Michael Ismerio

Studio PortraitMy Story 

From a very young age I knew I was passionate about two things: music and turning strangers into friends. Socializing came fairly easy; I've never been a shy person. But, music took some doing. When I was young I imagined that music was something people had to go to school for. I always put musicians in the “other than me” category. But, slowly over the years I started realizing that I was actually playing a lot of music, and then I noticed I was actually getting paid to play music. Eventually, I gave in and started calling myself a musician. Now those two passions take up most of my time and energy.


The Dickel Brothers  (music) (photos)

In 1997 I met a duo called The Dickel Brothers, which at the time was Matt (guitar) and Clancy (fiddle) who dressed up in suits and played old time songs they had learned off of old 78 rpm records. I had never heard of old time music and had no idea what I was stepping into but I played a little bit of washboard so I jumped at the chance when they invited me to join their band.

Within a year I was also playing the mandolin and The Dickels had solidified into a five piece old time string band adding Marcus on banjo and Brian on bass. Something both drunken and magical happened when we put on our suits and stepped on stage.

We quickly realized how hard it was to keep people's attention playing acoustic music in noisy bars. We were background music. So we took drastic measures. Suddenly, all five of us would saunter though the crowd, mid song, and climb up onto the bar hovering over the crowd while the bartender stands there trying to decide whether to yell at us or not. By now the crowd has noticed us and is clapping along and cheering us on. Brian and his bass would lower themselves back to the ground and Clancy would climb onto his shoulders and continue fiddling while Brian walked around the bar with the end pin of his bass resting on his foot as the whole band moved through the crowd. I remember one night in the Shanghai Tunnel bar in Portland after the audience had bought us our fifth round of whiskey shots. Clancy spied the flimsy water pipes that were hanging just above our heads in the basement bar. He handed his fiddle to someone, flipped himself upside down, hooked his knees on the pipes, grabbed his fiddle back, and lead the band through a tune while he played upside down. Shows would always end with us hopping off stage and playing right in the middle of the audience. And if the energy was right we would lead the audience, pied piper style, right out of the bar into the street for a late night impromptu dance party.

The Dickel Brothers didn't care so much if people liked us or not, we just didn't want people to ignore us. We didn't want to be background music.

That band was my entry point into the world of Old Time music and it's been interesting since then to realize that a lot of people have a very different view of what folk music is or what they think it should be.


The Government Issue Orchestra (music) (photos)

GIO press photo

After about five years the Dickels started slowing down. By then I was hopelessly lost in the fiddle. I needed a way to keep my focus on learning the fiddle so in 2001 along with Ben Masterson I started the Government Issue Orchestra , a twin fiddle string band. The first incarnation was Ben, Jason Noice, Bill “Bubba” Martin, Chris "Donnie Evil" Donahue, and myself. We set up a weekly gig at the Red and Black Cafe that became home base for our first year while we jumped on board the train that was Portland's growing love for old time music and square dancing. One by one members left and were replaced until the GIO solidified into it's main line up of Sophie Vitells, Maggie Brunjes, Patrick Lind, Caroline Oakley and myself.

We recorded one self-titled, self-released cd before disbanding in fall of 2006

Q is for Choir

At 18 years old growing up in Chico, CA I dreamed of owning a record store. It couldn't be in Chico though. Don't get me wrong, I loved growing up there but I wasn't going to STAY there. It was the early 90's so I decided Seattle was the place. But then I went to Seattle. Nope, too big. So I went to Portland. Nobody I knew seemed to work there. They just hung around drinking coffee and playing music. Perfect.

I spent a year searching for a store front before opening as Q is for Choir at 2510 SE Clinton St. I had no clue what I was doing. I eventually learned a lot. Mainly, that an anti-capitalist businessman whose store is a friendly neighborhood hangout will spend the next ten years in poverty. Lesson learned.

After 6 years I was burning out and decided both that I needed help and, that I wanted to do something inspiring with the shop. So I decided to go Co-op. Within a year we were up and running as a worker-owned and operated record store and I was spending less and less time there. The Co-op lasted three years until reaching three person simultaneous burn-out. We sold the shop. It's still there. You should go say hello.

Bubbaville and the The Portland Oldtime Music Gathering 

Shortly after joining the Dickel Brothers, Brian Bagdonas and I both made our way out to Weiser, Idaho for the national old time fiddle contest. We landed in a dusty campground called Stickerville. It was my first fiddle festival. It was heaven; a community of people I didn't know existed playing droning repetitive music in little groups for the sheer pleasure of it; with no audience whatsoever. Those people became my family.

At the end of the week I was loaded down with hugs and a universal "see you next year." Next year? I just found heaven and I'm expected to wait a year to return? Unacceptable. So I ran the idea by Brian of throwing a party in Portland in January; a Halfway to Weiser Party that would support and promote our growing community of Portland musicians. That January the party happened with a Friday night bar concert and a party at my house all day Saturday. We peaked out at five simultaneous jam sessions, which was huge for Portland at the time.

Ten years later it's still a party to celebrate our Portland community, only now it's five days long and draws over a thousand people from around the country. It's collectively organized by about a dozen people but it pretty much runs itself by the community that comes knowing more or less what needs to happen. On the main day we fill a three story hall so full with musicians that even the broom closets and bathrooms become fair game for jam sessions while the main rooms are filled with concerts, clogging workshops, singing workshops and family dances. The party peaks out Saturday night with two floors of square dancing, seven bands, seven callers, and every age range and social sphere represented. But now the gathering has grown so big that people ask “what's a Wesier?”

Read the Oregonian newspaper article about me and the Old Time Gathering.


Community Organizing & Liberty Hall

One theme that runs through everything I do is community community building. I am almost always thinking of ways to get people together. One of my loftier attempts was the Liberty Hall Collective. Liberty Hall was an old church in Portland that got turned into a radical community center by a disparate group of activists. Attrition brought the management down to one man who was on the verge of an anxiety attack from trying to work full time and manage an active community center.

Despite the obvious potential outcomes I stepped in and took over the day-to-day operations of the hall and formed a new all-volunteer collective to oversee the whole project. For the next year I lived and breathed Liberty Hall. I even lived in the hall for brief, unpleasant periods. Unpleasant due both to the size of the rats who also occupied the building as well as the horrible feeling that comes with waking up at your work place. I was intent on convincing Portland that the hall was a valuable resource and needed to be supported so I organized tons of music shows, puppet shows, square dances, sewing circles, classes, cabarets, potlucks and dinner shows, and worked my ass off to make the building available to others to do the same. I spent three years involved with LH until finally handing the building off to the Portland IWW. The Hall is still there and still being used by Portland’s radical community.

Son Jarocho

Don Medel Ildefonso

In the winter of 1996, I made my first trip into Mexico. With no maps or guidebooks, I stumbled my way around the country until arriving in the southern state of Veracruz. I fell in love with the southern region and their traditional music, Son Jarocho, an incredibly rhythmic mix of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and native American musics played on traditional string and percussion instruments. I returned to Veracruz every winter for the next ten years to study their music and dance, visit rural musicians, make field recordings, travel, and of course, to escape Portland winters. Sadly, I only get to play when I’m in Mexico. Son Jarocho is an extremely social musical form and the pockets of musicians in the US are few and far from me.

Witnessing the vibrant traditional music communities of Southern Veracruz had a huge impact on me and provided me with endless ideas and inspiration to inject into my own music community back home.