Programme notes commissioned by Music Network for the Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh tour starting tomorrow night in Whelan’s, Dublin. See http://www.musicnetwork.ie/events/details/may_tour_2014_alasdair_fraser_natalie_haas_and_mairead_ni_mhaonaigh/ for details.
The first time Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh played in San Francisco was with her late husband, Frankie Kennedy, in a residency in the Plough and Stars. Musicians from lots of different genres joined them on stage, Scottish fiddler, Alasdair Fraser among them. And so began another of the many Scottish-Irish modern reconnections that this Music Network tour celebrates.
“Alasdair has a great sense of fun and joy,” says Mairéad. That spirit had brought him far and wide on an incredible musical journey. From growing up in what he calls “cultural cringe” times in rural Scotland, where there was a total apathy and at times antipathy towards his fiddle playing among his peers, he went on to play all over the world and with artists including Itzhak Perlman, The Chieftains, The Waterboys and on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion programme.
Along the way, he discovered something very important. As he has said elsewhere: “Finding the power of the music, the emotional and healing power of it, the community-building aspects of it – I felt it wasn’t being used enough. Plus I loved doing it. I love celebrating life through music.” (Quoted from Recordnet.com)
Mairéad comes to similar conclusions: “I just love playing music. Music has so much depth and colour. Music can change the world, but it has to have huge integrity. I’m attracted to the music of the ‘old boys’, that down-to-earth thing that is not really in fashion anymore: a simplicity, but a complicated simplicity.”
Iona, the place where Columba came ashore in Scotland, has been chosen as an image for this collaboration because of its importance linking the two cultures together, and linking them in turn to places further afield. In a recent television documentary that Mairéad made with the BBC called Aistear na nGael, she actually traced that connection physically and through DNA all the way to Iceland (the first step to the New World, as she says), where she saw clearly the pre-Viking connections, via the likes of missionary monks from Iona, back to Scotland and Ireland. She even discovered that her own common genealogy had an Icelandic element in it along with the Irish and Scottish.
As Mairéad points out, she isn’t the only one digging into the past: “Alasdair has done a huge service to music in taking the traditional music of Scotland and going back in time to find the essence of the tunes as they might have been played before the very classical style of Joseph Scott Skinner’s time. When Alasdair heard, for instance, the Cape Breton people playing Scottish tunes, and saw that myself and Buddy MacMaster had nearly identical versions of tunes he reckoned we were playing something close to older Scottish music. He picked up on the freer bowing and began experimenting with a more fluid style himself.”
Skinner’s writing, with parts in the third position [high up the fingerboard] and the use of awkward keys, Mairéad points out, demanded players to up their skill level. Interestingly, a lot of Donegal fiddlers were attracted to that challenge when they heard Scottish music on their travels to and fro, and rose to the challenge: Frank Cassidy, for instance; of whom Seamus Ennis apparently said he had never heard as good a fiddler in all the islands as regards total ability.
Emphasising “the unbroken lineage between the two places that stems back to the ancient times,” Mairéad points to the many “Donegal-ised” Scottish tunes in the Donegal fiddling tradition, classics like ‘Sterling Castle’; ‘Miss Drumond of Perth’ et cetera.
Alasdair outlines another connection between the old West Highland and Gaelic cultures: “Lots of the old tunes we love to play are from the Scottish Gaeltacht, or from the Irish-Scottish Gaeltacht combined. I am particularly interested in the Gaelic songs and old pipe and fiddle tunes we share,” he says.
“I’m fascinated by the fact that there is a longer ‘folk memory’ in certain Catholic regions in the west of Scotland – areas that did not go through the reformation, like Barra, South Uist, Glenfinnan. Perhaps more of a ‘deep knowing’ of the music can be found in these areas.”
“In my musical explorations over the years I have found myself developing a language analogy to describe my traditional music journey and the journey available to other musicians who want to express the music in the vernacular or a ‘native tongue’.”
Mairéad has a similar way of thinking about her very real sense of the folk character of our indigenous music. Even though, as she points, in terms of basic form, the jigs and reels etc., it is “all borrowed” – apart from the slip jig, which is the only indigenous form we have – there has naturally been a shaping of those forms down the generations, by the communities who adopted them. We’ve made them our own, as it were. They gave them “an accent”, as Mairéad describes it, based on the characteristics of their area. (In fiddle music it is mostly the bowing that gives you your accent, of course.) She cites the broad brush-stroke picture of how up north there was a more rigid style of playing (“John Doherty and others, for instance, have a very immediate energy in their music; you just switch on and it takes off, no prisoners taken.”); while along the west coast playing was a little more rolling; and then down south it had a more immediate character again.
Fintan Vallely’s broader point about this in the Companion to Irish Traditional Music conveys the vastness of the possibilities: “regional styles may also be ‘songlines’ in the sense that their differences, their interfaces and their overlaps chart a great weft and warp of history, change, variety, ingenuity and possibility within the music genre.”
Alasdair is passionate about the connections: “I’m interested in tying the tunes we play to the land and the journey the people have taken both physically and mentally. How able were they to express themselves freely, I wonder.” On his 2011 Highlander’s Farewell album with Natalie, the liner notes for the first track, featuring the playing of Martin Hayes, tells just such a tale: “Highlander’s Farewell to Ireland/Farewell to Ireland/O’er the Water to Charlie/Highlander’s Farewell (trad): One tune taken on an epic journey – originating in Scotland as a strathspey, making its way to Ireland as a reel, then lingering slightly with a popular jig from the Gaeltacht, and finally crossing over to Appalachia as a breakdown.”
With such passion about his music, could it be any wonder his name is synonymous with the cultural renaissance that transformed the Scottish musical scene some years back? In terms of the fiddle, as Mairéad points out, one outcome of his work has been that younger Scottish fiddlers are looking at their tradition as a more varied dance music now as opposed to simply the rigid style of say, the strathspeys.”
Another aspect of Scottish traditional music that he is associated with is the regular involvement of the cello, or bowed bass, as it was known. Natalie Haas has played in a very successful duo with Alasdair since 2003 and they have actually been credited with restoring the fiddle-cello partnership that was historically so significant in Scottish music.
Natalie is curious about its absence from Irish music. What Caoimhín MacAoidh has to say in his book Between the Jigs and the Reels is about all we can be sure of on the matter: “Unlike the situation in Scotland, the cello ceased to be an instrument associated with … traditional music in Ireland. This may be due to limited availability of the larger instrument, its poorer portability or alternatively its significantly greater cost.
A small number of cellists have been involved with various traditional groups in more recent decades, most well known being, perhaps, Neil Martin, who has played with Mairéad on numerous occasions: “I love the deep lower keys,” she says. “When I heard the cello for the first time it blew my mind and I wanted to learn it. That bass drone is brilliant to play against, and I think it works really well with Donegal tunes.” But it hasn’t become by any means common and both Alasdair and Natalie are curious to see how it is received. Natalie says: “This is going to be very interesting for me to delve into what the cello can do in Irish music and how its role will differ from that in Scottish dance tunes.”
Mairéad will also be singing, of course. “I’m really looking forward to the song element, with Alasdair and Natalie accompanying me. I have a few old songs that I look forward to trying out with the cello. It’s great to get a chance to do something different, to be on uncertain ground, asking yourself what am I going to do.”
Alasdair goes further: “We’re very interested in asking the question ‘What now?’ It’s not just about playing the old tunes for us. It’s about asking how do we question and express ideas in our chosen vernacular in a way that is relevant to today?”
Mairéad might have an answer: “There are genres of music, but when musicians get together they are able to play together, no matter what genre. Ultimately it comes down to the basic thing of music, to musical communication. And I think musicians are always open to that, to collaborating. The older musicians were very open to all of that. They were musicians above all other labels.”