From the 13th to the early 17th centuries, the O’Donnell clan ruled as chieftains over County Donegal in Northwest Ireland.
After a member of the clan named Myles O’Donnell emigrated to the United States in the 1871, a century passed before any of his descendants returned to County Donegal. This October, a South Whidbey resident who happens to be his granddaughter will return to Northwest Ireland, but with her stand-up bass in her luggage.
“It’s an incredible feeling because both sides of my family have deep, deep roots in music that are vital to our culture,” Greenbank resident Kristi O’Donnell said. “To be able to play music in the county of my grandfather’s birth gives me goosebumps.”
O’Donnell will hop on a plane with her band, Hot Club of Troy, to perform at this year’s Django Sur Lennon Gypsy Jazz Festival in Ramelton, Ireland. The festival, held from Oct. 27-30, is complete with music inspired by French three-fingered guitarist Django Reinhardt, the founder of the gypsy jazz genre. Django Sur Lennon is set in the small town situated at the mouth of River Lennon, and carries a lineup of performers primarily from Europe.
The only exception to that is Hot Club of Troy, who will also be the first American band to perform at the music festival.
It’ll also be the South Whidbey band’s first time performing abroad since its formation. All four members of the band, guitarist Troy Chapman, guitarist Keith Bowers, multi instrumentalist Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews and bassist O’Donnell, will make the trip across the pond for the festival. Although an exciting moment for everybody in the band, the trip is particularly special for O’Donnell.
“When I brought it up with Troy and the band, they said, ‘this is your dream, we’re in,’” O’Donnell said. “I knew I had to eventually perform there. You can’t underestimate the will of an O’Donnell.”
For O’Donnell, it’s a return to her grandfather’s roots. She’s visited County Donegal a number of times since her college days to see where her family clan once ruled. The mark left behind by her family remains. One of Ramelton, Ireland’s popular sites is the ruins of the medieval castle that housed the O’Donnells, while her family had a number of other castles that range from rubble to the well-preserved Donegal Castle.
Other band members Bowers and Vanderbilt-Mathews also have ancestral roots in Ireland, in County Galway and County Clare, respectively.
O’Donnell visited as recently as last year with her sister to attend the 2016 Django Sur Lennon. Although she wasn’t officially in the festival, she managed to hop in on a few jam sessions, performing alongside other gypsy jazz musicians in pubs around town. She even played in a pub named after her family.
“They asked if I wanted to play, so I borrowed a bass and played at Conway’s Bay, which was really what you’d imagine an Irish pub would be like,” O’Donnell said.
In order to fund the trip across the pond, Hot Club of Troy are hosting a handful of fundraising concerts on South Whidbey in the months leading up to the festival. Performances include one at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 19 at Double Bluff Brewing Company in Langley, a house concert at 6 p.m. on Aug. 25 at Diane Divelbess and Grethe Cammermeyer’s Langley home and at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 3 at the Oak Harbor Music Festival.
The gypsy jazz band will also once again perform at 3 p.m. on Sept. 22 at DjangoFest Northwest. O’Donnell has also set up a GoFundMe campaign at www.gofundme.com/Kristio.
Any additional funds will likely go towards a live recording while in County Donegal. The band says any recording might have a bit of a different flavor, as they prepare to pay homage to American jazz while in Ireland. The live recording is their way of bringing back a token for their South Whidbey music community.
“As it was the American music of Louis Armstrong that inspired Django Reinhardt to create a new type of string band jazz, it is nice to bring out an Americanized version of the music back to Europe for more cross fertilization,” Bowers said.
For the band members, it’s an “honor” to represent Whidbey Island, the Pacific Northwest and even the United States at the Irish gypsy jazz festival. But for O’Donnell, it’s also an opportunity to represent her clan and a full circle experience.
“Honestly, I pinch myself every day for being in this band; they’ve been so supportive of me,” O’Donnell said. “Playing at DjangoFest, America’s premier gypsy jazz festival right here on Whidbey, was a dream. This is the next step, especially for me as an O’Donnell.”