North musicians graced the first weekend of Celtic Connections as they headed to Glasgow, many launching new workLONGER READ
REVIEW: Celtic Connections
Coastal Connections, Bruce MacGregor book launch gig, Hamish Napier album launch gig (support Sarah Jane Summers)
MAYBE we take for granted how spoiled for musicians with traditional and folk talents we are in the North.
That is until you witness – with slightly over the top pride as a Highlander – the Glasgow crowd taking in the music and applauding with pure rapture when the time comes.
A weekend at Celtic Connections checking out the visiting talent from ‘home’ will do that to you.
And on the final Sunday night of the festival, congratulations to Maryburgh's Ali Levack of Project Smok, who was named BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Of The Year!
FAMILIAR faces on the festival’s stages included many on Saturday’s special Scottish Government year of coast and waters-themed day, COASTAL CONNECTIONS. It was packed with music from all over Scotland, though including many from the North with connections to water on their home patch.
The whole of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with all its different spaces was given over to six hours of music from a lot of different musicians and line-ups to celebrate the theme. And in the first time slot at noon there were four different things you could have gone to see, some people might even have had the self-discipline to stop just long enough at each to have caught them all.
But choosing Dileab: Air a’ Chuan in the main or new auditorium gave the chance to enjoy the specially-commissioned music written by Willie Campbell for Western Isles’ young musicians.to celebrate the islands’ extensive connections to the waters around them.
In 2018, the project began with different schools each given a specific theme to research that was related to the island: Barra and emigration, Uist were remembering World War I, Harris with protest and politics and Lewis remembered the Iolaire Disaster.The pupils worked with local musician Willie Campbell to produce an initial five original compositions on these themes.
A selection of music from the Dileab main concert the night before also included one of two new commissioned songs from Willie Campbell which looked at the working lives at sea for islanders. The lyrics of the song, Drawn To The Sea, which came close to the end of the set, went: ‘From fishing off the rocks as boys, to merchant ships worldwide. Some remaining bachelors until the day they died,’ and the tension with life at sea and missing home in ‘A job at eight on the oil rigs I hear is not for everyone/ The money is good, the sacrifice is time away from home' and then goes to islanders’ deep, in-built love of the sea in ‘We’re drawn to the ocean by forces we can’t understand’.
The powerful commissioned songs of this set involved soloists and school choir alongside professional musicians, and included a set of tunes by Martin Sinclair on small pipes and Andrew MacNeil on accordion and a 17th century Gaelic song about a Barra woman hoping for her father’s boat to take her back to the island, sung with real longing by the two female singers taking the lead.
But probably the song of the set was the Dileab anthem Innse Gall which aimed that island youngsters would not take for granted their unique way of life. Lyrics such as ‘The sound of the waves crashing on the beach echo in my ears evermore’ – and the earwormy tune that quickly stuck in your mind, should ensure that is the case. More Dileab info: http://dileabalegacy.com/
THE sea was slightly harder to spot, but definitely there in the set provided by formerly Grantown’s Findlay Napier, Gillian Frame and Nairn’s Mike Vass, recreating some of the songs from Norman Buchan’s 101 folk song collection as printed in The Scotsman song by song during the 50s and early 60s and collected by Findlay Napier’s grandfather Hamish Cumming in an old ledger. In the Exhibition Hall where only a few chairs were provided with many sitting on the floor creating a relaxed feeling in the room, the trio gave a taster of seven of the 10 of the songs from their new album The Ledger. They included love tragedies (Barbara Allan) and mystery deaths (Bonnie George Campbell). “There are songs of the industrial revolution and some of them are about transportation of people often to Australia charged for petty crimes and poaching to a life sentence of slavery,” Gillian explained. Song Van Diemen’s Land was presented with a melancholy air – with its story of enforced emigration ‘on the British hulks to plough Van Diemen’s Land’ – or Tasmania, poachers were punished by being forced to plough the land for the settlers there.
Also another they played just before it, Jamie Raeburn, was sung by Gillian, also referring to transportation far across the sea. Jamie was supposedly a baker innocent of the petty theft that saw him sent away.
The set had some surprises – one being Findlay revealing that popular Scottish folk song The Road To Dundee had once been sung to him by US TV star Jerry Springer who got excited when he met Findlay and discovered Findlay was from Scotland – then insisted on singing the song to him.
Before singing Burnie Bushel, Gillian explained the approach the trio had applied to the well-known folk songs on the album. “We have given this one a bit of a makeover.We tried to sing the version of the songs that were in The Ledger, as close as possible to the words that were there instead of ones we may previously have known. But we added our own touches so they are slightly newer and ‘our’ versions.”
There was just time for one more short song as the day was on a strict time schedule, Gillian pointed out.
“This next one seems appropriate as you are all looking so mellow,” she added. “And it’s also appropriate for Coastal Connections as this lullaby Baloo Baleery is thought to have originated in the Northern Isles with versions from Shetland and Orkney.”
The trio put us to work singing the chorus, a mesmeric combination of ‘baloo baleery’ that ensured the mellow feeling the understated performance of the iconic songs had cast over the crowd soothed us further towards the end of the set.
In the main or new auditorium, Dingwall’s Julie Fowlis took the stage with three Irish musicians – one her husband bazouki-player Eamon Doorley – and fiddler Zoe Conway and her partner, singer and guitarist John McIntyre. Their music filled the hall with pristine sounds inspired by old Gaelic poetry from both Scotland and Ireland as featured on their 2018 album Allt.
“The first song is inspired by St Kilda and what better way to start off the set for this celebration of coast and waters than all things coastal and connections with this Celtic tune,” said Julie.
The audience gave huge applause as Julie and Zoe tuned their whistles for track An Ghaeilige with John singing in Irish. Then Zoe introduced the song Duirt Bean Liom which she had made from a poem written by the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. Julie and Zoe began to sing with voices that could have belonged to sisters, so similar did they sound in their clarity, crispness and tone, followed by a chirpy reel on fiddle from Zoe and whistle from Julie.
When it came to the making of the song Piuthrag Nam Piuth’r (O Sister O Sister), Julie mentioned she had come across the poem one afternoon when she had been reading from the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness from 1894 – “it’s what I do on occasion at home – loads of crack!” she said, with a grin, mocking herself. She had come across the story there and had written the tune. The poem had instantly moved Julie as it tells of a Highland family with two sisters – and a brother who leaves for Ireland. The two sisters are parted by death, then living sister has a vision one day where her sister returns to tell her that their brother has joined her.
At the end of the beautiful air, sung by Julie with pared-back harmonies sung by Zoe, Eamon commented: “That was a bit too sad!” And the quartet moved on to the more upbeat Allt na Ceardaich written by Eamon and accompanied by the reel Fiona Rosie’s. But soon it was back to soothing the sadness with the song Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa (I Will Find Solace), written by Zoe and inspired by a poem from the West Coast which talks about a man walking along the beach among his own people morning and evening where he will find peace. The voices of Julie and Zoe together and a moving high fiddle solo with sliding notes made it a true goosebump moment.
DINGWALL'S Fiona MacKenzie, curator of Canna House where the late filmmaker, photographer and collector of songs and folklore Margaret Fay Shaw and her husband John Lorne Campbell lived and kept their archive, presented Portrait Of An Island after that in the Buchanan Suite at the top of the building.
Though almost in darkness – possibly to make the black and white film excerpts easier to see – the place was packed as Fiona built on an original radio programme by her subject, Margaret. Margaret’s original programme for BBC Radio’s Women’s House called A Portrait Of An Island was expanded on by Fiona.
Sometimes she started a song which would continue with a voice recorded on tape joining in, sometimes she added her own voice to one singing, already recorded. And the old film footage gave fascinating looks at life passed down through the eras and also the story of Margaret herself.
The Pittsburgh orphan from an early age got an early taste of Gaelic on a visit to Helensburgh where she briefly went to school which inspired the researches and fascination with the Gaelic culture which ‘determined her life’, as Fiona revealed. After that first listen, Margaret wrote in her diary “… such marvellous clear wild music I have ever heard. Most of the songs were in Gaelic’.
It was an irresistible introduction to a unique woman and Canna House which holds 1,200 sound records and hours of film from 1930 onwards of the Hebridean culture.
AFTER that in the Strathclyde Hall there was a reprise of Feis Rois’s moving piece The Voyage Of The Hector.
THE RNLI commission Launch On The Sea! Partnering film through Screen Argyll and new music was premiered in the Strathclyde Suite. It married old footage curated by Shona Thomson using both black and white and colour film of the lifeboats and lifeboatmen’s lives. We saw the boats being launched, men running to go out on a rescue, boats being commissioned, all to specially-created music.
The stunning sound effects, soundscapes and music created by Jenny Sturgeon (of band Salt House), clarinettist Arun Ghosh, composer and pianist John Ellis and beat-boxer, composer and musician Jason Singh in particular added the voice of the ocean to the music. In one section he added the effects that made the sea sound growling and menacing till you could appreciate the relief those at sea in trouble would feel, as the old-fashioned sounding voiceover said, should they: ‘… hear the call ‘Lifeboat coming!’.”
There will be plenty of chances to catch Launch On The Sea! with film and music as it goes on tour round coastal towns later this year – Portree, Tobermory, Lerwick and Montrose, so far. For full details, go to: screenargyll.co.uk
WITH the sea outside her home in Ullapool, accordionist, composer and singer Mairearad Green’s coastal credentials were immediately established by her regular music partner guitarist, fiddler and composer Anna Massie – herself brought up in the Ross-shire seaside town of Fortrose.
With the tuning completed, the Mairearad’n’Anna banter app was loaded and we were off with what turned out to be a warm selection of tunes dotted through with references to the sea and a selection of forms to deliver them in, including reels, jigs and slow airs.
As they opened the gig with some three-four marches, Mairearad revealed that this was Anna’s third gig of four that day, though no flagging of any kind could be detected and Anna’s irrepressible good humour was in its usual place. They followed up with Anna’s own two tunes, including Laura Davidson – “written as gifts for folk,” as Mairearad explained. And then Anna, in a way, offered the audience – seated around them on the floor or on chairs dotted round the Exhibition Hall – a free gift of our own.
“Mairearad lives right on Ullapool’s shore front,” she said. “So you can imagine that when we play these tunes!”
A set of fast reels was followed by a quick sound adjustment.
“Can I have some more guitar in my right hand monitor,” Mairearad asked the sound desk. Then she grinned: “Turn the tart up!”
The duo’s understated cover of Cape Breton songwriter JP Cormier song Mollie May – a jewel on their last album Farran – was a perfectly-pitched emotional take on the song. In it, a captain reveals his regret when he can no longer helm his beloved ship – and the song reveals what happens when he didn’t.
“Anna’s getting the fiddle out now because she’s a show-off,” Mairearad teased.
“Pelters from Mairearad, today!” replied Anna.
Harmony was restored with Anna on fiddle and Mairearad on accordion as it was back to the sea, the two playing another Farran tune, the haunting Mo Chailin – Dileas Donn, written by Hector Mackenzie, a fisherman from Ullapool.
A second later, Mairearad was inviting the audience to join them for a song.
“And if she’s still speaking to me, Anna will tell you what it is about,” Mairearad said. To remember the late Rick Taylor, who was having his own show in tribute at Celtic Connections a few days later.
“He was a Geordie trombonist who had played in Elton John’s band in the 70s and had done all the pop session recording stuff in London and then decided to move to Skye.”
Anna continued: “He was a fantastic force on the Scots folk music scene and was involved with The Peatbog Faeries and the Unusual Suspects and would teach groupwork at Blazin’ In Beauly – and the stories – he was fantastic company and a really inspiring musician.”
The duo taught us the “lovely mouth-organ line" from the song Anything From You on his album – "Will you sing that?”
Anna told us how he had said that: "Women always love this song!" And raised a laugh, adding his own comment –“It’s about being a B***ard!”
Anna said: “One of Rick’s favourite things was to hear a room of people singing.”
So the Celtic Connections crowd sang and did their best to sound like a mouth-organ, and we all helped to remember him with his own music.
But all too soon, it was time for Malteser Madness and Anna thoughtfully warning us that now it was the end we would have to go outside and to beware the rush of air that might go to our heads – good advice after six hours immersed in Coastal Connections’ music.
On Sunday, Bruce MacGregor’s book launch of tunes he has written – plus tales from his life and music career – got a rousing welcome with an all-seats-taken gig in the City Halls, accompanied by Blazin’ Fiddles colleague Anna Massie on guitar and fiddle – plus a couple of surprise guests later in the hour-long set, fellow Blazers Jenna Reid and Angus Lyon for Annie’s Waltz.
The set was bright with jokes and recollections, as well as tunes destined for a long life, such as the blistering and beautiful reel Farquhar’s Rocking Chair.
Before playing it, Bruce elaborated on the story inspiring it.
He fondly recalled being with the respected fiddle adjudicator Farquhar Macrae at the Scottish Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh and going out for the afternoon with Farquhar and Shetland fiddler Trevor Hunter to “discuss the finer points of strathspey playing with a lot of whisky”. With that Dutch courage, Bruce revealed he decided he was going to get up onstage to play alongside the famous American fiddle-player Alasdair Fraser.
“I wasn’t asked, but I just went up. It went very quiet. I think the Dutch courage might have been masking my ability to play. But what had happened was that Farquhar followed me up and got excited and soon he had tapped his feet – and his seat away – and rocked himself off the back of the stage!.
“It was just his feet sticking up – and everyone was worried, but his wife Hettie said [Bruce adopts an inpatient tone as the lady]: “Don’t worry about him, he’s always doing that!”
The night was a great look back over Bruce’s career – cleverly using his tunes and tales to illustrate the story as we went along – from the moment he went for his first fiddle lesson (50p) to the legendary Donald Riddell of South Clunes. A renaissance man who was a pipe major, traditional fiddler and classical player, a farmer, fiddle-maker, speaker of Gaelic and a passionate believer in teaching a new generation of young ones, everything from the correct bowing including how to snap a strathspey and get the ‘cuckoo’ effect in a reel.
Bruce is a master storyteller and the hour passed too quickly.
But highlights included the tales of the Blazin’ Fiddler’s career which includes his ‘proper’ jobs of being a BBC radio producer and now presenter of Travelling’ Folk and running his own venue in Inverness.
He had opened the show saying: “I still don’t regard being a musician as a proper job. It was a whole series of circumstances and accidents that ended up with me holding a fiddle in front of anybody at all!”
Many of the tunes he has written are for family and friends. Near the start of the show came one that had been inspired by his dad, who falls out with the authorities over various things, Bruce explained – The Highlander’s Revenge. Two more were the title track of his solo album, 101 Reasons To Do Nothing. And another titled by his dad’s firm belief as a farmer that life can be one step back and Three Steps Forward.
At the show he played the one he has in the book for his second wife, The Force Of Nature – Jo De Sylva
“She is sitting in front of me and has just gone red!” he laughed. “We met 20 years ago at the BBC – and hated each other on first sight!”
There was a tune for Anna Massie and her fellow musicians with Massie’s Madames. And Blazin’ Fiddles' faithful soundman Alan MacKinnon, better-known as Dinner, is immortalised in the grandiosely-named Sir Henry Laphroaig Dinoir of Cluthiebootle’s Waltz.
As the set came close to the end, Bruce said: “I have barely mentioned the fact I have 300 copies of my book out there! It’s got a lot of photographs and a lot stories and some of the really stupid stuff we have done in Blazin’ Fiddles, with cameo appearances from Billy Connolly, Ewan McGregor, Anna Massie, Dolly Parton – well, Anna Massie dressed as Dolly Parton. It’ll all make sense when you read it in the book!”
The encore took Bruce back to the start of his composing experience, called to a village hall with his friend Iain MacFarlane when they were still teenagers for the two to create music for a group of contemporary dancers who had them warming up every morning.
"I had never composed before, but watching them dance, I came up with this, The Nameless Clan, about the MacGregors. We were outlawed for a century, I think it's been lifted!" he told us.
The melancholy slow air stilled the crowd and left a perfect, satisfied silence as the last notes died away.
AT 7.30pm. also on Sunday, but across town in the Mitchell Theatre, 10 musicians, many also from the North, were up onstage to launch Hamish Napier from Grantown’s third album The Woods, playing what is the third in his five-album series, with The Hill and The Sky to follow.
First, Invernessian, Sarah Jane Summers, now living in Norway (since 2010), created a wonderful sense of crossover from her Swedish, English, Norwegian and Finnish musicians to warm up for Hamish’s set with sounds from the north lands.
They came from Owerset – meaning 'translate' in Scots – last year's album based on Sarah-Jane’s 2018 Celtic Connections New Voices commission.
The album also features Sarah-Jane’s partner, Juhani Silvola, on guitar.
It is a composition in 12 parts that combines Scottish and Nordic traditions with playfulness, jazz, contemporary classical music and soundscapes. The idea for it began with taking Old Norse words you find in both Scots and Gaelic and made them the starting points.
It is a unique piece of work that fizzes played live as something light and surprising, with separate moods and tempos, but intricately connected together and also connected to our own traditional music with a hefty twist of Scandinavian influence too.
Gate/Gata started the album set.
The first track began before music, with Hayden Powell’s trumpet used to blow breathy sounds that might be gales, or breaths, some scary creature or the sea – or all of them.
For the performance, returning after their appearance on the album and the original launch, joining Sarah-Jane alongside Bridget, were Leif Ottosson on accordion, trumpeter Hayden from England and Morten Kvam from Norway on double bass from Norway.
As designed to, the music and words themselves make you notice the similarities between the cultures – and the differences.
At the start of each new piece, Sarah-Jane and Norwegian double bassist Mork got into a routine which quickly made the audience laugh each time it came round. Sarah would introduce the title in English, like’ Flit’, then Mork would say the Norwegian (Scandinavian) version – such as ‘Flit-e’.
Just subtly different – and it almost seemed as if he was correcting her, though of course wasn’t.
Flit gave the chance to hear Juhani get into his stride on guitar, Sarah-Jane wrapping the fiddle line around to create the perky tune.
‘Handfasting’, also Hoandfast-e’ (a marriage ceremony which only ended in Scotland in 2006, we were told) started with a fiddle tune.
Fancifully, maybe, you could imagine betrothed couple’s hands overlapping and being tied together by a ribbon, as they did in the ceremony, and the instruments’ tunes flowing through each other in the same way. There was a real appreciation of the impact of dynamic as the whole piece built to a powerful crescendo, instantly shrinking away to leave a delicate pizzicato version of the melody on strings and guitar, the tune ending up in the air without its final note. Just like the handfasted couple, perhaps, on their new road and poised to take that first step together.
Greet/Grot-e was maybe as the word sounded. In Scots the word means ‘cry’, of course, and this piece certainly evolved into a slow air perfect for tears.
Sarah-Jane introduced Rowk/Reyk (sea mist) talking about the peninsula where she and Juhani live in Norway and sea mist comes floating across. The music had a late-night, languorous feel, starting with a rasping, woozy-sounding accordion and almost other-worldly wobbly-noted electric guitar introducing a virtuoso, slightly experimental-jazz feel from Hayden.A fantastic lazy jazz trumpet line crowned the piece with fiddle adding squeaks and sharp little textures of its own before it got to play a mellow version of the tune.
But the set ended with a big Scottish-sounding strathspey The Spey Wife followed by furious reel, Blether. First played on fiddle, then taken up by trumpet, the tunes were consumed eventually in a big stramash!
It was a great set that opened possibilities and new connections, it was about how music fits together and also talented musicians having fun. It was also a great preparation for what followed, both its Scottish and traditional nature and the sense of a coherent created composition to be heard as one piece of music. It mirrors Hamish Napier’s ambition with The Woods.
He laid out his 21 tracks for us like a living forest of shimmering sounds, bookended by the capercaillie’s ‘lek’ call.
The night was planned to play the album live with chat in between about the music and the album. The nine musicians joining him on stage were: his partner Su-A Lee, Ross Ainslie, Jarlath Henderson, Innes Watson,James Lindsay; Calum MacCrimmon, Steven Byrnes, Angus Lyon and Fraser Stone on drums.
Hamish appeared to introduce the first track, The Pioneer, about the Birch. And he said it was one of the first trees to colonise the landscape after the Ice Age, a hundred centuries ago. A spokesman for sponsor of The Woods,Cairngorms Connect, appeared onstage to explain the idea behind their 200-year plan to enhance and restore habitats across the Cairngorms National Park.
Hamish pointed out sponsorship was part of a centuries-old tradition of land managers in Strathspey ..."and further afield in the Highlands" commissioning new music.
“It’s all music inspired by local stories and legends of Strathspey. There are 20 tracks including 25 new folk tunes and it covers 23 native Scottish trees using the Gaelic tree alphabet as well. The album flows as one continuous piece of music – like a continuous forest. Tonight I have this wonderful band with me with some of my favourite musicians and we are going to play the whole album!” Hamish happily revealed.
As the sound of the capercaillie on the intro track to the album faded away in the theatre. Hamish had explained when the 10 musicians first sat down: “That’s the noise it makes spoiling for a fight parading around in the breeding season at four in the morning in the middle of April!”
He returned to it to introduce The Capercaillie Rant.
Then Hamish said he would follow that capercaillie march with a strathspey dedicated to the pine martin, and finally in that set, a piano solo about the juniper tree.
“It’s also great for making gin, isn’t it?” he added mischievously.
“Then there will be a tune that goes deep into the underground ‘wood-wide web’ and looks at the mycelium, deep underground, these little fungal fibres are connecting all the trees."
The CD booklet is a treasure trove of information and stories from his local area researched by Hamish on trees, their folklore, their biology and presence in the local landscape.
Or as Ross Ainslie joked later when Hamish mentioned all the information in the CD booklet.
“I think it’s more of a book than a booklet! You get a free CD with it!” he grinned, as the audience laughed.
“It’s 6,000 words, I figured out!” grinned Hamish. “But you can go for a walk and it will tell you about the trees you see!"
After music for rowan and elder came Hamish’s story about some of the musicians looking for chanterelle mushrooms, Jarlath and Su-a, but a sad James Lindsay who couldn’t find any in two and a half hours.
“I thought he had been away from the country too long, and couldn't spot them – and then I lost him," said Hamish. "But he came back with a huge grin on his face from the middle of the wood with a basketful and he was delighted with himself!”
They then played The Foragers, then followed with a section looking at four high-profile Scottish native trees and their qualities – the Hawthorn and The Blackthorn, the Ash and the Aspen, Hamish reminding us how their leaves shiver and shimmer.
Next was a tune for the Scots Pine, with Hamish recommending we go into Anagach woods or Rothiemurchus to seek it out. The tune was called The Tree Of Return, he told us.
"It was found on an old map and as high as up the hills as the shepherds and farmers would take the cattle in summer. They could find their way higher themselves, and the shepherds could turn back there at this landmark tree."
The dramatic interlude Wildfire which came straight after, saw Fraser Stone exercising the drums and the cymbals and The March Of The Lumberjills was inspired bythe Women Of The Timber Corps in the Second World War, based on a local story Hamish discovered
Tracks are hard to pick out – as part of the charm of The Woods is its seamless flow, designed to be listened to as one piece of music.
But there were shivers down the spine with the music marking the death of a young man. He had been sent on a cold winter's night to open the sluice gates on the river in the middle of the woods to allow logged trees to be sent down. But the night was too cold, and the young man died. Eerie is the word for The Tree Of The Return/ The Highest Willows. The almost female banshee-like quality of the ‘voice’ of the musical saw played by cellist Su-a Lee was inspired.
But for those of us who had celebrated the life of Hamish's woods with its creator, above and below ground, in their leaves, roots and branches, in the life living from them and people working inside the woods, it was poignant when Hamish revealed "a lament for extinct plants and creatures". And you couldn't help feeling a sense of loss as Calum MacCrimmon sang the traditional 'Canntaireachd’ or chanting/ ancient ‘words’ for notating pibroch, the piping music of mourning. – it was in every note.
With The Woods, Hamish Napier walked among his local trees in Strathspey, imagined and created his own forest, then with his musicians and music, made it come alive in front of us at Celtic Connections.
Thanks to photographers Gaelle Beri and Kerry Dexter.