They are billed as up-and-coming musicians skilled in the traditional music of Ireland. But their names--Balaranjan, Smigen-Rothkopf, DeZarn--don't exactly call to mind the Emerald Isle.
For many of the young performers showcased as part of a group called the "Next Generation" at the Washington Irish Folk Festival at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds yesterday, the main--and in some cases, the only--connection to Ireland is the music.
Arjuna Balaranjan, 14, of Takoma Park, a champion on the hammered dulcimer and flute, first heard Irish music on the tapes his uncle sold in a music store. But he fell in love with it when he began playing the dulcimer.
By the time he discovered that his mother is part-Irish, he was well on his way to becoming a two-time winner at a prominent international festival in Ireland.
"I think it's a very social music," said Balaranjan, who attends the Maret School in the District. "It's fun to play. You use a lot of energy."
The infectious sounds of Irish music rang from stages set up in every corner of the Gaithersburg fairgrounds Saturday. Organizers are expecting a total of 20,000 people to attend the event, which continues today and features Irish music, dance, food, horses and crafts, including a blacksmith.
Families filled chairs, sat on the ground and stood around the perimeter of the "New Generation" tent to watch the young performers. The audience clapped and children danced to the high-energy music.
The National Council for the Traditional Arts, working with 25 local Irish groups, sponsors the annual festival, now in its 23rd year, to celebrate traditional Irish culture and introduce it to a larger population.
Now in its second year at the Montgomery County fairgrounds, the festival has a long history of showcasing young talent. And experts in traditional Irish music say that the diverse backgrounds of the young people gracing this year's stages is proof that traditional Irish music and dance are appealing to a broader range of cultural and ethnic groups.
"They come together and embrace it because they love the music," said Paul Keating, an author who's taught Irish dance for more than 25 years. "It's very strong. It's very vibrant. There is instant response from the audience, in contrast to rock-and-roll music that doesn't have the same appeal across generations."
"I just love the harp, and I love Irish music," said Lily Smigen-Rothkopf, 13, an award-winning harpist from Silver Spring. "It's very beautiful. The musicians have a lot of emotion when they play. Everything has a lot of oomph, or elegance. It's just appealing to a lot of people."
Lily said her interest in the music led her parents to dig into their family backgrounds. When they did, they made a discovery.
"My great-great-grandmother came from Ireland," Lily said. "But I didn't really know about that when I started playing." Her love and appreciation of the music would not have dimmed if she had not learned about her mother's Irish roots, she said.
"If your name isn't something like O'Brien, it doesn't mean you don't have Irish in you," she said.
Some of the appeal, the young musicians explained, is the supportive community of older players in the Washington traditional music scene. The teenage musicians said they have found many mentors--experienced, accomplished performers who encourage them to begin performing, even as they are still learning.
Graham DeZarn, 15, a fiddler and percussionist, said he grew up around music because his dad is a musician. He chose the reels and jigs of Eire because they have "a lot more feeling" than classical music. And as for rock music, he said, it "doesn't take a whole lot of talent. This stuff is challenging."
But, as far as he knows, he has no Irish roots.
"I've been to Ireland before, if that counts," he offered.