Colin Kadis: Accordionist on the make who is fully invested in the local Irish music scene

Newton native Colin Kadis may look like your average, happy-go-lucky, unassuming college freshman. As his friends will tell you, however, he’s about as serious an Irish musician as there is: Someone who doesn’t just play the notes but who is a dedicated student of the tradition, and willing to take on leadership in the local Irish music community.

Oh, yes, and he qualified for the All-Ireland Fleadh accordion competition this past summer, too – not two years after he started playing the instrument – and has shown a special interest in learning styles and tunes long associated with Boston’s Irish music scene.

In recognition of his accomplishments thus far, and the potential for even more, Boston’s Hanafin-Cooley-Reynolds branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Êireann awarded Kadis this year’s Larry Reynolds Memorial Scholarship.

Named for the branch co-founder and longtime mainstay of Boston’s Irish community, the scholarship supports the enrichment of young (under-21) people who are active in New England Irish music, dance, song, and other cultural activities.

Kadis plans to use his scholarship to attend classes and workshops next summer at two of Ireland’s most prominent traditional music events, the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann Scoil Éigse.

“I’m very pleased and honored to have won the scholarship,” said Kadis, in his first semester at the University of Vermont-Montpelier. “I’m really grateful to the Hanafin-Cooley-Reynolds branch for choosing me, and to everybody who’s helped and encouraged me in my musical activities.”

Among Kadis’s enablers and friends, one of the most important is fellow accordionist Tommy Sheridan, who has been active in Boston Irish music for decades, including as a member and later the leader of the Connacht Ceili Band. Sheridan has been a mentor for Kadis since encountering him at the weekly session in Brighton’s Green Briar Pub.

“Colin is an absolute treasure,” said Sheridan, whose recommendation accompanied Kadis’s application for the Reynolds Memorial Scholarship. “His positive attitude, his friendliness, his willingness to learn – all these things and more make him a great musician, and a great person.”

Kadis has roots in both Ireland and Irish music: His great-grandfather was a fiddle player in the storied Sliabh Luachra tradition, and his grandfather had plenty of songs and stories from the old country – not to mention a strong opinion on what his grandson should do with his time. So, Kadis, who’d been playing trumpet through much of his school years (“I actually tried reels on it during middle school”), began to contemplate switching to an Irish music instrument. He tried tin whistle for a year, but then decided on accordion.

Classes with Natasha Sheehy and Dan Accardi at the Comhaltas music school put him on the right path, and going to sessions at The Green Briar and Hennessy’s in Boston, as well as playing for the ceili dances at the monthly Comhaltas gatherings, broadened his understanding of the music.

“Playing for dancing is a great experience,” said Kadis, whose visits to Ireland – where he still has relatives – have further enhanced his musical progress. “So much of what I had been learning made sense all of a sudden: ‘Oh, that’s why you play the triplet there.’”

His friendship with Sheridan, though, has unquestionably been a major part of Kadis’ musical development. Besides working with Kadis privately, Sheridan has nudged him into the public sphere, whether playing at sessions or other events – including at BCMFest this past January, where he and Sheridan teamed up with keyboardist Rosanne Santucci for a performance – or helping him prepare for the All-Ireland.
“Tommy’s been a great mentor, and I really enjoy working with him,” said Kadis, adding with a laugh. “He won’t quite admit that I learn from him, even though I tell him that all the time.”

Most of all, it’s through Sheridan that Kadis came to learn the style of accordion special to Boston, as practiced by legends such as Joe Derrane and Billy Caples.

“I love being able to get at the history of the music here, and having a connection with the musicians from an earlier age,” he said. “It helps you remember that the music is bigger than you – and the only thing stopping you from learning is you.”

To hear Sheridan tell it, meanwhile, working with Kadis has been an equal opportunity learning experience.

“I tell Colin all the time how much he challenges me – he’d sit and watch me play, and ask ‘Why do you do that part this way?’ – and how much I appreciate it. He researches the tunes and how they’re played, but not just by accordion players – he’s chasing down the fiddlers and pipers, too, because he wants to know they way they play the tunes.”

Sheridan has been particularly gratified by Kadis’s interest in the Boston accordion style, and his respect for Boston’s Irish music legacy.

Kadis also has taken ownership of a former Green Briar session staple, the “Tune of the Month,” Sheridan added, which involves putting together a common set of tunes for musicians who regularly attend the earlier part of the session, one intended for players still getting the hang of the music.

“The ‘Tune of the Month’ had lapsed, but Colin restarted it and took it to a whole new level,” said Sheridan. “He solicits suggestions, puts together a brief narrative and audio sample for each suggestion, and holds a vote so everyone can choose the one they want. When the vote is complete, he provides both sheet music and audio for the winning tune, and he even includes suggestions of which tunes the winner might be played with.

Kadis, for his part, knows he’s got plenty to learn, and taking part in the All-Ireland served as a useful benchmark: “I played without mistakes, but I could tell I’m not there yet. It’s good motivation.”