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Rona Macdonald was there

Celtic Connections festival has now being going for an amazing 11 years and is a genuinely bright spot in the social calendar during those dark, dreich days of January for anyone who has an interest in folk music or live performance. Although you are now reading this in sunny June and winter is a distant memory (or supposed to be) it may be of interest to have a brief round up of some of the piping events which took place this year.

I (very cheekily) applied for a press pass as the “official” Common Stock reporter [OK, so where’s my cut? - Ed\, which entitled me to several free tickets on the basis that an article would be forthcoming after the event. I certainly could not have afforded to go to all the events had I been paying full price, which is the unfortunate consequence of the festival’s huge growth in popularity.

The first event I went to was one of the early evening events entitled “The Great Piping Debate.” Ably hosted by Gary West, this could have been a more productive forum had the audience numbered more than the 15 souls who were (like me) putting in the time until Fred and Paddy were due to appear on the main stage, or if there had been a real topic of debate to get one’s teeth into. Having been away from the “Centre of the Bagpipe World” for some years now, I thought perhaps there was some great controversy raging in piping circles that I was hitherto unaware of, so I went along to find out. Alas no such luck.

As it was, the subject matter centred mainly around the World Pipe Band Championships and its shortcomings. Among other things, Roddy MacLeod suggested a qualifying day prior to the actual competition or having an indoor arena for the final to avoid the vagaries of the weather while Rab Matheson suggested that overseas bands could pre-qualify by winning their respective national championships. Perhaps it is time the Worlds went to Canada - and Scotland is shown exactly how to run such a major event.

One subject which most present agreed on is the lamentable state of the Scottish media with regard to the reporting of piping events - Rab Wallace made an eloquent case for Scottish independence, comparing our pathetic coverage of major piping events with the kind of knowledgeable and educated coverage piping receives in other countries like Catalonia where results are published on a weekly basis, along with review and comment.

Having enticed Fred Morrison down from Benbecula, the festival organisers made sure he got full exposure at a number of concerts (4 within as many days). Fred’s piping is so firmly rooted in the West Highland tradition it could never be mistaken, but his huge musical talent will never be confined to rehearsing other people’s tunes, his latest experiment being with the “Jimi Hendrix” treatment of traditional tunes! This provided the climax to a concert stuffed full of music and he managed to produce sounds from his Border pipe that I have


never heard from this instrument before. There are few musicians so at one with their instrument, and it would be hard to think of anyone else pulling this kind of stunt off so successfully.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the appearance of Bagad Kemper, the fore- most Breton band, who returned to delight a packed auditorium with a range of musical styles and sounds encompassing jazz, swing, traditional Breton and Afro-rhythms and featured Highland pipes and drums, bombardes and binous, a full brass section, percussion of various descriptions and a chromatic accordion.

This was a fantastic show highlighting a multitude of talents - not least their musical direc- tor who held it all together with skill and panache. Among several soloists Suzanna Seivane made a notable appearance, managing to look fashionable and cool throughout a virtuoso performance which certainly “boogied” but certainly did not “skirl” as the Herald would have had it.

Chris Armstrong, Gordon Walker, Alasdair Gillies, Fred Morrison, the Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band was the illustrious line up for Saturday afternoon’s concert. But how disappoint- ing that after all this time, and so many articles on the subject, Highland pipers still refuse to introduce their tunes and still turn their backs on the audience during their performance. Gordon Walker was the solitary exception, stopping between sets to inform and entertain with a wee bit of patter and his usual good humour.

Even if the others hadn’t been confident of speaking themselves, Iain Anderson was a genial host and had he been provided with a list of tunes, I am sure he would have done the job very capably. As audiences become more sophisticated, it no longer seems enough just to stand up and play a few tunes, however well fingered and musical, and I found this quite a disappointing event. Shotts band were not alone in demonstrating that a successful competi- tor is not always a successful entertainer.

The LBPS Burns Supper was another engagement in this hectic weekend obviously prevented attendance at Carlos Nunez, but we were back in the Concert Hall on Sunday for Hamish Moore and Dannsa’s concert. This was an extravaganza of piping, singing, fiddling and dancing, designed to show how each of these media is inextricably intertwined with the others and how it takes all four to make up a whole culture.

Mary Ann Kennedy sang port a beul (Gaelic mouth music) which is the words to the strath- spey and reel tunes that we all know, Fin Moore and an illustrious line up of Highland pipers including Gary West, Malcolm Robertson, Iain MacInnes, Angus MacKenzie and others joined her on pipes with the same tunes, and the 3 fiddlers also chimed in playing the driving rhythmical settings of these old tunes which are required for the dancers who then came on stage, led by Frank McConnell, and tapped out the very same rhythms with their feet as they showcased the step dances brought back to Scotland from Cape Breton.


It is Hamish’s contention that somewhere along the line Scotland lost this essential intercon- nection between the various elements of its culture through militarization, standardisation, the decline of the aural tradition in favour of written sources, the dispersal of the Gaels across the world and the Victorians’ habit of subduing any perceived “wildness” in art and behaviour.

This weakening of the culture at home, was happily averted in the communities trans- planted, virtually intact, to Cape Breton who avoided outside influences and clung to the old ways far longer. Hamish has described elsewhere how, when he first went there, he heard tunes which he thought sounded familiar, but which he couldn’t quite identify because they were played so differently - and how it finally dawned on him that these were all tunes from the old country, but fresh and rejuvenated in their rhythmical tie-up with the dance steps. Here was a powerful re-integration which made complete sense for everyone to see. Very cleverly, in the course of the programme the dancers also demonstrated how the steps have changed, to give the more balletic, athletic performances to which we have become accus- tomed today.

As if to further emphasise the point, Allan Macdonald has been saying exactly the same things about the way piobaireachd is played today and how its very nature was misunder- stood by the so-called scholars of the last century until the pipe tune versions became so altered that they no longer resembled the original songs and rhythms which gave the music its sense and vitality.

He too has been working on putting the elements back together by re-interpreting how our great music is played. If anyone ever needed proof of the veracity of Allan’s views, here it was laid on a plate for them: put the rhythm back into MacFarlane’s Gathering and you get Togail nam Bo - the cattle raiding song of the MacFarlanes, take the cadences away from Lament for the Children and play it with regard to the internal rhythms and you find the song again - and what a beautiful, moving rendition we were treated to by Allan and Mary Ann.

Here are two men who have both spent a long time thinking about Gaelic culture and in the end have come, separately, to the same conclusions. It is no accident that they have ended up combining their talents to bring this pretty revolutionary view to the public and it is now up to us who play and sing and dance to learn from them, and spread the word.

The festival continued for another week, but I was all piped out by that point. I look forward to next year’s event though with enthusiasm, and if you have never been to Glasgow in January, make a point of doing so - the weather might be cold, but the welcome is warm and the music will soon fire you up.