Friday, October 04, 2019

Celtic Colours Fesitval: Heritage and Heart on Cape Breton

On Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, there are times when music seems to rise out of the landscape. One of those times occurs every October during the Celtic Colours International Festival, when the people of Cape Breton invite the world -- including tradition bearers from cultures which have shaped the island’s life -- home for celebration and sharing.

This year, Celtic Colours takes place from 11 through 19 October. Music is at the heart of things; music is woven into the fabric of life on the island. In addition to headline concerts, of which there are a generous number each day, there are many other things explore, see, create, taste, and enjoy. More about those in a bit. First, though, a few highlights of what to expect with the music (and read on to learn how you may hear some of the concerts even if you will not be making it to Cape Breton during the festival).

Beolach and Brebach are artists in residence this year. Often those posts are held by solo artists, but the two bands, Beolach, who are Mac Morin, Wendy MacIsaac, Mairi Rankin, and Matt MacIsaac from Cape Breton and Breabach, who are James Lindsay, James Duncan Mackenzie, Ewan Robertson, Calum MacCrimmon, and Megan Henderson from Scotland, have been talking about working together for some time, and shared the stage for a Celtic Colours gig last year.

Each band has pipers and fiddle players, members of both have been known to step dance, and there are other instruments and singers in both Gaelic and English involved. When Beolach was in Scotland this summer for the Piping Live Festival, the musicians got together to plan what they’ll do in their concerts Kicking Ash and Causeway Ceilidh. The latter is the festival’s finale, where they will share the stage with top Gaelic singer Julie Fowils, who will be making her only appearance at the festival.

The First Nations Mi’kmaq people have long history on Cape Breton, and love fiddling and dance as much as their Acadian and Gaelic neighbors. One way this will come together is at Unama’ki Mawio’mi/A Cape Breton Gathering, where local Mi’kmaq group Stoney Bear will sharing singing, dancing, and drumming, and rising Mi’kmaq singer Emma Stevens will raise her voice. Cape Breton fiddlers Mooney Francis and Anita MacDonald will add in a Celtic flair, and the Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers will bring their Metis dancing to what sure to be a lively afternoon concert.

Another lively time is sure to be had when Kaia Kater brings her soulful songwriting, Appalachian ballads, and high energy banjo playing to the Cow Bay Ceildih, where she’ll be joined the very high energy Scottish trio Talisk and hometown favorites Tracey Dares MacNeil, Patrick Gillis, and Ian MacDougall.

Another sort of energy will pervade the stage at Close to the Floor. That’s a term often used to explain the style of Cape Breton step dance. There will be a dozen or so artists with dance steps from Cape Breton and other regions to share, among them festival favourite Nic Gareiss and top fiddle player, dancer, and singer April Verch.

Fiddler Jenna Moynihan and harpist Mairi Chaimbeul come up from New England to make several appearances during the festival. One of the more unusual will be their gig at the Chapel at the Fortress of Louisbourg. The concert is called Step into the Past. Audience members will have done that, as they’ll have enjoyed a traditional 18th century meal served by candle light and have walked through cobbled, lantern lit streets of the Fortress to reach the chapel. Joining Moynihan and Chaimbeul on stage will be Cape Bretoners Rosie MacKenzie on guitar and Dominique Dodge on harp, and from Scotland, Megan Henderson on fiddle and guitarist Ewan Robertson, who are also members of the band Breabach. There are fine singers in this mix as well as gifted players.

As much as the concert at Fortress Louisbourg is unique, it also shares aspects with many of the headline concerts. Several acts share each bill. Each usually does a set on alone (although sometimes the musicians cannot resist sitting in with each other) and then all join in together to close the show. It is a format that makes for collaboration, sharing, and discovery.

Those elements will be present when the Cape Breton Orchestra meets up with artists in residence Beolach and with Heather Rankin, who is known for her own stellar solo career as well as being a member of one of Cape Breton’s well loved musical families.

There’s always a strong strand of Gaelic running through Celtic Colours; you’ll find it almost every concert. The quartet Farsan, who bring together music and language traditions of Cape Breton, New England, and Scotland, will join forces with Saltfishforty from Orkney and Dwayne Cote and Roger Stone from Cape Breton in a gig called Family and Friends. Farsan will also take part in a Gaelic focused concert called The Waters of Iona, at the church at the Highland Village.

There are many other artists sharing their gifts in the fifty-two concerts which make up this season’s Celtic Colours Festival. Mary Jane Lamond, Joe MacMaster, KIttel & Co., Howie MacDonald, Tim Edey, JP Cormier, Dawn Beaton, Margie Beaton, Ashley MacIsaac, The Chieftains, and The Barra MacNeills, are just a few of these.

The music at the festival club at the Gaelic College in Saint Ann’s begins just as the evening concerts are winding down, and often goes through the night. Artist bookings are not announced in advance, so you never know who you might see.

The music is not all: there are 300 community events taking place all across the island.

You could learn to step dance, or take your partner to a square dance. You could begin on or brush up your fiddle skills, watch a traditional blacksmith at work, or explore the landscape of Cape Breton on a nature walk.

You could try your hand at traditional fibre crafts and dyes, visit an art exhibit, go to a farmers’ market, or explore one of the island’s historic churches. The First Nations peoples of the island are ready to share their stories, hospitality, and history with you, and so are people from Acadian, Scottish, and Irish background.

One of the ways that happens is through community meals, which range from egg and bacon breakfasts to fishcakes and beans to squash soup to lobster, from tea and stories in the afternoon to turkey and all the fixings in the evening.

Chances are, those community meals will come with a side of music, or be located nearby a concert. Music is part of the community sharing on Cape Breton. The Celtic Colours International festival is one of the best ways to experience that.

If you’ll not be on Cape Breton for the festival, keep your eye out on the festival web site. Usually, one concert each evening is shown on live stream. It is not announced what concert it will be until an hour or so before start time, but you’ll not go wrong with whatever is offered. Each concert is most often left up through the next day until almost time for the next evening’s event to begin.

You may also wish to see
Breabach: Frenzy of the Meeting
Alterum, from Julie Fowlis
Learn a bit more about Farsan
Learn about how and when Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada
Ireland, Scotland, and Story: Music from Eamon Doorley Julie Fowlis, Zoe Conway, and John McIntyre

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Friday, September 20, 2019

Two Roads Home: Music from Tim Grimm and Mary Ann Kennedy

Home: it’s an endless source of inspiration for creative artists of all sorts. For Tim Grimm, this might include writing a song that begins with speaking of a well loved cat sitting on the front porch of a farmhouse in Indiana. For Mary Ann Kennedy, it could include making a song out of a historic report of a sporting event that took place in a park near where she grew up as a Gaelic speaker in Glasgow. There are differences; there are similarities. Both well know how to make personal memories and insights resonate beyond place and moment, and yet how to respect both those things.

Tim Grimm’s recording is called Heart Land Again. It is revisit of sorts to his album Heart Land, which he released twenty years ago. Back then, Grimm and his wife Jan had moved back to central Indiana after a time working in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. The sons who were young children then have grown up to become musicians themselves, and now join their parents on this recording, and as regular participants in The Grimm Family Band.

The songs on that album twenty years ago “were a gift,” Grimm says,”the result of falling in love again with the rural Midwest and its people.” Times change, people pass on, the whole country changes. These songs, ones from the original collection reworked with fresh eyes and ears, and songs newly added for this project, are lasting.

Together, the dozen tracks bring both wide angle and close in views of heartland stories. Better Days, which is sometimes described as Grimm’s anthem, offers a well limned portrait of generations, connection, what changes and what remains on the land. That might seem a lot to find in one song. It is all there, though, told with the voice of a singer who knows how to serve the story. Down the Road considers the accelerating rhythms of change on the countryside. The traditional song Sowin’ on the Mountain, here with bluesy groove filled sound, suggests, perhaps, possible consequences.

Pumpkin the Cat (watch for that cat, who comes and goes quickly in the lyric despite being the song’s namesake and centering visual image) is a meditation on choices both immediate and long term and what’s good and right that comes from them. The whole album is that, really. It is w ell worth repeated listening. Grimm has a natural storyteller’s voice, Jan and sons Connor and Jackson add illuminating harmonies and instrumental backing. Dan Lodge-Rigal, who played piano on the original Heart Land, is back for this project. Ben Lumsdaine adds percussion and Krista Detor, whose music you’ve encountered before here along the Music Road, adds backing vocals too.

Mary Ann Kennedy’s road home is to a different place: the busy, lively, and sometimes gritty city of Glasgow in Scotland. She grew up there in a Gaelic speaking family, and has gone on to a many faceted career as harpist, singer, composer, producer, and broadcaster.

With her album Glaschu she’s created what she names as a home town love song. For some time now she’s lived in the Highlands of Scotland, but work often takes her back to her home town. That’s a perspective which gently informs some of the song choices and the arrangements you’ll find here. It’s a perspective which is not nostalgic and certainly not sentimental, but reflective, vivid, and thoughtful. “You can take the girl out of Glasgow, but never Glasgow out of the girl,” she writes in the sleeve notes, “ and in the spirit of the Gaels’ eternal need to sing about home, this is my Gaelic love-song for the city in all its guises -- the voices of arrivals in search of a new life and of those, like me, born and bred there with Gaelic as our first language.”

Song -- mostly in Gaelic -- and music from instruments are woven together with occasional spoken word interludes, at times in Gaelic and at times in English. Kennedy has an expressive soprano. You will have no trouble understanding the emotion of a song even if Scottish Gaelic is not one of your languages. There are English language lyrics and notes on the songs in the sleeve notes, however.

Kennedy takes you on a journey that includes a sports report from a historic shinty match -- did you know that shinty is a Highland game with stick and ball was the inspiration for ice hockey? A lively story of a trip along the River Clyde “which quite possibly hasn’t been sung in a century or more,” Kennedy notes, adds to the fun. When I Came to Glasgow First, a mixed language Gaelic and English song, takes a more serious turn as the subject is vignettes of what it was like for a person from the Highlands to arrive in the big, rambling, and loud city of Glasgow in the middle of the twentieth century.

Orange Parade in Glasgow points up some of the clashes and differences that both immigrants and long time residents found. The lyrics are by poet Derick Thomson, who was from Lewis in the Outer Hebrides but spent much of his life in Glasgow. “His images of Glasgow in the 80s in his Gaelic poetry are absolute reflections of my memories growing up n the city,” Kennedy writes. Orange parades commemorate the victory of William of Orange over James of Scotland more than five hundred years ago. It is often a flashpoint of religious and political division. It was, Kennedy continues, “a sad and fearful thing to watch in my home where I was brought up to celebrate diversity rather than reinforce difference.”

There are more songs, some of laughter and others of conflict or of sorrow, all weaving into the tapestry of Glasgow as seen and heard through the lives of its Gaelic speaking people. All its people, really. A translation of Michael Mara’s song Mother Glasgow into Gaelic seems a particularly appropriate and movingly done choice. There’s also the engagingly titled Statues, a Goose, and the Morning After, in which a man takes enough drink to go dancing with the statues in George Square -- and that’s only part of the story.

Kennedy brings Glaschu to a close with Goodnight & Farewell, which she points out, is not only a song often used to close concerts and gatherings but also “a beautiful parting glass song, making a heart connection with emigrant communities and urging us all to look for the good to keep hold of in ‘strange times.’”

Kennedy is supported by a number of musical friends, among them Findlay Wells, Nick Turner, and Jarlath Henderson. Wilma Kennedy and Bill Paterson do an excellent job of bring the brief spoken word sections to life in good connection with the music, too.

Roads home: whether that be to the countryside in Indiana or the city in Glasgow, or some other place which has its part in your life, this music will resonate. Give Heart Land Again from Tim Grimm and Glaschu from Mary Ann Kennedy a listen. Give them several; each has much to offer.

You may also wish to see
Mary Ann Kennedy and Na Seoid
Wilderness Plots
Julie Fowlis: Alterum
Music & Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer

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Sunday, August 11, 2019

Scotland's Music: Breabach: Frenzy of the Meeting

The sound of Scotland’s landscapes, misty glen to rocky coast, mountain path to city street: that is part of what you hear in the music of the band Breabach.

There’s tradition and innovation. There are ideas grounded in Scotland and informed by by seeing Scotland’s people and music in the context of a wider world. All these strands come together in the songs and tunes they offer on their sixth recording. Frenzy of the Meeting.

Prince’s Strand, a tune named after the place on the Isle of Eriskay in the Western Isles where Charles Edward Stuart -- Bonnie Prince Charlie-- first landed in Scotland in the Rising of ’45 invites listeners in with a welcome which is both peaceful and complex. It was written by band member James Duncan Mackenzie.

Peaceful and complex: you could say that of each of the songs and tunes on Frenzy of the Meeting. True, some are faced paced, high stepping tunes which celebrate the dance and invite you to dance yourself, while others come with melody and lyric and in Gaelic , which ask good questions and offer vivid images with which to contemplate those ideas. Yet other tell good stories and suggest ideas for reflection with lyrics in English.

The members of Breabach are James Lindsay on double bass an vocals, Calum MacCrimmon on bagpipes, whistle, bouzouki, and vocals, James Duncan Mackenzie on bagpipes, flute, whistle, Ewan Robertson on guitar, vocals, cajon. and Megan Henderson on fiddle and vocals. Each has contributed original pieces and arrangements to the mix of traditional and original music here.

Each track is worth your attention, and indeed repeated listening. In addition to Prince’s Strand, several cuts of which to take especial note

Birds of Passage: Migration is much in the news these days, as indeed it has been a part of life across the world for centuries. Ewan Robertson wrote this song with his friend Michael Farrell. In it, he sings of the hopes, fears and dreams of people on a migration journey, backed by instruments which also speak of passages and journeys.

...Humble search for sanctuary
Timeless symphony
No borderlines they see...

On and on
through grief and pain
brave birds of passage fly again
as they light
on golden strand
brave birds pf passage
reach our land...

The Oban Ball is an instrumental track based around a nineteenth century pipe tune, married with James Duncan Mackenzie’s tune Thunderstorm on Thunder Bay. Pipes and whistles lead the dance, with bass and fiddle adding depth to the story.

Winter Winds, a song from Calum MacCrimmon also speaks of journey, hardship, and change. As with Birds of Passage, there is hope threaded through, in both word and melody.

So keep a eye on the horizon,
Even when nights are long
Give it time, and the sky will change

Whether falling or flying
We are all moving on
And in the light we can find our way

Knees Up pairs Knees Up in Hanoi, a lively tune from Calum MacCrimmon, with the Gaelic song Dòchas Glan Na Fàire, sung by Megan Henderson, which MacCrimmon wrote with Megan’s brother, Ewen Henderson. This too is a song of journey, of revisiting familiar landscapes and finding new ones. Part of the lyrics translate as

The road must be taken
Living in pure hope of the horizon
Until the day breaks

Òran Bhràigh Rùsgaich is the Gaelic song which the band have chosen to close the album. It speaks of light and shadow moving across landscape, a particular one, in fact. It is “our take on Iain Mac Dhùghaill’s nostalgic poem about the braes of Ruskich to the south of Glen Urquhart, “ the band write in the sleeve notes. “Megan and Ewan first heard this sung by Charlie MacFarlane at one of the legendary ceilidh nights in Glenfinnan House Hotel.”

Journeys across landscapes, facing hardship yet finding hope: in both song and tune, those thread run through the choices on Frenzy of the Meeting, all delivered with thoughtful and top class musicianship. Breabach, who formed in 2005, have been nominated for and won a number of awards; if Frenzy of the Meeting is your first hearing of them, you will quickly understand why.

The album was recorded live in the studio for one week, and then in a further week of work spent with producer Eamon Doorley (you’ll know him from his work with Danu and Julie Fowlis). It is a fine next step for a group of musicians who are at once at the top of their game, while suggesting that there is much ahead for them to explore yet. If ever you have the chance to see Breabach live, you will be well rewarded, too, by seeing a group of top notch musicians who really listen to each other, and who truly enjoy sharing their music with all who come to hear. You may get to see them add a bit of step dance into the mix, as well.

Side note: If you happen to be reading this before mid October 2019, you may have the chance to see Breabach play live (and online) in Cape Breton. Along with Cape Breton artists Beolach (who are Mairi Rankin Mac MacIsaac, Mac Morin, and Wendy MacIsaac ), they have been artists in residence for the Celtic Colours International Festival of 2019. Concerts from the festival are live often streamed at the festival website (and kept available through the following day). Among other appearances (the festival runs 11 to 19 October), Breabach is set to appear in the finale concert of the festival on 19 October along with Beolach and singer Julie Fowlis from Scotland, whose music you’ve met before here along the Music Road.

Further side note: Mention must be made of those who created the cover art and design for Frenzy of the Meeting: The artwork is from the painting Sun In Bog by Somhairle, Struan and Breagha MacDonald, and the layout is by Somhairle MacDonald.

You may also wish to see
Juilie Fowlis: Gach Sgeul Every Story
Capercaillie: At the heart of It All
Music and Horizons” Stories of Hope at Wandering Educators, which includes the official video of Knees Up

Photograph of band in doorway courtesy of the artists; photograph of band on stage at Celtic Connections in Glasgow by Kerry Dexter, made with permission of the festival, the artists, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Scotland's Music: Laws of Motion from Karine Polwart, Inge Thomson, and Steven Polwart

Through the songs on her album Laws of Motion,. Karine Polwart considers migration, refugees, climate change, war, childhood, uncertainty, trust, and many other things along the way. That catalogue of ideas and questions may suggest that it’d be a grim sort of journey. It’s not. Polwart’s songs are very likely to raise ideas that will stay with you though.

In the song Ophelia landscapes, waters, and skies shift and change -- much as they did in the natural world when Storm Ophelia, to date the word’s easternmost hurricane, brought wild winds, high waters, and in its aftermath Saharan dust filling the skies with haze and strange light, to Scotland and other parts of Europe. Though the song’s name might recall a specific event, Polwart’s poetic imagination takes things beyond one place in time, as does the hauntingly quiet atmosphere she and her long time musical collaborators Inge Thomson and Polwart’s brother Steven bring through backing vocals, guitar, accordion, and other instruments.

Human lives tossed about by the winds of political and social change are the threads with which Polwart weaves the stories in the title song, Laws of Motion. Adults and children on the run for many reasons, seeking safety, seeking hope. Troubles and dangers, yes, but anchor lines of love and light, and hope. As the trio sings, “Who doesn’t want another chance?”

There is change, there is questioning, and there is a recognition of the lasting power of nature to reframe and connect -- these are threads that run through the sound and the ideas on Laws of Motion.

In Cassiopeia, Polwart mixes memories of her childhood preparations for nuclear and other disasters (she grew up in Stirlingshire near Grangemouth) with recordings of official instruction of how to prepare, and takes note that when the grid goes down and human made light goes out, it’s still possible to see the stars. In Cornerstone, she visits the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth through three lives centuries apart, with thoughts on stillness listening, and time. Vivid images and intertwining music make this one of the poetic songs from the trio, on an album well filled with poetry of both lyric and musical sort.

There’s not much stillness to the current US president, that’s true. Polwart addresses this by having a conversation with the ancient rock of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, the place where the president’s mother was born. I Burn But I Am Not Consumed is the title of the song, and his mother’s clan motto. The song was written just as he was coming not office; it still rings true, and to my mind is one of the best, if to the very best, song which has been written about the man and his ideas and actions.

Each song on Laws of Motion (there are more than I’ve spoken of here) is well worth your listening; news depths of ideas and music will unfold as you listen again.

Karine Polwart. comes from a background which includes degrees in philosophy and the teaching of that subject to children, and experience as a social worker. Before setting out on a solo music career she sang with the Battlefield Band and with Malinky. Her own work has won awards; her songs have been recorded by other artists, she’s written music for film and created her own stage project, Perceptive Travel Facebook page. Wind Resistance which later became an album, and collaborated on a children’s book, A Wee Bird Was Watching. Music, social justice, Scotland’s landscape, and ideas from the natural world are of deep interest to her in all her work: she’s been part other collaborative ventures, among them the Darwin Song Project and The Lost Words: Spell Songs.

Forthcoming, at this writing, is her album Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook, her take on pop songs for the last five decades or so that, she says, really mean something. “To me, these are songs of resilience and resistance, cries of despair and dreams of something better,” she says. “They’re pop songs, but also love songs to people and places we all recognise. They totally fill my heart up.”

Word has just come at this writing that Laws of Motion is on the longlist for the SAY Awards, one of Scotland’s top awards for album of the year.

Photograph of Karine Polwart courtesy of Borealis Records.

You may also wish to see
Eight Songwriters and a Scientist: a story about the Darwin Song Project at Perceptive Travel
Scotland’s Music: Karine Polwart: Traces.
Scotland’s Music: Hamish Napier: The River

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Sunday, June 02, 2019

Ireland, Scotland, and Story: Allt from Julie Fowlis, Eamon Doorley, Zoe Conway, and John McIntyre

Music is story. Story told in word, stories held in melody and harmony, through voice, instrument, and language. Those are aspects of music that Julie Fowlis, Êamon Doorley, Zoe Conway, and John McIntyre investigate and respect in their recording Allt.

The stories they choose to explore for this recording come from the traditions of Ireland and Scotland. There are songs and tunes from history, alongside songs with words from contemporary and historic poetry for which the musicians have made new music, and new compositions of their own creation drawing on traditional style.

That may sound like quite a bit to pack into a cohesive whole on a recording of eleven tracks. It is, and if anyone is well qualified to take that on, it is these four.

Each of these musicians is well known for a particular aspect of their creative gifts. Those come into play here -- and they each go beyond those to share other aspects of their talents. Julie Fowlis is known as a lead singer; here she sings harmony and plays whistles as well. Êamon Doorley’s work on the bouzouki has marked him as one of the best on that instrument in the Celtic world. Here he sings and plays fiddle as well. Zoe Conway is well known and much in demand for her work on Irish fiddle and on classical violin; for this project her lead and harmony vocals and her skills on the whistles also come into play. John McIntyre, best known as a guitarist, steps up to sing here as well as adding in his piano skills.

As the recording opens, each takes it in turn to lead the music, and they each step in to support the others as the music progresses. Fowlis sings lead on Port Dannsaidh Hiortach the lively Saint Kilda Dance Song, which is paired with Deora Dé, a tune from Conway. You can hear Conway’s singing on Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa, a gentle, searching ballad with words by Máirtín Ó Direáin whose title means I will Find Solace. McIntyre steps up for a song called An Ghaelige, which as its title might suggest is in praise of (and in part lament for) the language. This is followed by a set which sees two tunes by Doorley bookending one by Conway.

Those descriptions do not begin to do justice to the thoughtful, insightful way these stories are told through music, and the way the musicians support each other. Clearly these are artists who are deeply grounded in their own gifts and tradition, and well able to focus and listen to each other as the tunes unfold.

Add to that the way this project was recorded.

"Êamon and I were fresh from recording with Calum Malcolm,” Fowlis says “and I couldn’t see past working with him again!  I enjoyed working with him so much.  He is such an intuitive engineer and enjoys recording live, and in different settings.  As a quartet, we were keen to make this a live, honest and spontaneous recording.  And that’s what happened.  Calum set it up in such a way that we felt comfortable and inspired to play.  We used vintage mics, and recorded in the round. "

The project began from conversations between the two women.

Conway comes from and still lives in County Louth in Ireland. So does McIntyre. The two are married, as are Fowlis and Doorley, who come from Scotland and Ireland respectively, and make their home in the Highlands of Scotland.

Along with Irish musician Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Fowlis presents Port, a television series which traces connections among Celtic music and musicians. “Zoe and I worked together on one of the Port series on BBC ALBA.  She came to Ross Shire in the Highlands as a visiting artist, and it was then we really got chatting (and playing!) together,” Fowlis recalls. “Our paths had crossed before, on one of Bill Whelan’s performances in Belfast for example, but this was when we really got to know one another.  Sometimes you just really click with someone, and we both said that it would be great to do more together after that shoot.”

The pair stayed in touch and began discussing ideas. They liked the idea of writing new music together, and of honouring the languages and traditions of the landscapes they knew and loved. Support from Creative Louth, The Arts Council Of Ireland, and Iomairt Columcille allowed the four musicians time to research traditional and contemporary poetry they wanted to frame with new music, and to compose that music as well. “We searched out poetry to set music to, and ideas for tunes between us and started sending ideas back and forth,” Fowlis says. “We love the tradition but also the idea of adding to the store of songs and tunes and so we quickly settled on the idea of composing new music in a traditional style.”

There are fine lively pieces -- Dúirt Bean Liom in Irish paired with the tune Ríl Eóin and Na Hú Bhithinn paired with Hó Ró Na Priobaidean in Scottish Gaelic show the musicians’ joy in picking up the pace. A more reflective piece is Air an Somme, with words by Donald MacDonald.

There are instances of fine harmony work through many tracks on the project. This comes to the fore especially on the closing piece, An t-Earrach Thiar, a title which translates as spring in the west.

Bringing together tradition and inspiration, along with respect for language, history, and place: Julie Fowlis, Êamon Doorley, Zoe Conway and John McIntyre have created a lasting legacy with their work on Allt. "There are such beautiful poems out there, some hundreds of years old, some contemporary, and we felt really inspired to set these words to new music to bring them to life as songs, " Julie Fowlis says.

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis and Muireann Nic Amhloaoibh made an album exploring connections between songs in Scottish Gaelic and Irish called Dual.
Alterum from Julie Fowlis
Êamon Doorley is a member of the band Danu. Learn about their album Buan.

Photograph of Zoe Conway and John McIntyre and Julie Fowli courtesy of the artists. Photograph of Eamon Doorleys by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Scotland's Music: Hamish Napier: The Railway


Perhaps you ride one every day on your way to work or school. Maybe you take a lighthearted ride at holiday time. Perhaps you know trains mainly from children’s toys or pictures in books.

Trains hold a combination of grit and romance. They pass through landscapes, and are part of them. Trains help create community, and communities. Trains and train tracks are of the present, and evoke stories of other times.

Whatever way you’ve come to know trains, you will find much to enjoy in Hamish Napier’s recording The Railway.

He draws from the stories of one specific railway line in one specific place and time, the Great North of Scotland Railway in the Speyside region of Scotland’s Highlands. To research ideas that would inspire his music, he read accounts of the railway’s history. He interviewed three men who had worked the railway, all now in their nineties and with many stories to tell. He walked the landscapes the trains had traversed, and drew on his own memories of growing up in the Speyside area.

That grounding in specifics allows the tunes and songs to reach beyond the Great North Railway’s story and draw in the imagination of anyone who has ever taken a train journey, or dreamed of taking one.

Hamish Napier is a composer, performer, and music tutor who grew up in the northeast Highlands of Scotland. His main instruments are the piano and the flute. He has supported musicians including Gary Innes, Eddi Reader, Karen Matheson, and Donald Shaw, appearing often in concert and on more than forty recordings. His own recording The River explores and celebrates landscapes, experiences, and people along the River Spey.

When he was performing music from that recording in a series of concerts across Scotland, the new owners of Grantown East: Highland Heritage and Cultural Centre came to one of the shows and knew that Napier was just the person to compose the soundtrack to go along with their project, the restoration of the Grantown East Railway Station into a place marking this history of this Highland railway line, which had ceased operation in the 1960s.

The music on The Railway indeed takes listeners on a journey -- several journeys, rather. The opener, The Speyside Line, draws one in to a musical journey with cadences which suggest Highland landscape. The Firebox, as lively and flickering as its title may suggest, draws on the history of the steam powered trains and the stories told to Hamish by driver Jimmy Gray, driver Jocky Hay, and signalman James Telfer. So does a tale of races between trains back in the day called Jocky the Mole, which is a song with lyrics Hamish’s brother, Findlay Napier.

Fire and water, smoke and steam
A train is like a living thing
Driver, engine, fireman
It takes us three to make her sing

Findlay sings in the chorus as the story unfolds.

The lighthearted tune Cheery Groove pays tribute to Hamish and Findlay’s parents and their home at Number 2 Cherry Grove, where it’s said many great house ceilidhs were to be had.

Mixing respect for history with love for the land and its people and regret for some changes seen, there’s another song with lyrics from Findlay called The World Came In by Rail...

We walk along the railway line
Among birch and wild rose
And all that’s left are outposts
Of an empire no one knows

A different look at a related idea is found in the tune The Old Ways, a slow march written to honour those who respect and keep up the traditional crafts, stories, language -- and music -- of, Napier writes in the sleeve notes “what is unique and special about our culture.”

Those joining Hamish Napier on the recording include Fraser Stone on percussion, Gillian Frame on backing vocals, James Lindsay on double bass, and Patsy Reid on fiddle. There are also cameo appearances by the sounds of a fireplace, Broomhill sheep, and whistle, brakes, wheels, and other railway sounds. Andrea Gobbi co-produced the album with Napier and recorded and mixed it. You will also enjoy the album artwork and design, which are by Somhairle MacDonald.

There are many more gems among the music -- every track is a keeper, and the journeys of history, music, landscape, and reflection are well worth the taking as Hamish Napier has organized them. He draws things to a close with The Railwayman, and three part suite inspired by the story of driver Jimmy Gray’s career on the railway.

Take the journey on The Railway. Take all of the journeys offered through this music. You’ll come away with much to reflect on and much to enjoy.

Also of note: at this writing word comes that Hamish Napier is at work on his third album, to be called The Woods.

You may also wish to see
Hamish Napier: The River
Eddi Reader: Cavalier
Scotland’s music: Sarah-Jane Summers: Solo

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posted by Kerry Dexter at 0 Comments

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Ireland's Music: Cherish the Ladies Heart of the Home

Joy and sorrow, light and shadow, tears and laughter: al these find their places in the music of Ireland. Indeed, you might say that songs and tunes and stories which bring all these in are the substance of Ireland’s music.

A fine place to hear this on the recording Heart of the Home, from Cherish the Ladies.

Heart of the Home opens with a set of tunes composed by flute player Joanie Madden to honor her father’s home town in East Galway. The Portumna Workhouse tells a tale without words of reflection on the darker side of things during the famine years, while the The Hurling Boys of Portumna takes a lively an lighter tack, It is for, Madden said “All those might men who brought tremendous glory to the town through sport.”

Singer and guitarist Kate Purcell, from Clare, steps in to join the band for the song Glenties. An image filled reflection on a small town in Donegal, it was written by musician Maurice McGroth while he was staying in the town. Purcell and the band combine for a graceful, atmospheric performance which is one of the standouts on the recording. Listen out especially for Nollaig Casey’s fiddle as the band backs Purcell on this track.

Cherish is a class act: Heart of the Home. is their seventeenth album. More than than thirty years ago, Joanie Madden, who plays flutes and whistles, and Mary Coogan, whose instruments are guitar, bouzouki, and banjo, were founding members of the band. Joining them these days are Mirella Murray on accordion, Kathleen Boyle on piano, and Nollaig Casey on fiddle. In performance and on record they often invite guests to join in

As you might suppose from the title, the idea of home and well loved places runs through the music chosen for this recording. Another highlight of Heart of the Home is Ambletown, the song of a seafaring man longing for home. That home, in the song, is in the north country, so it is fitting that the Ennis Sisters, who come from Newfoundland in Atlantic Canada, join in as the voices.

Ways of thinking about home take twists and turns. Kathleen Boyle joins a Turlough O’Carolan piece with a tune she wrote for some of her former students in The Murphy Boys set. The Letty from Cavan set includes a tune Madden wrote for her neighbors along with tune fro Ed Reavy and Martin Mulhaire, both Irish musicians who emigrated to the United States. There are several sets with tunes the women found in Irish tune books from the nineteenth century which allow them to have great times telling stories as their instruments converse with each other. Farewell to the Catskills is a lyrical tune Madden wrote about a place in New York state which has often welcomed people with ties to Ireland. Galway balladeer Don Stiffe steps in to sing Shadow of a Singer and his Song, in which songwriter Dermot Henry looks back at the changes and challenges of his early days in music, finding among hardships a sense of home in the connection between performer and audience.

There is the title track, Heart of the Home, written by Andy M. Stewart. Not long before he passed away, songwriter Stewart suggested that this would be a good piece of Cherish the Ladies to take on, and indeed they did, inviting Irish country singer Nathan Carter to sing the lyrics for the recording and the video. On tour, Purcell often sings the lead; they each add distinctive presence to the song, with the instruments from the band weaving in and out an through their singing.

When Cherish began, there were very few well known Irish women musicians. A whole band of top class women musicians? That was unheard of. Cherish the Ladies did, however, make themselves heard. Through the years they have played with top class musicians from symphony orchestras to country musicians to the best in Irish music. Time in Cherish has been part of the careers of many top class musicians as well, among them, fiddler Eileen Ivers, dancer Jean Butler, singers and songwriters Cathie Ryan and Heidi Talbot, and singer Aoife Clancy.

Heart of the Home is a fine next step of Cherish the Ladies. If you know their work you will certainly want it; if you’ve not yet met them, this is a fine place to make their acquaintance. They tour extensively, too . As the music on Heart of the Home suggests, you will certainly enjoy seeking out the chance to see Cherish the Ladies in performance.

Photographs of Joanie Madden; Nollaig Casey with Mary Coogan and Mirella Murray; the band on stage are by Kerry Dexter. They were made at the Celtic Connections Festival In Glasgow, with the permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Eileen Ivers Beyond the Bog Road.
Cathie Ryan Through Wind & Rain
Cherish the Ladies storytellers in music, which talks about their winter holiday albums

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posted by Kerry Dexter at 0 Comments