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A musical journey - Zohra Coday

From summers in India, to growing up in St Louis Zohra Coday’s love of Irish music spans continents

Often more famed for its barbeque and blues music, St Louis in the US might not be the first place you would think of for a traditional Irish music concertina player to flourish, but Zohra Coday, whose mother hails from India, has dispelled any doubts that traditional Irish reels are nothing but international. 

As one of a large number of international students studying for an MA in Irish Traditional Music Performance course at UL, Zohra tells UL Links of how her links to trad date back to her childhood. 

Having lived her whole life in St Louis Missouri, Zohra was first introduced to Irish music and dancing in preschool. 

“Every St Patrick’s Day a local music and dance school would come and perform. Most of the children performing were graduates of the preschool themselves. Although, I wanted to start learning Irish music and dance at around four or five years old, I was not able to due to my mom working long hours at her job. The music and dance school had summer workshops but with my mom being from India, we would go visit my family every summer,” she explains. 

“In the summer of third grade, when I was about nine years old, we went to India in March, which meant that we would not go in the summer. That was the first summer I had ever spent in St Louis so I was able to do several different extracurricular activities that I normally could not do during the summer, such as learning South Indian classical dancing, clarinet, Irish music and dancing and continuing to learn violin.  

“That summer was the beginning of my love for especially Irish music, but also dancing as well. My mom and the founder of the music and dance school, Helen Gannon, had worked together when my mom first came to the US in the 1980s and that is how I went to my music and dance school. The first day I walked into St Louis Irish Arts (SLIA), I remember feeling really small in the big long hallway of the building that used to be an old school, but was an extension of the church across the parking lot. There were benches lining the hallway and pictures framed from years of class photos above the benches. Halfway down the hallway there was a classroom on the left that I heard dance music coming from and a teacher giving students instructions. 

The music wafted down the hallway as I went into the locker room crowded with girls my age talking to their friends and getting ready for class. 

"As the summer progressed I started to make friends and learn about the different types of Irish music and beginner steps of Irish dancing. By the end of the summer,

I was ready to start the fall school year at SLIA and as the next couple years progressed the extracurriculars, besides playing clarinet and violin in the school bands, I slowly drifted away and Irish dancing and music became my sole interest. 

“When I started at SLIA I started on the tin whistle and about a year later, in fourth grade, I started playing the fiddle. “During these years, however, I started to develop scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine that if not treated has to be fixed with surgery. By the time I was 12 and in the sixth grade, my curvature had progressed to 95degs and I needed to have spinal fusion surgery to stop the scoliosis from getting progressively worse than it already was. When I was told I needed to have surgery I was also told that I could not play the fiddle anymore due to the impact that it would have on my posture, which was slowly but continuously deteriorating. As a result, I had to pick another instrument.

“I was not excited to switch to another instrument because I really liked playing the fiddle. But one day after class I sat down with Mrs Gannon and my mom to decide what instrument to choose. I chose every instrument other than the concertina, and at that time, I had not even paid attention to anyone playing it at my music and dance school. However, the concertina was seen as the only instrument that had an equal amount of playing on each side of the instrument and because it was tiny, it would not be an issue for my back. 

“I had a trial concertina lesson where I learned half of an intermediate reel. After that initial lesson I was hooked on the concertina and excited to learn new tunes.  

I did not know it at that age, but switching to the concertina was one of the best decisions that I had to make. I was so interested in the concertina that I would practice every day. 

”That dedication that I found while learning the concertina helped me get up to the standard needed to compete within Groupai Cheoil competitions at the Fleadh Cheoil in the US and in Ireland as well. As I grew up, I continued to compete in solo concertina competitions at SLIA’s annual Feiseanna competition and the Midwest Fleadh Cheoil. I also came to Ireland a couple times to compete at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil.  

“Besides competing, I started teaching lessons around the age of 15 and around the same time I stopped dancing competitively to focus on playing more. I started playing music alongside Feis musicians every February at my school’s annual Feis, dancing competition. At first it was a way of participating at a Feis even though I was not competitively dancing but by the time I entered college, in 2013, I started to grapple with the idea that I could eventually become a Feis musician and travel to play for Feiseanna. 

“In college, I continued to teach lessons and play annually, but I was focused on my college degree. It was not until my third year in college, when I was switching majors from biology to sociology, that I realized I wanted to pursue music after I finished my undergraduate degree.

“In the spring of 2017, after finishing my undergraduate degree, I started researching schools that had an Irish music masters degree. 

“I always knew I wanted to do my undergraduate close to home and then go to another area for my masters. 

So, I decided to start looking at schools in Ireland rather than the US I knew if I wanted to develop my musicianship then I needed to come to the ‘source’ of Irish music. 

“I researched a couple schools and finally decided on wanting to apply to come to the Irish World Academy at University of Limerick. I did a lot of research about the music program and decided that the structure of the music performance degree is what I wanted to have to help develop my skills as an artist and performer. Having the ability to interact and learn from top musicians in my instrument has really been beneficial and all of the staff are always supportive and trying to foster the ambitions of the students. 

“I am really happy that I chose UL to further my education and get better at playing the concertina. The environment that is within the Academy allowed me to think in a creative way that I was not used to before coming and I cannot wait for the rest of the year to see what I learn and how much I progress.”
- Andrew Carey

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