FolkWorld Live Review 03/2000:
The American folksong collector Alan Lomax described once the Gaelic song traditions as the "Flower of Western Europe". For a long time, this flower was maybe a bit out of mainstream Scottish culture (if you leave out Runrig). Celtic Connections prooved this year that the Gaelic flower is these days again beautifully blooming, presenting a wide range of Gaelic singers in diverse concerts. The highlight of all those - and maybe of the whole Celtic Connections festival - was the showcase "Gaelic Women", featuring 15 women of the crème de la crème of Gaelic song.
In 1999, an impressive album was published by Scotland's prime folk music label, Greentrax Recordings: The CD Gaelic Women "Ar Cànan 'S Ar Ceòl (Our Language and Our Music)" presented 14 original recordings of female Gaelic singers, and was described by FolkWorld as a "terrific" and "perfect" album. For Celtic Connections 2000, Greentrax' boss Ian Green was allowed to arrange a showcase featuring most of these singers. It was maybe the first time ever that so many of the best Gaelic singers were together on one stage in one showcase.
An obviously nervous Ian Green introduced the two women who gave the impulse to the Gaelic Women project: Mairi MacInnes and Cathy-Ann MacPhee, opening the show with a beautiful slow song in duet. Those two well known singers have planned this project for a long time, and finally they brought all these singers together in the last year to record the album.
The following concert featured two songs of each singer, sometimes joined by other singers, and sometimes joined by couple of great Scottish musicians. The excitement of the showcase lay in the fact that Gaelic song was showed in all its varieties - also unusual and modern versions.
Cathy-Ann MacPhee had first her songs. Coming from the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Cathy-Ann has a very warm and natural singing style. Her waulking songs were accompanied in an exciting avantgardistic style by Malcolm Jones (guitar), Fraser Fifield (sax) and Bobby Miller (bass).
Contrasting with Cathy-Ann's natural style, Mary Smith from the Isle of Lewis has a nearly archaic style; presenting her songs unaccompanied, she gave the audience an impressive feeling of the timeless beauty of the classic Gaelic style.
Meanwhile young Mairi Morrison, also from Lewis presented a new self confident generation of Gaelic song - backed by a modern rock/pop band of folk musicians (including excellent sax by Fraser Fifield), Mairi ventures with a youthful performance into pop territory, yet excavating a new potential of Gaelic culture.
One of the extraordinary moments was the set of Kenna Campbell with her daughters Wilma Campbell and Mary-Ann Kennedy. Their unaccompanied trio puirt-a-beul brought a moving proof of the passing on of the traditions. The second song of Kenna was accompanied by Wilma's stepdance - a most unusual and impressive accompaniment of trad Gaelic singing!
Speaking of seldom heard accompaniment, I have to name also the set of singer Margaret Stewart and small piper Allan MacDonald, a duo highlighting the close relationship of Gaelic singing and piping traditions. Impressive.
The second song of Anna Murray, young and pretty singer, piper and Gaelic actress, was in an unfortunate way backed by Malcolm Jones on E-guitar, disturbing the timeless beauty of the quiet song "Breisleach".
The set of Anna Murray leads obviously to the musical highlight of the evening, as Anna was with the MacKenzie sisters in the local choir of Lewis, led by father MacKenzie. MacKenzie is the most beautiful act of Gaelic song to be found on the folk music scene. Eilidh, Fiona and Gillian MacKenzie are three young girls with bittersweet voices, creating a heavenlike soundsphere - absolutely stunning!
I have not yet mentioned the lovely singing of Maggie MacInnes, of Ishbel MacAskill and Anne Lorne Gillies. And the Glasgow Gaelic Choir with Kenny Thompson, who accompanied a song of Mairi MacInnes and the final. The talents of the backing musicians Billy Jackson (harp), Malcolm Jones (ac & e guitar, accordion), Fraser Fifield (sax), Paul Jennings (bongo), Andrew White (guitar), Allan MacDonald (pipes) and Rhona McKenna (clarsach). And the diverse combinations of singers - like the "All Gaelic Spice Girl" combination of Cathy Ann MacPhee, Maggie MacInnes, Mairi MacInnes, Anna Murray and Mairi Morrison.
The concert finished off with "Cana Nan Gaidheal", featuring all the involved musicians on stage, with a loud and good Rock music backing.
Afterwards, Ian Green came up on stage telling the audience that his "heart was bursting of pride tonight". And Cathy-Ann MacPhee concluded that "without Ian Green, there would be no Gaelic Women".
This eveninig was full of strength of Gaelic culture and song.
The album Gaelic Women "Ar Cànan 'S Ar Ceòl (Our Language and Our Music)" is available from Greentrax Recordings, and was reviewed in FolkWorld No. 10.
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