Friday, November 15, 2013

Scotland's music: Capercaillie: At the Heart of It All

Misty glens, brooding mountains, miles and miles of sea coast, the heart and hand of those who live by them: this is Scotland. The first notes of S’ Och A’ Dhomhnaill Oig Ghaolaich, the opening song on Capercaillie’s recording At The Heart Of It All, draw the listener in to this world for a journey through Scotland that doesn’t let go until long after the last note of the final piece, Lament for John :Garve’ MacLeod, of Raasay has sounded.

Capercaillie is an ensemble well qualified to create such music. Thirty years on from the time when friends at Oban High School decided to form a band, founding members Donald Shaw on keys and accordion, and singer Karen Matheson are still leading a group whose top notch musical creations, at times adventurous, at times traditional, and most times all of that, always hew close to the heart of Scotland’s landscape and its people.

In addition to that waulking song S’ Och A’ Dhomhnaill Oig Ghaolaich -- a song with the rhythms of work and landscape, with a love song set with in it -- which opens At The Heart Of It All the programme includes The Strathspey Set, with traditional tunes from the Western Isles wrapping a piece by Capercaille fiddle player Charlie McKerron. Rhythms of jig, reel, march, and strathspey, both from the tradition and recently composed, form sets which weave to and from the fabric of song. One of those songs that’s especially worth your notice is Abu Chuibhl’, a spinning song from Lewis in the Western Isle. You’ll catch the rhythm of work, of life, of landscape, and of history within it, whether Scottish Gaelic is your language or not.

At the heart of it all, in more ways than one, stands the title song of the recording It is the only song in English, a piece which both celebrates nature, history, and connection and asks good questions about the present and future of these things. Donald Shaw wrote the song. Framed in the graceful sounds of her band mates instruments, Matheson sings in the chorus

At the heart of it all is is a calling to this land
In the words of our salvation is a song for the common man

Across their three decades of work, Capercaillie have explored and expanded the nature of the traditional music of Scotland at home and across the world. In their thirtieth year, they wanted to record music which focused on the tradition and the vibrant place it has in the world today -- which they could have done all on their own, with band members Shaw and Matheson, Michael McGoldrick who plays whistles and flutes, Charlie McKerron on fiddle, Manus Lunny on bouzouki and guitar, and Ewan Vernal with double bass. If you have walked the music road here for a while, those names will be well familiar to you.

As accomplished as they are separately and together, they decided to add to this recording a way to respect tradition they hadn’t done on record before. “We didn’t want Capercaillie’s thirtieth anniversary to be all about us and our record, but more about celebrating how Scottish and Gaelic music as a whole has expanded and progressed in that time with so many younger musicians' coming though,” says Donald Shaw. To that end they invited guests including Kris Drever, Kathleen MacInnes, Julie Fowlis, Aidan O’Rourke, and James Mackintosh to sit in.

At the heart of it all, though, remains the stellar musicianship, and the stellar musical imagination, vision, and understanding of the heart and life od Scotland that have marked Capercaillie’s music across the years. If you know their work, you’ll know you need to to hear this; if you’re just beginning to think about the music of Scotland, At The Heart Of It All would make a very fine place to begin.

photograph of fireside by Kerry Dexter, photograph of Capercaillie courtesy of Celtic Connections, where Capercaillie will be celebrating with a thirtieth anniversary concert in Glasgow this January

you may also wish to see
history into song: capercaillie: glenfinnan
Michael McGoldrick: Aurora
Cathie Ryan: teaching tradition

by Kerry Dexter

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