Is there a degree of risk involved in handing a Gaelic CD to a non-speaker for review? I don’t think so. Gaelic music and song has gained global recognition in modern times and, with a few exceptions, follows recognised, understood and well documented themes. The lyrical content is timeless and unfamiliarity with the language can even heighten the listening experience – every change in pitch, every nuance of emotion is taken in as part of a greater understanding of the song; a heightened sense of the emotions conveyed by the singer is our guide. This, of course, is where the ability of the singer to interpret the song for a mixed audience comes in, and there are few people on the planet, if any, who can deliver Gaelic song to an audience as effectively as Karen Matheson.
Karen Matheson’s outstanding worldwide reputation as lead vocalist with crossover folk artists Capercaillie is based on 30 years on the world stage and over a million album sales. Among numerous awards, she received the inaugural Scots Trad Music award for Best Gaelic Singer in 2003 and an OBE in 2006. Her unmistakeable voice is as distinctive as it is haunting and, along with truly innovative interpretations of Hebridean music, has been a major factor in the success Capercaillie have enjoyed.
This week, with the release of her fourth solo album, Urram, Karen takes the music and song of the Hebridean islands; mixes it with inspiration from her own family history, injects influences from three continents, and presents an album that is inventive, unique and utterly captivating.
Since her first solo album Karen Matheson has performed a mix of Gaelic and English language song that, while still identifiable with the Capercaillie sound, takes on more contemporary themes and influences. The Dreaming Sea (1996) and Time to Fall (2002) both featured songs by former Love And Money front man, James Grant; who’s had a strong and welcome influence in a number of Scottish trad-inspired projects. In her 2006 release, Downriver, Karen adopted a more acoustic, paired-back approach and brought on board several stalwarts of the trad music scene for a collection of, mostly, Gaelic song. After years of recording to a level of high instrumental complexity Downriver succeeded in maintaining a traditional feel, and infusing contemporary structures; such as in Grant’s memorable murder ballad I Will Not Wear The Willow.
Ten years on from that remarkable recording Karen has brought her music full circle, with her fourth album as a solo artist and, perhaps surprisingly, her first to be composed entirely of Gaelic song. There is, of course, a very good reason for this. The main inspiration behind the album came as a result of exploring some very old family photographs that came from her late parents. The ensuing voyage of family discovery resulted in Urram (Respect).
Many of the songs Karen collected for Urram have come from the incredible archive at The School Of Scottish Studies. Gura Mise Tha Gu Dubhach (one of the many songs collected by Dr John Lorne Campbell) opens the album with a delicate guitar chime that pre-empts a more familiar mix of keyboard, percussion and Karen’s dark, expressive vocal. And it’s here that the first of Karen’s international contributors makes an appearance, with a welcome injection of eastern spice from the sarod of Soumik Datta.
Soumik Datta is a British Indian composer and virtuoso sarod player. From his debut album Fretless, Soumik has concentrated on classical Indian themes. His most recent album (as Circle Of Sound), Anti-Hero, takes his work in new, exciting directions and includes collaborations with Nitin Sawhney and Anoushka Shankar.
Following on from Urram’s quiet, contemplative opening, there’s an immediate lightening of the mood in A’ Bhirlinn Bharrach. Along with a fine harmonica contribution from Brendan Power, bass and acoustic guitars provide earthy tones that contrast with the pairing of light strings and a gentle vocal that’s as clear, lilting and enchanting as ever and tumbles down your consciousness like an ice-cold island burn down a hillside.
There are more delights from Soumik Datta when his sarod adopts the voice of a dobro to accompany the sleepy vocal of Ci an Fhidheall before joining Sorren MacLean’s electric guitar for Cupair Thu, Taillear Thu. An irresistible change in pace that heralds enchanting harmonies and a rich tapestry of strings and percussion. Although there are no Latin influences in the song, the approach is reminiscent of Salsa Celtica. The result is a thoroughly appealing track that should be a favourite with those who enjoy something with a degree of added pace.
In addition to puirt à beul (mouth music), waulking (working) songs have always provided tempo in Hebridean music. In ‘S e Nochd a’ Chiad Oidhche ‘n Fhoghair layers of beautifully lilting vocal and an enchanting banjo highlight the artistry that’s gone into the arrangements developed by Karen with Donald Shaw. Within a couple minutes we’re taken from a simple opening vocal to a richly textured delight. Banjo, piano and bass provide a foundation that’s expanded to include kora, percussion, fiddle and sarod in a spirit-lifting joy. Which brings us, neatly, to another highly regarded guest contributor – kora player Seckou Keita.
From the age of seven, Seckou Keita from Senegal was following the griot tradition of his family, mastering not only the intricate and diverse rhythms of the kora, but also a host of percussion instruments, such as the seourouba and djembe. His first solo kora album, Baiyo (Orphan) was released in 2000. Since then he’s released four successful solo albums, has recently received several nominations and awards for his outstanding collaboration with haprist Catrin Finch, including fRoots album of the year, and Songlines best album 2014.
Seckou brings his enthralling sound and an entirely new dimension to Ca Na Dh’fhag Thu M’Fhichead Gini. Following the steady opening, the kora seems to inject a sense of energy and the pace quickens almost imperceptibly. The kora/piano duet that closes the song is one of the most refreshing and engaging sounds you’re likely to hear this year. Seckou provides another international conversation in the familiar stepping, skipping rhythm of Cha Tèid Mòr a Bharraigh Bhrònach, this time with Sorren’s electric guitar and Seckou’s own percussion. A host of special guests contributed to the slip jig Saoil a Mhòr am Pòs Thu? Guitars from John Doyle and Anna Massie; the combination of James Grant’s electric guitar, and Alyn Cosker’s solid percussion along with a lively bass, kora and a carefully layered vocal provide something unique and wonderful.
Themes of intense sadness seem to go hand in hand with Gaelic song. Maol Ruanaidh Ghlinneachain is a song of farewell that enjoys, in addition to some of the clearest, most precise and enjoyable vocal you’ll hear anywhere; that glorious tumbling, cascading Kora/piano combination again. No musical soul could fail to be moved, transported, by this glorious sound.
Gaelic can also be used effectively outwith a historical context. On Urram, Karen revisits a Capercaillie favourite composed by Catriona Montgomery, Urnaigh A ‘Bhan-Thigreach (The Tigrean Woman’s Prayer). Concerned with famine in Ethiopia; the song’s heart-rending strings remind us of the presence on this album of the wonderful Mr McFall’s Chamber. The situation in Ethiopia is a modern one, but the issue of Famine is one that Gaelic has been used to express since time out of mind.
Adhlaichte an-dingh mo luaidh
‘S nach aithnich mise naigh seach naigh,
Measg mhiltean a Tigre tha e na shuain;
Coinhead Thusa, a Thighearna, oirnn le truas.
My beloved one was buried today
but I cannot tell one grave from the next,
as his resting place is with thousands of others from Tigre;
Look on us, Lord, with pity.
This is the first of two tracks on the album arranged by Robert McFall, the second being Neil Matheson’s beautiful lullaby, Taladh Throndairnis. In this rich, string-based arrangement Michael McGoldrick’s flute echoes Karen’s vocal to provide a sound that’s as soothing as a summer wind.
Never afraid to revisit the more popular Gaelic repertoire from a previous generation, Karen’s voice and Donald Shaw’s arrangement bring a silky simplicity to ‘Eilean Fraoich. The subtlest shades of kora, bouzouki and electric guitar quietly underpin the flawless accompaniment from Ewan Vernal’s bass and Donald’s piano.
The album closes with a tribute to the late Gaelic singers Flora Mac Neil and Ishbel MacAskill. The haunting, tragic love song Cadal Cha Dean Mi opens with Soumik’s sarod and Signy Jakobsdottir’s singularly atmospheric percussion in a mournful invocation of a fog-bound sea…
Cadal cha dèan mi,
Sùgradh cha dean mise;
‘Nochd cha’n fhaigh mi tàmh,
‘S gun mo ghràdh a tighinn.
I can get no sleep,
I cannot make merry;
Tonight I can get no rest,
Since my love is not coming.
Urram unites the voices of the Hebrides with traditional and classical musicians from Scotland, Senegal, and India. It underlines the notion of Gaelic as a global musical language and confirms Karen Matheson’s standing as its most accomplished and popular performer. The resources fostered at The School Of Scottish Studies and the Tobar an Dualchais (Kist o’ Riches) project (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk) are a treasury of sung, spoken and written word that’s provided inspiration for many of our traditional musicians and singers. While drawing from that rich vein, Karen has kept one eye on her family history and the other on the future of music. Urram is bold, it’s imaginative and it’s a thrill to listen to. Urram isn’t a change in direction, it’s the next step in a fascinating journey.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Tour dates for 2016 are planned but in the meantime Karen is performing at Paisley Abbey on Thursday 15th October along with Cara Dillon (The Spree Festival), details here.
Photo Credit: Natalie Jennings