One of the unlikeliest figures to rise to prominence in the world of folk and world music in the nineties has to be Paul Mounsey. A honours graduate from Trinity College London (where he not only met and studied with Michael Nyman, but also met his Brazilian wife Dorinha), Paul lectured for a short while at Goldsmiths College before moving on to fortune and a certain amount of fame as creative director of Play It Again, one of the biggest commercial music houses in Brazil. There our story would most likely end if it weren't for an experimental personal project that has since spawned one of the most original albums of the decade (Nahoo, 1994), and two sequels (Nahootoo, 1997, and now Nahoo 3 - Notes from the Republic).
"I spent several years in Brazil unable to hear Scottish traditional music without completely breaking down in a fit of severe homesickness. Then one day in 1992 I listened to some traditional Gaelic song and it sounded quite alien to me. Some melodic inflections reminded me of Middle Eastern music while others (especially the songs sung by women) made me think of Native American song. Of course, the fact that I don‚t have the Gaelic helped in alienating me further." Struggling to come to terms with this alienation from what was still, in theory at least, his homeland, Paul set about his heritage in a way that made sense of his life's musical experiences. "I then began to experiment with a number of possibilities of mixing, or re-contextualising, these songs with a musical language that belonged to the crass commercial world in which I worked, including the various Brazilian elements. I suppose this was some kind of attempt (largely unconscious) to reconcile conflicting cultural concerns. The result (Passing Away) I found at once satisfying and deeply disturbing, so I decided to go ahead with some more exercises and the album came about. Nahoo is really a series of experiments."
So Paul ended up with an albums worth of musical experiments. How did it end up coming out on Iona Records in Glasgow, from Paul's base in Sao Paolo? "At the beginning I had no intention of making an album; these were simply exercises of a rather private nature - me coming to terms with my roots. By the time we finished in early 1994, my co-producer/engineer João Vasconcelos was insisting that I send the tapes to a Scottish record company. I didn't know which company because I was completely ignorant of the music scene in Scotland, and I still am to a large extent. Through the help of my brother, I got a tape to the folks at Iona and they loved it and set a release date for later that year. They were just a bit baffled as to how to market such an album."
Iona set about the job in a straight forward way - realising that a new album of adventurous treatments of Scottish material by an unknown artist based in Brazil and therefore with no prospect of live performance was hardly a winning formula, they sensibly played down Paul's past and let the music do the talking. By sending out promotional CDs to established taste makers in press, radio and TV the word gradually began to spread. An enthusiastic review in the influential Q magazine and the championing of DJs like Radio 2's Bob Harris brought the album to popular notice here, and the album climbed the European World Music Chart to a respectable eighth position. As expected, the commercial world climbed on board too, and snippets of Nahoo have graced the National Lottery programme and soundtracks several features, including ironically a BBC documentary on the advertising industry.
It was the feedback from the first album that came to shape the nature of the second album, NahooToo. "When people started comparing the first album to Enya, Deep Forest and Enigma I got quite depressed and decided to use a more organic sound in the second album with a greater emphasis on strings, flutes, electric guitars and heavy beats and less reliance on "plastic" electronics." Another change was the amount of traditional elements in the music. "With the first album, the traditional side of the project was represented mostly by vocal samples. I decided to make NahooToo softer and more acoustic, but in terms of strictly traditional parts it actually had less than either of the other two." Yes, but it did contain the wonderful voice of Flora MacNeil and the track Nahoo. Paul has a wonderful story of how that came about: " The name Nahoo came about through my Brazilian engineer's mispronunciation of the Gaelic Émo chùl‚ (my back) which is the first thing you hear on Passing Away. The name just stuck throughout the recording of the album and became a noun, adjective, verb and adverb, so there was no real question as to what to call the album. Months after the album's release, I met Flora MacNeil here in São Paulo and she told me that there was a little known Gaelic song with the same name. I invited her to the studio to record the song and that recording became the basis for the Nahoo track on NahooToo."
One of the notable features of the albums is the high quality of the playing, and it would not be hard to believe that many of the players had been either exposed to traditional music for many years or coached in the studio to produce such an authentic sound. However, it turns out that neither was the case. "None of the players is very familiar with folk music. Some have a greater intuitive affinity than others, but all the string players are classically trained and the flautist is a highly respected jazz musician both in Brazil and the US. Betina, the violinist, has a full schedule as member of two local orchestras and as 2nd violinist in the São Paulo String Quartet. She does, however, have a great affection for folk music and has recently bought a traditional Brazilian fiddle ('rabeca') in order to pursue these studies. I think it is important to realise that it never was my intention to reproduce the sounds of Scotland with Brazilian musicians. I much prefer to present the material to the musicians and see what they make of it on their own terms, without me determining how they should interpret that material. I think that is one of the key elements in Nahoo. The cultural mix is in the performance as well as the material."
So here we are with volume three now out, and the prospect of Nahoo live being realistically mooted, maybe for Celtic Connections 2001. I asked Paul about the idea of Nahoo live, and about the future of the Nahoo project. "I'd like to do NahooLive very much. I think it would be quite different from the albums - something geared towards live performance, which the albums certainly are not. I'm not sure if that will be possible this year because it means a lot of rehearsal and requires displacing a sizeable group of Brazilian musicians to Europe, but I think there is a real possibility of this happening in the not too distant future. As to the actual Nahoo project itself, If I had to give an answer, I'd say that Nahoo had run its course. But then again I said that after NahooToo and ended up with enough new material for a third excursion. There is something satisfying and complete about trilogies, and I wouldn't like to force anything into the format of a fourth Nahoo album, but anything can happen......."
'Nahoo 3: Notes From The Republic' is out now on Iona Records
© 2000 Colin Jones
Photo Credit: Paul Mounsey checking out Celitc Connections 2000; Photo by Gordon Hotchkiss
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