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Global rhythms

Eileen Ivers' new band features a tap dancer, a conga player and the guy who replaced John Belushi in the Blues Brothers.

So how does she describe the band's sound?

"At the heart of the band, really, is traditional Irish music," Ivers said.

Ivers is the acclaimed Irish-American fiddle player best known for her work with the original production of Riverdance. She had released four solo CDs of more-or-less traditional Irish music, the latest being 1999's Crossing the Bridge, before she put together her new band, Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul.

She said that her goal was to assemble a diverse group of musicians that could augment Irish music with African, Appalachian and Caribbean rhythms.

So though traditional Irish music would demand that Ivers play over the distinctive atonal thud of the bodhran, a hand-held goatskin drum, Immigrant Soul allows Ivers to explore a wider percussive palette.

One interesting aspect of blending Latin and African elements with Irish music is that the genres often have similar rhythmic structures, she said.

"Essentially, it's applying that basic rhythm of the bodhran and to larger rhythmic tonalities," Ivers said. "It's not haphazard. It just makes a much larger rhythmic bed for the music."

The group's debut CD came out a few weeks ago, and a tour brings it to the Mahaffey Theater at Bayfront Center on Friday.

People who saw Ivers at the Mahaffey a couple of years ago may recognize some members of Immigrant Soul. Several have been part of her touring band for years. But they're taking a more active role in forging the new sound.

It's not just the unusual percussion section that puts a distinctive twist on Irish music. Singer Tommy McDonnell has a smooth, rhythm-and-blues delivery reminiscent of Luther Vandross or Lou Rawls. Listeners often assume that McDonnell is black.

"I hear that a lot," Ivers said. "But he's a white man with a big shock of red hair."

The songs on the CD, many written by Ivers, waver from traditional Irish fare, incorporating polka, zydeco, rock and blues. Some songs could even live comfortably on adult contemporary radio play lists. Ivers' fiery fiddle punctuates it all.

"It's not just Irish people who come to our shows," she said. "It's all nationalities and all ages. When you combine all these different elements, the music just becomes so infectious. I think it makes it more accessible."