Jews in Irish Music ~ Marla Fibish

MarlaFMarla Fibish plays mandolin like no one else in Irish music. 

The second you hear one of her students play you’ll say “Marla taught you to play, it’s obvious” and they’ll say, “yes”. Other than the people who studied with her there’s no one who puts the beat where she does, the way she ornaments, the aggressiveness with which she attacks the notes and the triplets; it’s all unique Marla.  Its like it’s a wooden bodhran, played with a pick instead of a beater, where the melody floats on top of a percussive, step-dancer’s rhythm.

That compelling vision, and her uncanny ability to actualize, dissect, demonstrate, and teach it, puts her in great demand at music camps and Irish Music schools all across the globe.

And put forth by the nicest, smartest Jewish girl you’d ever want to meet.

She was a featured subject in a recent edition of MANDOLIN CAFE.

Her duo with another well-rounded Jewish smarty, husband Bruce Victor, called NOCTAMBULE, “plays original and traditional music in a variety of forms: original musical settings of a broad array of poetry, original instrumental pieces, and traditional Irish tunes and songs.”~    What’s not to like ?

A wonderful piece about them in Irish Music Magazine :

I met Marla in Marvelous Marin recently and we talked.

“It was after my grandfather passed away that I first developed the desire to play. The desire came from the fact that I wanted to play Irish Music.

KissI’d heard it from a couple of different sources around this time. My friend Andrea Irvin had traveled in Ireland shortly before I met her, the summer before she came to Cal Berkeley as a freshman, and had brought back several recordings. She was my roommate in her first year, (my second year) and when she played me the albums I was smitten. They were Andy Irvine and Paul Brady, Barry Moore, -later known as Luka Bloom, and Mick Hanly’s Kiss in the Morning Early. Yeah, just this beautiful music that was so captivating to me.

The funny thing is that while now I play tunes, jigs and reels, but back at that time, when I first heard them, I would skip over the instrumental tracks, ‘cause it was the songs that got me first. But, shortly after that time I went with another roommate of mine, Maureen Roddy, to the Starry Plough for ceilidh dancing. The dancing was kinda fun, but I saw the musicians playing, and thought that really looks like fun. So I started to develop an ear for the tunes and that’s when I decided ‘well, I could do this, and there’s already an instrument in the family.’Mando

So I don’t have to figure out what instrument I should play and how to acquire one. My grandfather had played the mandolin. He didn’t play Irish Music, he played the popular music of his day. He played in a band, and was actually more a tenor banjo player. I have very clear memories of him playing the mandolin for us and doing a silly little dance while he was playing, which I now know was the SOUPY SHUFFLE from Soupy Sales.

We never got to see my grandfather perform professionally. He had broken his wrist later in life and it was actually very hard for him to play for very long. He passed away when I was in high school. His set list was taped to the back of the mandolin when I got it. IDA SWEET AS APPLE CIDER, FIVE FOOT TWO EYES OF BLUE, WON’T YOU COME HOME BILL BAILEY, that stuff. I got the mandolin first, but I did go thru a brief period playing the banjo, but I seem to have settled on the mandolin. After my grandfather had passed away, my aunt, who was the wife of my mother’s brother, so my grandfather’s daughter-in-law, collected all the instruments and brought them to her house. There were two mandolins, two banjos, a guitar, and there may have been others that I don’t remember. I do know, of the two banjos, one was one that he bought for my grandmother; a smaller, short neck one I would love to get my hands on. I think my cousin has it. My grandfather was born in England, and came to San Francisco as a very small child. He was there for the 1906 Earthquake. His people came from somewhere in Eastern Europe and went first to England. Both of my grandfathers were born in England, sort of on their way out of Eastern Europe to wherever. The one who I got the instruments from was named Mark Nyman. The other grandfather was Sollie Fibish, but no one on that side played music that I am aware.

I was not Bat Mitzvah’d. In my generation, it was pretty novel for girls. My brother was Bar Mitzvah’d; my sister and I were not. I attended a religious school. It wasn’t called ‘hebrew school’, it was called ‘Sunday school’. It was Reform and part of Temple Emanu-El in SF, the fancy one near Diane Feinstein’s house. In my early childhood my parents lived in Marin County in Lucas Valley and we went to Rodef Shalom near the Marin Civic Center and the JCC. It was considered Reform, but it was very “hamish” if you will, very cozy. The choir was the congregation; my mother sang in the choir. But when we moved, as it was always expressed to me, “back to The City” although I’d never lived in San Francisco before that, my parents both grew up there, and the sojourn in Marin was a very brief episode in their lives, and we moved to Forest Hill.

We joined Temple Emanu-El and my parents were quite taken with its grandeur.

emmI thought it was horrifying; too big; too cold. HIRED choir. Professional singers, professional organ player. Totally all goyish. I was shocked when my parents explained to me they were not Jewish.

Shortly thereafter I started going to a Jewish summer camp, Camp Swig in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I just loved it. There was a strong sense community, where everybody sang the prayers together, unlike at Emanu-El, where it was theater, and you were only an audience member. I’m drawn to Irish Music, similarly, in that it’s participatory, not performance-based. It belongs to the people. The other thing I didn’t like about Emanu-El, was that I always felt like an outsider.  The congregation was generally quite wealthy and I was one of the few kids in the religious school who went to public school. They went to secular private schools, skied together, and belonged to the same country club. I was in a different social circle. One year, I came back from summer camp and went to a Shabbat Services.  I said “Yuck; I’m done with this.” But I always craved that community feeling that did not exist in my religious life after the move to Emanu-El.

Andrea’s trip to Ireland happened in my second year at Cal, when I was 19 or so. And then I went to Ireland after my last year of college in ’81. It was Andrea’s third year abroad and we met up in Bordeaux, and we traveled to Ireland together. I was SO taken with how much the music lives in the culture; EVERYBODY sings. They were not concerned with “singing it great.” Americans will say “Oh, I can’t sing. I don’t have any talent” or whatever. The music in our culture is that there are performers and audience. That is completely not the case in Ireland. I had started to play mandolin, and I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t care. I was ignorant and enthusiastic and young and I was invited to play. It didn’t matter. Everybody had something. “Oh, teach me a tune.” I played 6 or 8 tunes, and I didn’t know if they were Irish tunes or American tunes or whatever. I had no framework, musically speaking for what I was doing.

I stayed mostly in the west. I camped out behind the pub in Doolin. And that’s where I first met Danny Carnahan. Even though we both lived as kids in Marinwood, a few blocks apart.



Irish music was not my first music. When I was a young child I took piano lessons for two years. Classical Music. I loved playing but I didn’t like practicing. I’d make stuff up. My mother played the piano. I didn’t like my teacher very much. She was hawk-like and gave me no encouragement to play within the music, outside of what was in the lesson book. Just learn your piece and give the recital. And then when I was in Junior High School I played viola in my school orchestra. My brother had played the cello; my sister had played the violin. So there was nothing left for me but the viola. The school gave you an instrument to play during the school year and you gave it back at the end. And you didn’t play during the summer. I enjoyed playing in the orchestra a lot, but I was very undisciplined. I was always able to rely on having a good ear, so I never bothered to really learn to read music. I could just wait for my stand-partner to play the part and then I could play it. What’s the big deal? I didn’t continue with the viola, as I knew I would actually have to work at it to be a part of my high school orchestra.

I took one or two lessons on mandolin but I’m pretty much self-taught. When I was in Ireland I wasn’t in any one place long enough to develop any mentor relationships. I wish I had been aware enough to have done that. I was excited to just be there and playing. I must have been watching, but I don’t have any awareness of having paid serious attention to being a “pupil of the music.” Before the trip I had been playing at The Starry Plough and came back home to that scene. I didn’t know that mandolin was not really a mainstream Irish instrument. I went to it because it was available to me. I heard Andy Irvine and had no idea that what he was doing was completely breaking ground. I was listening to the music and trying to get the sound I was hearing. Seamus Eagan, the one in Portland, was an inspiration to me. He gave me a kick in the butt when I was feeling discouraged and needed one. I met him at the SF Plough & Stars. Sylvia Herold and I started playing there very early in all this, probably around 1982.

s&mI didn’t know enough to know what I didn’t know, or what was appropriate, or anything. Richard Adrianowicz introduced me to Sylvia at O’Keefe’s. We had a regular gig, every Tuesday at the Plough & Stars in San Francisco for 12 years. That’s where I learned my chops and how to play all night long. And how to play on songs, as well as tunes. Even though Sylvia was a peer, I considered her a much more advanced musician than myself. And a great singer, who’d been performing for quite a while at that point. At that time she was in demand as an accompanist when out-of-towners came to play at the Plough; backup guitar in standard tuning. As the years went by she developed an interest in other kinds of music as well.

OOTR TreasuryWhen I met Richard Adrianowicz around 1982, he and Suzanne Friend were playing as a duo, after having worked as a trio in The Isles of Prydain with Redmond O’Colonies. Richard really wanted to play more instrumental music rather than all singing. So he kind of recruited me to be another tune player to add that dimension to the band. They didn’t know, and I didn’t know, that I could actually…sing. Before that my only singing experience had been singing in the youth choir at Temple Emanu-El, and always loved it. And I knew I could carry a tune and I could hear harmonies, but I wasn’t a “performing singer.” And in Out of the Rain, I was like the third singer, just adding a harmony part to the songs. I found the harmony parts myself, and it became my favorite role in the band. They would have a 2-part setting worked out and I would bring in the 3rd. And those 2 parts weren’t “designed” to have a 3rd part, simple stacked, geographically consistent harmonies. They were English-style, and lots of fun.

My first efforts at marrying the poetry of Robert Service and others to make songs started around ’85, when Miriam was a baby. I remember I picked up a Robert Service book at a used bookstore, and they caught my eye. They looked like songs, so I thought I’d play with some melodies. Some found me. Laura Stillman used to have these events called “Waltzes Across the Golden Gate Bridge” for many years. She hired musicians and they would play while a big group of all her friends literally waltzed across the bridge.

kcarrOne year she hired me and Kevin Carr, so we got together to see how many waltzes we knew, and he taught me this French Canadian waltz clog, a special form that has this unusual rhythmic turn at the end of the parts. Later I looked at a Service poem, Bohemian Dreams, and each stanza ended with a similar flourish on a verb, like “I think, and think, and think”- “They pray, they pray, they pray.” That particular form popped into my head. I tried slowing it down and it seemed perfect. The “li, li-li li li, li li” is the B part. I don’t know why, but it seemed appropriate to the song. He’s just sitting there on a barstool, musing about what everybody else is doing.

wageslaveMy first attempt at putting someone else’s words to music, was not with Robert Service, but Don West, dad of the famous folksinger Hedy West.  He founded the Appalachian Folklife Center in Pipestem, WV. The poem was “I Cannot Sing” about seeing tragic things that break your heart.   I never recorded it. It was so passionate, it almost seemed too embarrassing to sing at Folk Club meetings and such. He also wrote “Joe Whitaker” (his title was A-Trompin‘), which Out of the Rain put on the Song of the Wage Slave recording. We also put a Ted Hughes one on that tape, “There Came a Day.”

People have pointed out to me that there are bits in my melodies and I find it also in Irish Music in general, that sound cantorial. On the new Noctambule recording the song THE WAKING has a very Jewish melodic flourish. WHELAN’S JIG for example, sounds a bit like a nigun. When we lilt Irish tunes like that one it’s almost the same thing; Yidle-dee-di for Irish or Yub-bub-bubba-bye for nigunim. Similar mode or something. Lilting has a very active tradition in Irish Music for possibly similar reasons; a persecuted culture that doesn’t always have access to their musical instruments, they can keep their music going vocally. And you can dance to it.

Bruce and I are actually working on a new song that is consciously Jewish. It’s from a passage in the poem “John Brown’s Body” written by Stephen Vincent Benét about a Jew who is on the Confederate cabinet during the Civil War, named Judah Benjamin. Benét casts him as someone who feels like an outsider. “I am the Jew; what am I doing here ?” These men and I can talk across this river, but there is this river that flows between us.  In this, we call in some Jewish modalities, like the flatted 2, which is so overtly evocative to both of us, certainly.

My orientation and my effort in learning the music was to try and sound like I was playing Irish Music on this instrument that is kind of outside the tradition. The banjo also is a relative newcomer to the music, but it has about a 35 year head-start on the mandolin, and a percussive style has developed around the banjo. The mandolin can leverage the rhythmic nature of that style, but adds a sweetness and sustained tone that are its own. One could certainly argue that Mick Moloney is a mandolin role-model, but to me, he sounds more like a great banjo-player who plays mandolin in a similar way.

On a conscious level, I’m just trying to get the sound of the music the way I hear it.

c&kAnd the way I hear it comes from being in the San Francisco Irish Music scene, which has a very West-Coast-of-Ireland-based lineage; you play with a Clare accent, as it were. Clare and Galway; Kevin Keegan and Joe Cooley. That said, a lot of usual Irish ornamentation is not going to map to the mandolin. Different physics of how you play the darn thing. Triplets are three notes, not five, but the pulse is timed to fall in with a roll. I tend to add triplets on the back-beat rather than on the one to achieve that.



Lark has been great. I’ve been the Irish Mandolin teacher there for around 20 years.




And recently at Swannanoa and the Mandolin Symposium. I’ve become aware of ways to get people over the “mandolin-hump.” Which is acknowledging at it’s fundamental place it is really a rhythm instrument, and you have to get your right hand working as if you are a drummer, and you have to float the tune over that rhythm. A lot of intermediate mandolin players will only use their right hands to initiate the notes of the melody. So you have a “static” right hand in that case. When I play I have a melody going on on my left hand and a bodhran going on my right. It’s not going to feel like it’s in the pocket unless you are in the groove.

3MSLark was also the genesis of  Three Mile Stone. That’s where I met fiddler Erin Shrader around 1988. We would play together each summer at Lark, but we never lived in the same part of the country.  Enter Richard Mandel to lure her to San Francisco, and voila ! Three Mile Stone is born.  The album we released together was my first recording since the old days of analog tape sessions in the ’80s.

Jimmy Crowley told me that when he used to come to San Francisco in the early ’80s, when Sylvia and I were playing at the Plough, he remembers what he wrote in his little book was

the world’s best mandolin player” and wrote my name and phone number.

mb-Jimmy-Crowley-and-Stokers-Lodge-06-1024x682This is forever ago. Fast-forward to 2010. He hasn’t been in California in 15 or 20 years and he comes on tour with Máirtín de Cógáin and he contacts Sylvia, who sets up a singing party.

I hosted it in my house up on the hill in Oakland. A bunch of folks show up and we sing some songs, and after everybody left Jimmy and I start playing some tunes. And it was really fun; we had a great time, and he said “let’s make an album”. And I said “OK.”





He is an icon. He published a book of the songs of Cork. But the young people today don’t know who he is.





People often ask  “what kind of a name is Fibish ?”  And I’ll say it’s a Jewish name. I had this interchange with someone in my class this past week and he said “you’re the third Jewish girl I know who plays Irish Music and the second who plays mandolin.” So there’s also this thing about the mandolin. The mandolin has been associated with a whole lot of Jews. Jacob de Bandolim, for example. David Grisman and Dave Apollon. Grisman actually has a presentation he does on the subject

I somehow have fallen into that, which is not surprising, because my grandfather played the mandolin.

Jews in Irish Music ~ Home