved in a variety of music genres but the first person to grab at the opportunity was Brian Conway, noted Irish fiddler and teacher from New York.

The camp has just finished it’s ninth year while still holding on to an original core of teachers, Brian Conway of New York for fiddle, Marla Fribish, of San Francisco for mandolin and Pete Strickler of Denver for banjo.  More recently they have been joined by John Whelan for button accordion, Colin Lindsay for fiddle and concertina Shannon Heaton for flute, and Matte Heaton for guitar accompaniment .  During the two years that I have attended “Portal” the faculty has also included John Doyle on guitar, and Kevin Conway on flute.

The camp differs from others in its attempt to build a sense of community amongst the students, instructors and the town.  Every morning there is a 730 a.m. bird walk and every afternoon a 4 p.m. nature hike into the spectacular surroundings of the Chiricahua wilderness. The weather was beautiful this year – mid ‘70,s every day.  Portal sits at 4600 feet, amid pines and spectacular spires.  Geologists refer to the mountains as “fault-bounded blocks”  After the Last Ice Age, frost wedging and erosion then carved the rhyolite tuff into narrow canyons separated by angular pinnacle-lined ridges.  Every hike led to beautiful views and slot canyons.

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At Portal students may sign up for one primary instrument and one secondary, providing there is space available.  Each day there is a one and a half hour lesson, a 3 p.m. lecture on pertinent topics such as performance anxiety or tricks for learning by ear.  Every evening there are multiple sessions at varying speeds, led by instructors.  The instructors play in the sessions and go on the hikes, helping to foster that unique sense of community.  Every student receives a private  one half hour lesson from the instructor.  The Portal Café provides the meal plan for the camp and, immediately after meals, breaks down the tables and sets up for the session or class that follows.  At night the store serves mixed drinks, and beer or wine to the “sessioners’.

This year I attended the banjo class and sessioned with the concertina.  The sessions were a “force of nature”, with John Whelan and Kevin Conway thumping the floor hard enough to make the serving dishes bounce off the tables and crash to the floor.  One night they played nothing but polkas for an hour without stopping. On Saturday the community came out in force to join the students  in a fajita dinner and a concert given by the instructors.  Sessions followed.

Currently the camp offers instructors in Beginning and Advanced mandolin, beginning and advanced fiddle, concertina and banjo (mixed groups), beginning and advanced flute, accordion and accompaniment.  This year step-dancing and coeli dancing was also added by instructor Brian Lanni as enrichment. Portal Music Week takes place  during the second week of October from Wednesday night through Tuesday morning. Next year consider discovering one of the West’s best kept secrets for natural beauty and a truly intimate experience in music-making.

Written and attended by Judy Carlstrom.

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