Family first: Celtic ensemble Tuatha Dea brings its tribal rhythms to festival
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
From the band’s first appearance at a Gatlinburg pub to a trial-by-fire performance at the 2010 Gatlinburg Scottish Highland Games to this weekend’s show as part of the “Music in the Air Festival” at the Clayton Center for the Arts, Tuatha Dea has soared on the winds of good fortune.
There’s something to be said for the raw talent of clan patriarch Danny Mullikin, of course; without a bedrock upon which to build, fate couldn’t have taken the group as far as it has. Still, Mullikin told The Daily Times this week, it’s been a journey he and his family never saw coming.
“The whole thing was totally inadvertent,” he said. “We started as a drum circle — myself, my son, my daughter, my wife, my son’s best friend and another close best friend. We were all friends before we were musicians, and we used drums for unity. We started out going to different festivals just to play and working with the Girl Scouts, and as we started playing out more and more, we started integrating more things in.
“My daughter plays the flute, so we started bringing the flute into it. Rebecca Hubbard (Mullikin’s wife) has a beautiful singing voice, so we started bringing vocals into it. In 2010, we took an opportunity to play at a local pub owned by a friend of ours, and we came in with no intentions of anything happening — but people liked it.”
Fueled by the mystique of the Smoky Mountains at their backs, the members of Tuatha Dea communicate with the primal spirits of fans. The hypnotic rhythm of the percussion, which wraps like tendrils around shrill barks from a flute and long blasts of a didgeridoo, casts a wide net, Mullikin said — performers and audience members alike become one.
“We never really intended to be a band when we first started; because we started from a drum circle, there’s a very tribal feel to it,” he said. “We don’t have a conventional drum kit; we use African and Latin drums. Most of the music we play is based in a rhythmic form, so it’s going to have a strong percussion base. There are some exceptions where we’ve back up and tried to get a more traditional feel on things, but even with that, we’re not using anything but African drums.”
Mullikin and his family don’t even have a label for what they do; others have described it as Celtic tribal fusion/rock. All he knows is that it comes from a place within their hearts that can’t be touched through traditional methods of music-making, and that it’s directly tied to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Originally from West Tennessee, Mullikin grew up vacationing in the Smokies, he said. As a boy, he felt a pull from those verdant peaks any time his family came to this area, and he knew back then that he would one day settle in those mountains. As a grown man, he moved his children to Sevier County in 2002, where they reside today; Rebecca joined him from North Carolina, Chris Bush came down from Indiana and Tyler Neitz moved up from Florida.
From simple rhythms grew an elaborate repertoire of material — traditional Celtic ballads, blood-stirring tribal pieces, rock covers, original tunes. In 2010, the group was tapped for the Gatlinburg games before they were even a band — “We were just thrown into the mix and played,” Mullikin said — and since then, other Celtic events, including the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, have tapped Tuatha Dea for their music schedules.
A year ago, after the positive response Tuatha Dea received from sporadic performances around East Tennessee, the band made the decision to pursue music seriously. The lineup was paired down from a high of 13 members to a core group of percussionists and multi-instrumentalists, and given the fluid, Gypsy-like nature of Tuatha Dea, members leave and return, sometimes bringing with them new skills.
“When we started playing out, we started introducing cover songs as well,” Mullikin said. “We began writing our own material, and it was just very eclectic. If someone came along with an instrument, something we haven’t tried, it was put into the mix. When we met Chris Bush, he played Native American flute, and now that’s prominent in the mix. My daughter now plays drums and bass and keyboards.
“We have become musicians, I think, since starting the band. It didn’t start out like that at all. We were just drumming.”