They’ve played all the big gigs—Iraq, Qatar, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Djibouti, and Kirghistan.
Now the Heritage Aire Celtic Ensemble can add Philly to their list of exotic locales. The U.S. Air Force’s nod to Celtic music played Tuesday night at at the Irish Center. But before that, shoppers in Chestnut Hill had the first chance to hear them locally when they played—clad in their clan Mitchell (after “Billy” Mitchell, father of the modern-day Air Force—tartans.
Members of the troupe are all full-time professional musicians who play other instruments as part of the USAF Heritage of America Band, based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. The troupe has been together about four years.
“We’re all classical musicians,” explains the group’s leader Technical Sergeant Sherry Burt. “I the band, I play flute and piccolo. In the Celtic Ensemble, I play flute and whistle and I sing. Our whistle and our accordion player are both clarinetists. Our guitarist is a sax player. Our gentleman who plays the bodhran (the traditional Irish frame drum) and dulcimer is also the timpani player. We’re all really breaking out of the classical shell. It’s very liberating.”
Being professional musicians, learning to play a traditional folk instrument like the whistle is perhaps less of a challenge than it would be for someone who has never played an instrument of any kind. Still, Celtic music has a looser, far less scripted feel to it, so for help members of the group reached out to those who know their stuff. Burt, for example, took some workshop lessons from whistle whiz Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies. (Talk about your drill instructors. They play Michael Burke whistles, too … another nod to Joanie.)
Since Celtic music isn’t their job full-time, members of the troupe do something you won’t see traditional musicians do—read sheet music.
Still, the group does a pretty credible job, and they have the performance skills down pat, as Chestnut Hill concert-goers were able to hear for themselves as the ensemble blasted through reels and jigs.
“Our prep for this ensemble is limited,” says Burt. “We get about a week of rehearsals and then we’re on the road. We print out the sheet music and we read it. But as we go along, the group has really adapted to the correct style. We’re getting closer and closer to the real thing.”
Of course, the job is more than purely musical. The band, and the Celtic ensemble—as well as several other small offshoots of the main band—perform public outreach on behalf of the Air Force. The musicians also provide much-needed entertainment for the troops, as they did last fall on a tour of the Middle East.
“We did 60 performances in about 55 of those days,” says Burt. Getting to the performance site wasn’t always as easy as hopping on the band bus. In Baghdad, for example, the troupe took to the skies in Blackhawk helicopters. A bit on the scary side, yes—but well worth it.
”It was important for us to go out and give soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines a bit of entertainment,” says Burt. “They work really long hours. Often we’d do five gigs a day in their workplace, and sometimes a nightly performance.
“We were definitely in some of the areas considered to be dangerous. On Thanksgiving Day, for example, we played a combat outpost. Conditions people were living in were not ideal, of course, but it was a perfect place for us to be. It meant a lot to them to have new people to interact with and to have music.”
In Afghanistan, the ensemble performed for NATO forces. The pub songs, Burt says, went over particularly well there. “”All the Europeans knew our stuff,” she says.