Tartan, bagpipes, whisky, kilts, haggis — those are all things which often come to mind when people think of Scotland. That’s especially true for those who have yet to visit Scotland. Small in area, mighty in landscape, legend, history and welcome, there is quite a bit more to Scotland than those five icons. The fact that Talitha MacKenzie has an album called Spiorad/ Spirit and Joy Dunlop calls her gathering of songs Faileasan/ Reflections might give you the clue that these two musicians can offer you deeper ways into what awaits you in the land to the north of Hadrian’s Wall.
Talitha MacKenzie knows the depths of Scottish music, and she also understands how the beats and rhythms of it work in context with with musics from other areas of the world. That is one of the reasons you may have heard MacKenzie’s music if you saw Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee River pageant: MacKenzie’s upbeat melding of Gaelic and Caribbean flavors and rhythms on the Gaelic fisherman’s song Fionnaguala was chosen to represent Scotland during that event.
Interest generated by that song spurred MacKenzie to revisit the album on which it first appeared. A newly recorded version of that song along with freshly mastered versions of songs from the original 1996 release came together in a project that shows MacKenzie’s gift for following the music as it wishes to be arranged, and for having the rhythm and the word both tell he story of what’s going on in the pieces she chooses. Following on the opener, a Bulgarian dance instrumental and a Serbian traditional song adapted by MacKenzie to include anti war lyrics lead back into Gaelic, with songs including Fear a’Bhata (The Boatman) and Spiorad Ian, (Ian’s Spirit) a song dedicated to Mackenzie’s late husband, a renown ethnographic photographer. Waulking songs of work add their rhythms to the mix.
Joy Dunlop knows of working songs too, and she includes several on her album Faileasan (Reflections). These are songs which come from her native Argyll, in the southwest of Scotland. The award winning singer has in fact chosen all songs which come from or have connection with Argyll, and she’s chosen to source everything else about the album, from the musical friends she invites along to support her to the production to the photography, from her native place. She’s created an engaging path of story which rings true whether you understand Scottish Gaelic or not — and if that’s not one of your languages, you can consult the liner notes booklet for lyrics and Dunlop’s stories about the songs — and perhaps improve on you Gaelic as well as information is provided in both languages. In any case, Dunlop invites you along as she gets a kick out of a humorous song which in English tells the story of a man who says If I marry at all, I won’t wed a big girl, a tall girl — especially so as the singer herself is, well, rather tall. An Roghainn/The Choice has words by Sorley Maclean, one of the major poets of Scotland, with music by Donald Shaw, himself a poet through music, and founder of the internationally respected Scottish band Capercaillie. Shaw backs Dunlop on piano, accordion, and harmonium on the song. Across the album, many of Scotland’s finest musicians, all with ties to Argyll, sit in for a time, among the Aidan O’Rourke and Rona Wilkie on fiddle, Lorne MacDougall on pipes, and Karen Matheson on backing vocals. Songs of love and heartbreak, work and laughter, well chosen and delivered by a singer with a talent for conveying story, Faileasan (Reflections) is a fine way to gain deeper insight to the heart and heritage of Scotland.
Photograph of Joy Dunlop (top) at Celtic Connections was made with permission of the artist, the festival, and the venue, and is by Kerry Dexter.
Photograph of Talitha Mackenzie (center) is courtesy of the artist.
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