"A Man for a that" was one of the unique projects of Rudolstadt Festival 2017, put together for this year’s Scotland “country special”: A "one-off" concert to celebrate Scotland’s national bard Robert Burn in a way that it had never been done before. The concert united 30-plus musicians from ten different countries performing Burns in their own languages and arrangements – with many songs of the songs being world premieres.
Robert Burns songs in 10 different languages with 10 different cultural input - that does sound mad and random, doesn't it? So was this brain child of the festival's artistic director, Bernhard Hanneken, a moment of madness or of genius? I was not convinced if and how much I would enjoy this concert before it started - but what a triumph it was!
Then again I should have been assured by the fact that the project had been coordinated by no other than Scottish trad music professor Fred Freeman, the Robert Burns expert who had been responsible for the 13 CD set "The Complete Songs of Robert Burns". As artistic lead, Fred took us through the concert, which had as its Scottish backbone a top Scottish house band, featuring one of the best Scots trad singers around, John Morran (of Deaf Shepherd fame), who showcased a number of stunning versions of Burns classics with his beautiful singing, backed by instrumentalists Mark Duff and Frank McLaughlin.
Throughout the concert Fred told stories and anecdotes about Robert Burns and his works. Some of this, and particularly much of Fred’s sense of humour, was somewhat lost with the German audience, yet the audience nevertheless enjoyed this show. Fred explained how internationally minded Robert Burns had been with songs such as “Ye Yacobites by name”, and how much he showed tolerance and respect in his some of his works – while of course other well known Robert Burns songs focus on his love of women, of drink and of his home country.
The internationalism of Robert Burns was at the forefront of this very concert. Many Burns songs have been previously popularly translated into other languages (most of them all the classic “Auld lang syne”), yet this concert brought many new language adaptions of his songs and provided a unique international contribution to Robert Burns’ works.
Israeli band Gulaza's Burns interpretations and translations were ingenious - the essence of the Burns songs was still very obvious, yet the songs were taking in the Israeli sunshine and culture - a completely new but very attractive flair to songs such as “Broes and butter”. It was obvious how Scottish singer John Morran was just amazed, amused and impressed by this unusual rendition of Burns songs.
When Polish trio Sutari attempted their Burns versions in Polish, Dr Fred Freeman could only comment "We'll never see Burns again in the same light". A bit less unusual to Scottish folk fans were Patsy Seddon's Gaelic version of Burns. Georgian all-male vocal ensemble Riho brought a very different flair to Burns' drinking songs, and Sami singer Elin Kaven's interpretations were just superb and full of beauty.
There were also Burns songs in Ethiopian by the Krar Collective, in Portuguese by Madeira singer Carlos Medeiros, and in German by Erik Manous. A stunning (and pretty long) version of "Westlin Winds" in Indian language, featuring Indian percussion by Shail Yusuf Khan, was perhaps the most unusual interpretation of the day, and caused John Morran to comment that he had heard many versions of “Westlin Winds” before, but this one was the best he had ever come across.
Jamaica sings Burns
While many of the countries represented in this concert have rather tenuous links to Robert Burns, the Jamaican link has some more behind it: Facing hardship and crises, in 1786 Robert Burns booked a ticket for a ship’s passage to Jamaica to go and work there as a bookkeeper. Ultimately Burns did not sail to Jamaica, as his first book of poetry had just been published – and the rest is history.
Already before the Rudolstadt project had started, Jamaican singer Brina had worked on a Burns project, alongside Scottish producer Kieran C Murray, labelled "Jamaica sings Burns". The idea here was: “But what if Burns had gone to Jamaica, what would his songs have sounded like had they been absorbed into the Jamaican musical repertoire and sung in Jamaican musical styles such as Reggae, Nyabinghi, Mento and Dancehall – in a mix of Scots, Patwa (the Jamaican language) and English?”
In 2015 Jamaican singers and musicians began recording and producing “Jamaica Sings Robert Burns”. This ground-breaking album, to be released towards the end of the year, will feature many top Jamaican artistes such as the legendary vocalist Ken Boothe O.D., Brina, Cherine Anderson, Rootz Underground, Nickeishia Barnes, Berri, Addis Pablo and others. Reggae music to Burns’ fans via familiar songs. The album, together with a documentary film, presents a number of Jamaican singers interpreting Burns in a reggae style. The album will also feature, probably the first time ever, Scottish Highland Bagpipes playing in Jamaican Reggae music.
For the Rudolstadt concert, Brina performed two stunning Jamaican takes on Burns songs. "Ye Yacobites by Name" becomes "Warmongers by name" and becomes imminently more relevant for other parts of the world. "The Slave's lament" is another stunning rendition of Burns songs, and very appropriately interpreted by Jamaican musicians. These two songs are already available on the Jamaica sings Burns website as a video. I cannot wait for my copy of this exciting album, given that Brina was one of the highlights of this concert.
For two memorable songs in the concert all the musicians joined in - "A Man for A'That" and to finish off, "Auld Lang Syne”. The audience demanded an encore, and being well prepared, we were still treated to a set of Scottish tunes by the project house band – and for another encore, Georgian singers Riho sang one of their hymns.
It was very obvious that all musicians involved had the time of their lives at this concert, and I would bet that these new Burns songs will find a firm place in their repertoire.
This was a most memorable concert, which hopefully will not be a one off, but will be repeated at other festivals, and recorded as an album, so that more audiences can experience this unique collaboration.
Next Rudolstadt Festival 5-8 July 2018 with a FOCUS ON ESTONIA!
Photo Credits: (1) 'A Man For A’ That' Robert Burns Project Rudolstadt 2017, (3) Gulaza & John Morran, (4) Elin Kåven & Krar Collective (by The Mollis); (2) Rudolstadt Festival, (5) Robert Burns (unknown/website).