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Hamish Moore - Stepping on the Bridge (Dannsa’ air an Drochaid)  

Greentrax cdtrax 073

I had not heard of Cape Breton and its music until Hamish Moore told me. He had a tape of two elderly pipers. It was not of broadcast quality. He played it to us at the Lowland and Border meeting in Hammersmith in 1993. This is the most important music you will ever hear in your life, he said.

You would not guess this from the contents of most record stores. Normally they have   nothing at all from Cape Breton; just occasionally you might find something hopefully     titled under ‘World; France’. You can however get Cape Breton music from Dave Mallinson’s mail order business (01274 879768), or at any rate you could the last time I asked, and there is a helpful man, believe it or not, at HMV in Oxford Street.

By the next time I saw Hamish I had listened to some and was inclined to think he was right about it being the most important music you might ever hear. I told him about an amazing Cape Breton fiddle-player I had discovered, called Jerry Holland. He’s on my next record, he said, with a hint of smugness.

This is the next record in question. It was released last year and, at the risk of spoiling the suspense, I had better say it has spent more time on the machine than anything else since.I have cannibalised its tunes in the most unlikely places and formats and I think it is the most purely enjoyable record he has made.

And not entirely because he has made a record of Cape Breton music, because he hasn't, entirely.

In the notes he quotes Maire O'Keefe: “The first time I came to Cape Breton, I thought I'd died and arrived in heaven.” Indeed, the whole Cape Breton business is up to here with   arcadian overtones, especially for those of us who, unlike him, have never been there and will probably never do so. It is easy to project your particular fantasies and prejudices onto it. Here are two, first a fantasy and then a prejudice.

Fantasy: It is the place where everyone plays the fiddle, there’s a session in every back room and music in the streets.

Prejudice: Because Cape Breton was settled by Scottish fishermen before the time of the Clearances, bringing with them the Gaelic language and their dance music, it is a direct line to the real music, the great tradition which was destroyed forever when the English army got its hands on the pipes and the price for giving them back was the assault course in

in pedantry we have all grown to know and love.

Cape Breton music is fast. Jigs and reels are taken at Irish speeds and there is no room for the more elaborate gracings; it is inflected only enough to keep the notes apart. Nearly always fiddles are involved; occasionally Highland pipes. Some of the fiddle-players indulge in quite recklessly relative tonality, which is of course not possible on the pipes.

The music is also highly rhythmical, most tunes being accompanied by percussive piano, often on the off-beat. It's relentless and sometimes so wild it’s as frightening as a force of nature; listen for example to the massed fiddles on the final track of the Nimbus record ‘Traditional Music from Cape Breton’ (NNI 5383).

Which brings us to the first interesting thing about ‘Dannsa’ air an Drochaid’. The small pipes are not a force of nature, and rarely frightening. Indeed the small pipes are not generally found in Cape Breton music at all. Just as he (and others) did with the small pipes and Scottish music, Hamish Moore is to an extent inventing a tradition. Where this is particularly fascinating is with strathspeys.

One of the standard ploys in the music is to build tension up with ‘strathspeys and resolve it into fast reels. This works beautifully with fiddles, where the bowing lends itself to the strathspeys’ repressed dotted crotchets, but it nearly always falls apart on the wind instruments, including the Highland pipes on which it is of course often rashly attempted. One of the glories of this record is how Hamish Moore invents a way of playing strathspeys on the pipes. I wish I knew how he did it.

The second interesting thing is that Hamish Moore is not a force of nature either. There is always a canny knowing quality about his playing which is very much at odds with the straight-ahead nature of most Cape Breton music. You always feel that part of him is sitting to one side watching. He is the Sonny Rollins of Scottish music (if a multi-cultural reference may be permitted in what is after all a specialist publication), not the John Coltrane.

In other words, this is not a rest from the experimentation of the last three records but a continuation of it. It has great love for Cape Breton music but it is also a commentary on it. I think that, like the other three records, it is a version of the great disappeared tradition of Scottish music, a sideways way in so as to avoid the pedantry and the stultifying nationalism and to get the benefit of whatever is around that might help. But you will really have to listen to find out.

So much for generalities. In the words of The Cat (‘Red Dwarf Il’; another multi-cultural reference): ‘What is it?’

In addition to himself there is Jerry Holland on fiddle, not a lot of evidence, mainly to thicken the sound a bit, Hilda Chaisson’s sturdy piano and Paul MacDonald on guitar.

There is one song with Rod Paterson and just the one contribution from Dick Lee’s Sax. Both were overdubbed, and sound it. I am not sure I would have included them. They break up the continuity of the rest of the record - no doubt deliberately, but I don't think it worked. The pipes are Highland, Lowland and smallpipes.

The tunes, apart from one set of modern reels, are traditional Scottish jigs, reels, hornpipes, strathspeys and airs played in Cape Breton; few of them session standards this side of the Atlantic; no duds.

If you have the opportunity to dip in, and no more, play tracks 10 and 11, a set of marches culminating in the intriguingly melancholy ‘The Boy’s Farewell

to his Dragon’ followed by a killer set of slip jigs, none of them bearing any resemblance to ‘Drops of Brandy’.

What else can I say? This is one of the great records.

Robin Bynoe