Yesterday fans of traditional, and not so traditional music woke to the sad and unexpected news that Angus R Grant, fiddler, innovator, mysterious mover and driving force behind the godfathers of Acid Croft, Shooglenifty, passed away after a short illness. For over 25 years Shooglenifty, with Angus as their quiet and unassuming front man, have led an exhilarating dance with their combination of trad jigs, reels, and airs with deep, driving grooves and haunting atmospheres. Along the way, they inspired a new generation of musicians and earned a devoted following, and tributes from both have been flowing in.
Angus Roderick Grant was the son of renowned Lochaber fiddle player and teacher Aonghas Grant. Despite showing an instant, instinctive proficiency after being given his first fiddle at the age of five, Angus Jnr switched to electric guitar in his early teens, preferring the rebellious lure of punk to the pibroch. In time, though, his school friend, singer Kaela Rowan, along with Iain MacFarlane, persuaded Angus to return to the fiddle and trad music sessions in the Highlands.
After exploring the Edinburgh music scene on regular visits with another of his school friends, Shooglenifty percussionist James Mackintosh, the two joined forces with guitarist Malcolm Crosbie, banjo player Garry Finlayson and bassist Conrad Molleson to form the musical melting pot that was Swamptrash. In time, as Swamptrash faded and new sounds began to emerge, early sessions for what would become Shooglenifty were filling Christieís Bar in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket area. As the crowds increased, the band moved down the road to play regularly the Cowgate club, La Belle Angele.
Venus in Tweeds, the band’s first album, saw them burst on to the scene and attract nationwide attention, and it’s at this point I first became aware of their music. My own first experience of Shooglenifty live was also the first time I saw Martyn Bennett play – he was their support act at a Celtic Connections gig in, I think, 1996. It was a night I’ll never forget – after Martyn had played along to the backing tapes that would become his eponymous first album, Angus Grant took to the stage with Shooglenifty to lead us all in an alluring, irresistible dance. He led that dance for a further 25 years, through seven studio albums and gigs around the globe. And dance is what the music was all about. Another gig, at Glasgow’s Fruitmarket, demonstrated his dry humour. As I twirled alone around an empty dance floor at the start of the set, Angus singled me out with his bow “The whirling dervish doon there has got it right”, he observed, “this is dance music”. The floor soon filled.
For more than two decades, with Angus and his mysterious moves at the forefront, Shooglenifty danced their way around the world, and the world danced with them. In 2014 they took to the stage as special guests at the annual MG Alba Scottish Trad Music Awards with a set celebrating their 25 years as a band. As my Folk Radio UK colleagues toured the hall, meeting and greeting the best of Scotland’s musical talent, I was transported back 20 years – still twirling, still hypnotised by the sound.
The most recent recording venture for Angus and the band was to join Afro Celt Sound System to celebrate their own 20th anniversary. And, for me at least, the music of Shooglenify has always been synonymous with Afro Celt Sound System. It was during the first of Real World’s famous recording weeks, in 1995, that Simon Emmerson met Angus and the band. Simon was kind enough to take some time out from Afro Celt’s tour preparations to share a few thoughts on those sessions.
“We were in a Nissen hut in the car park’ he recalled ‘we draped the inside with Jamie Reid’s prints – a right little rave tent.
“On the second day Shooglenifty wondered in – they hung out and played and as we put on the groove for Whirl-y-Reel they started jamming. It was amazing really, like a marriage made in heaven. That became the rhythm track to Whirl-y-Reel. From then on, they were very much part of the heart and soul of the rhythm of the Afro Celts”.
We also spoke about their reunion with the band last year to record their own 20th-anniversary celebration – The Source.
“It was an amazing time, and one I was very lucky to recapture when we went back to Gorbals studio last year. Angus had a great love of African music and they played on the track Higher Love from the new album. It was great, capturing again the magic of that original collaboration. One of the great things about Angus was that he was very quiet and modest and just got on with playing the music. It was just like starting up a conversation that had been interrupted”.
As many people have observed, Angus was indeed a quiet man. His friends, his family and his music were his life. He was asked recently if he and the other Shoogles were like brothers after so long playing together. He said, “Worse: wives!” With Shooglenifty, Angus Grant took the spirit of the dances and dreams behind Scotland’s traditional music and catapulted that music into the 21st Century. His sudden and unexpected departure leaves a void in our music and our culture.
Angus is survived by his father Aonghas, his mother Moira, sisters Deirdre and Fiona, niece Eva, and Shoogle wives Ewan MacPherson, Garry Finlayson, James Mackintosh, Malcolm Crosbie, Quee MacArthur and Kaela Rowan.
Angus R Grant (1967-2016)