Millennia before computers and televisions could be found in every home, we gathered together ’round the fire and shared stories, songs, and dances in humble yet exquisite forms inclusive of all present. Whether recent or timeworn, hilarious or heartbreaking, with or without words, stories affirm our journeys, inform our past with gratitude, highlight our present with wit, and inspire our future with joy. They open us to our vulnerability and strength, and warm the ties that connect us.
Although there are those among us who excel in the finer points of technique, sharing is a universal need, as forgiving as the heart is eager to hear and be heard. In the Celtic lands, these hearthside gatherings were called ceilidhs and would happen in a designated cottage known as a “rambling house.” They were host to professional storytellers called seanachies, who could recite epic tales that would take weeks of long winter nights to relate. Most people could put a step to a tune played by whatever musicians were about the place, or if no instruments were afforded, a singer would take up the slack with some puirt a beul or “mouth music.” All were welcome to share a song, a step, a poem, a joke, or whatever they could find hiding in the pockets of their heart.
With this in mind, not long after I moved to Fairfield 35 years ago, I started an open mic on the MIU campus. Through various venues and stops and starts, it picked up again at Café Paradiso 16 years ago. After another short hiatus when the café moved from the Broadway building to its current location on the northwest corner of the Fairfield square, singer-songwriter-guitarist Keith DeBoer collaborated with me to spearhead the latest resurgence exactly seven years ago. passing it off to Paulina Sinaga and myself after several years. Now a Fairfield Wednesday night institution, it has since gained legendary status for hundreds of miles as a unique opportunity for amateur and professional alike to share their passions.
Although it has been a launching pad for some of Fairfield’s brightest lights, it’s been especially magical to witness the gifts of those who do not aspire to professional standards and can instead share their vulnerability more honestly than to hide it behind conspicuous expertise.
The word “unique” doesn’t begin to hint at the unlikely proceedings that have poured into this vibrant crucible for evolving talent, and the event has garnered a devoted following, from students to white-haired veterans. I count my blessings every week as the miracles unfold before my eyes. Every Wednesday at 7:45 sharp sees a line eagerly awaiting the sign-up sheet, which often fills up immediately. Performances begin at 8 p.m. sharp and can last up to 10 minutes, except for the featured act, which wraps up the evening with a 30-minute set beginning at 9:20.
On a related note, literally, Café Paradiso has been quietly hosting informal Irish music sessions Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m. These traditional seisiúns, as they are called in Irish, are without microphones or other staging and are aimed primarily at the edification of the musicians more than the audience per se, although listeners are encouraged. Come down and warm your toes with a few tunes and a pint of stout, a glass of wine, a mug of hot coffee, cocoa, or tea, and a fresh scone or chocolate torte.
There is no charge for the Open Mic or the Irish session, but donations are always accepted for Fairfield Muse, the nonprofit that is responsible for producing the ongoing music at the café.