Joanie Maddden’s home was filled with music while growing up as the daughter of Irish immigrants in New York City. As the second oldest of seven children, she had to play loud and well to be heard, and was fortunate that her father taught her the whistle and flute — two instruments that had long been the domain of Irish men.
But her mother, Helen, who was a traditional dancer, and her father, Joe, who was an Irish national champion on accordion, wanted Joanie to break through the traditional limitations imposed on Irish women and embrace the fact that America had more freedoms. That encouragement led Joanie to become the all-Ireland champion on flute and whistle in 1983, and paved the way to forming her own all-female Irish-music ensemble Cherish the Ladies, which is performing at 8 p.m. Friday at Caltech.
“There is no reason for any woman to take a back seat, especially when playing music,” says Madden, phoning in after a sold-out show last Saturday in Kennett Square, Pa. “So once I realized I had the skills to be a champion, I sought out other great women performers in New York and established Cherish the Ladies.”
The results of those efforts are impressive, as the group performs dozens of shows each year and has released 15 CDs. Their show blends the five musicians together with a team of dancers and a guest vocalist to build an experience that Madden says “takes you through a whole spectrum of emotions; from quiet enjoyment all the way to a really dramatic finish.”
They formed in 1985, taking their name from a traditional Irish jig and performing their first shows at a festival that celebrated the rise of female musicians in what had long been a male-dominated scene. But that initial one-off idea became a permanent one, leading the band to become the most sought-after Irish-American group in Celtic music. The reason for that enormous success lies in the fact that they combine all the facets of traditional Irish culture into one show, while adding humorous commentary throughout.
As a result, Cherish the Ladies is in demand worldwide, playing across North America and Europe in addition to taking gigs in China, Australia and New Zealand. And their awards collection is nothing to be sneezed at, either. They have been named Best Musical Group of the Year by the BBC, Top North American Celtic Act by NPR Radio’s “Thistle and Shamrock” program, and even had a street change its name to “Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies” in the Bronx.
“That was a truly amazing moment for me,” recalls Madden of the 2010 day in which her name was permanently honored by the city her parents had moved to in order to bring them a better life. “Seeing my parents so proud, my dad knowing that his decision to break a rather silly rule and pass musical tradition to a daughter rather than just to his sons had paid off in such a tremendous way.”
In keeping with the idea that these ladies should be cherished, it’s only appropriate to single out each of them for their impressive accomplishments. The rest of the band includes:
Grainne Murphy, a Boston native who plays the tin whistle, Bodhran drum and the fiddle, winning the all-Ireland competition in fiddle at age 15; New York City native Mary Coogan, a self-taught guitar, mandolin and banjo player who learned to play at an early age by listening to various types of acoustic music and joining in as they played; Mirella Murray, who grew up in Ireland, where she learned to play the piano accordion from a fellow female villager before going on to challenge herself further in Fleadh Cheoil competitions and winning the all-Ireland competition in piano accordion in 1995; and Scotland native Kathleen Boyle, a pianist and accordion player with perhaps the most impressive credential of any group member: She’s the first person ever to earn a degree in traditional music from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in addition to winning both the all-Scotland and all-Britain titles on both her instruments.
“We certainly don’t mess around,” laughs Madden. “You come to one of our shows, and you are getting the real deal.”
As the top-selling whistle player in history with more than 500,000 solo albums sold and a career that has made her an in-demand session performer on recordings for well over 100 artists ranging from Pete Seeger to Sinead O’Connor, Madden could be forgiven if she wanted to take a break or retire after more than 30 years in the business. But she makes it clear she’s not leaving the stage or studio anytime soon.
“It’s just too much fun!” she exclaims. “When you can make a great living from something you love so much, it’s not work. It’s what lights up your life.”
Cherish the Ladies performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $19 to $29 for adults, $10 for youth. Call (626) 395-4652 or visit Caltech.edu.