June 4, 2024

This interview is part of the Center for Irish Music's story-sharing project, "Many Paths to Handing Down a Tradition." Click here to learn more!

If you frequent the Center for Irish Music’s events, chances are, you are well acquainted with Jo Ann’s welcoming spirit. Always among the first to greet you, Jo Ann’s presence and dedication to the traditional Irish music scene in Minnesota bring life to the vibrancy of our community. We were delighted to sit down with her to hear the story of her journey. 

Sook Jin: Jo Ann, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. When was the first time you heard Irish music? What is your earliest memory of Irish music? 

Jo Ann: I am, honestly, a very latecomer to Irish music! I had heard Irish music before when I was a kid, but accordion music was foremost to my memories. I remembered going to music festivals, drawn to accordion music from Irish, French, Scottish, English, and Brazilian players. 

I did play the piano accordion when I was a kid. As an adult, we (Jo Ann and husband Mario) moved to Minneapolis. I became involved with KFAI Radio and made friends there. Mario got involved with sound recording with our friend Dan Rein who still hosts a program of traditional music (Century Song on KFAI), including lots of Irish music. As a result, we got into Irish music by going to concerts and pubs. We became friends with Paddy O’Brien, among others, started to learn the music and play, and here we are! 

Spring 2017 Recitals
Jo Ann Vano playing with her husband, Mario Vano at a CIM recital

Sook Jin: A delightful journey! How did your love for Irish music lead you to the Center for Irish Music?

Jo Ann: The connection was the people, even prior to the move to the Celtic Junction building. I remembered supporting the concerts held at the Wellstone Center, supporting Kate Wade and Jode Dowling. Mario recorded that early master artist concert. When CIM moved to Celtic Junction, we helped paint the walls, cleaned the floor, and put the place together. 

I became a CIM student when I bought my first button accordion. I knew Charlie and Ann Heymann, and Charlie was taking new students. I am still taking classes these days! My very first button accordion, bought off eBay (Mario said, “oh you can’t just do that!”), is now in the CIM rental collection. The accordion I play with right now is a sweet-sounding button accordion that is lighter to support my playing after a neck surgery. 

Sook Jin: I love how you named all these amazing connections in your journey. Who else has been part of your journey? Or anyone you want to mention again?

Jo Ann: Paddy O’Brien, as I mentioned, has been a wonderful part of this journey. Charlie and Ann Heymann as friends has just been magical. Charlie is such a great teacher to be around - quiet, but with such a deep knowledge of music. John McCormick who has been such a lovely friend in the session world. I love playing with him. There’s just so many to name! Which is great to have in the Twin Cities. It is also wonderful supporting Natalie (O’Shea) and Cormac (O’Sé) in growing the Celtic Junction. Celtic Junction has a fabulous future as a spot for people to be, to solidify the community of Irish arts. 

Spring 2017 Recitals
Jo Ann with her accordion instructor, Charlie Heymann

Sook Jin: How has Irish music shaped/impacted the way you think of yourself? 

Jo Ann: It really has taken over my life! That is my entertainment these days, my community, camaraderie - it’s how I see myself. I am not connected to Ireland in any way I know of. I never really expect to go in so deeply, but then once I get in, I love the music and the community. That is why I love being involved with CIM and with Celtic Junction. 

It just seems so natural to be there, helping out where I can. Even if you are not part of the community yet, at least we can welcome you and perhaps you will keep joining us, and feel part of it as well. 

Mike, Jo Ann and CIM instructor Chad McAnally volunteering at the CIM booth at the Irish Fair

Sook Jin: How have your life experiences shaped your Irish music journey? You mentioned you started your love of accordion really early on in life?

Jo Ann: My dad’s sister. I admired her, and she was my first teacher. I started when I was five or six, with a tiny little accordion, taking lessons from her. She was amazing. She played accordion all her life, up to her 80s and 90s. She played on stage, then in the senior home she lived in, she would take her accordion out to play for their programs. For the first few years, she taught me, mostly Italian and American music, folk and classical. I then went to another more advanced teacher. By the time I was in my teens, I had been playing for a long time. I stopped playing when I thought it was uncool for a while, and only got back to it when I picked up the button accordion. I still do have that piano accordion from my youth!

Meeting Paddy (O’Brien) and watching him play, I just love the sound of the button accordion. I really, really liked it, and it flipped a switch for me. It was a hard learning curve. A piano accordion plays like a piano, and when you get the bellows action, it’s not too hard, but with the button accordion, there is a lot to figure out. It’s not the easiest thing for me in the world, but it’s good.

Sook Jin: Thats such a pivotal moment to kick off that journey! Was there another pivotal moment like that in your own Irish music learning? 

Jo Ann: One of the most amazing things that happened to me recently was with Laura MacKenzie! Fabulous Laura asked me to join her to record on a CD (Ceòlacanth - It's Alive!) with a group of people (Ross Sutter, Tom Schaffer, among others). I feel so honored and blessed to be able to do it, but it was such a different experience! I am not very good with practicing, and that’s why playing at sessions is so fabulous for me because I can be social, play, enjoy, but on the recording, you just have to be so good, and right! It is scary. We had concerts too. I am not great at stage presence, but I made it! 

Jo Ann with Natalie Nugent O'Shea at the Minnesota Irish Music Weekend

Sook Jin: Will you do it again? 

Jo Ann: I won’t go out and organize my own recording, but if someone asks me, I’d probably think about it! 

Sook Jin: Its such a joy to have you in our community, seeing your presence at sessions and CIM events, among others. I want to hear in your words, how do you envision your contribution to the traditional Irish music community? Knowing that, how does that make you feel? 

Jo Ann: I did not come with a deep knowledge of Irish music, and I am gaining knowledge over time. I have a willingness to learn, and a deep respect for the people that already have a lot of knowledge. I have a real curiosity about what they know, to hear their stories. It’s just fascinating. 

I am willing to pitch in, volunteer, help bring people together, keep things organized and make financial contributions where I can. It’s important that we make a welcoming space for everyone to learn, practice, hear, enjoy music, Irish music, or any other kind of music for that matter, but primarily Irish music in CIM. 

Ben, Norah Rendell (CIM Executive Artistic Director) and Jo Ann at the Minnesota Irish Music Weekend

Sook Jin: Given where youve been on your Irish music journey, what currently excites you?

Jo Ann: The upcoming Minnesota Irish Music Weekend! The lineup is amazing. I’ve been listening to Aidan Connolly, the fiddle instructor, playing Sliabh Luachra music with his uncle. I’m really looking forward to learning these tunes. 

I am also excited that after many years, I am beginning to recognize tunes. It’s becoming easier to learn, recognize, internalize, and make the tunes mine. It feels good, now to feel “yeah, I now get this”. 

And, through the work of Eoin Stan O’Sullivan and the Handed-Down Sliabh Luachra Archive youtube videos, I just ran into this resource: a bunch of accordion players - not in a showy playing way, but they are putting out both new recordings and older recordings that are reissued. This includes some tunes we play here, so I’m investigating that a bit more. These featured Dan Herlihy, Timmy O’Connor, and Pat Fleming, among others.

I am grateful that these days, more people are paying attention to cultural preservation and keeping traditions alive. Our own Brian Miller is doing such an amazing job of preserving some of our local treasures. We are lucky to have him, CIM, Celtic Junction, and others like them around.  

Jo Ann Vano serves on the board of the Center for Irish Music and the Celtic Junction Arts Center. She is the volunteer chairperson of the Minnesota Irish Music Weekend, runs front of house for most CJAC events, and coordinates CJAC's Sunday evening session.