Mary Ann Kennedy: An Dàn, Gaelic Songs For A Modern World
Arc Music – 28 July 2017
Audiences across the UK may be more used to hearing Mary Ann Kennedy as presenter of BBC Radio 3’s World on the 3; and she enjoys a strong reputation as a TV and Radio presenter. Music is in Mary Ann’s blood, though, and her multi-faceted career as a singer, musician and broadcaster has flourished. What drives the myriad strings on Kennedy’s musical bow could perhaps be distilled to one influence that’s been with her throughout her life – Gaelic Song. Which is perhaps why her first ever solo album, released this month, opens with a simple, and heartfelt, call to action – Sing! An Dàn – Gaelic Songs for a Modern World opens with Seinn, Horo, Seinn a stirring start with piano, strings and Kennedy’s light, appealing vocal. Seinn, Horo, Seinn celebrates song for its own sake, with rich bass voices among the rousing chorus, a clever switch to bass and gently picked guitar for backing, and delightful interplay between guitar and piano.
Who will light me a beacon,
The spark that will keep songs alive?
Cò a lasas dhomh Crann Tàra,
Lasair chumas òrain beò?
Mary Ann’s song was originally a commission for the 1998 Highland Festival, the same event that saw the birth of Mary Ann’s own band, Cliar and the popular powerhouse of Scottish fiddle – Blazin’ Fiddles.
Having grown up in a Gaelic speaking Glasgow household (her father from the Isle of Tiree and her mother of the musically renowned Campbells of Greepe on the Isle of Skye) it was perhaps inevitable that Mary Ann would become immersed in Gaelic culture. That passion for her native art, coupled with classical musical training on piano, clàrsach and concert harp took her to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow (now known as The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester – where her Masters thesis was a study of puirt a beul (mouth music).
The words and music of Gaeldom form a poetic and melodic treasury with roots deep in centuries of tradition. As the album’s tag-line ‘Gaelic Songs for a Modern World’ declares, though, that tradition moves ever forward. The album includes two songs woven around the poetry of Kennedy’s friend and mentor, the revered poet Aonghas MacNeacail. Sìth na Coille (Forest’s Peace) sees fiddle soar over a soft guitar and Mary Ann’s plaintive vocal. As the song develops, small pipes provide the enriching strings with beguiling harmonies. Rhythm, sound and form inspire a sense of place that lifts the heart.
who wouldn’t wish the forest’s stillness
when we go in search of peace
cò nach iarradh sìth na coille
nuair a tha sinn sireadh tàmh
Mise Fhuair (I Have Won The Apple) epitomises the contemporary flourishing of Gaelic poetry in rousing style watch the English & Gaelic Lyric Video below). Featuring Lorne MacDougall‘s lively whistle among fiddle and percussion, there’s a definite feel of a modern song; with its backbeat, electric guitar, and lines of vocal overlapping like soft waves on shingle. It’s well worth reading the sleeve notes, for Mary Ann Kennedy’s charming story of how she planted the seed of this beautiful song in Aonghas MacNeacail‘s mind. Later in the album, the electric guitar is softened for Taigh an Uillt, initially providing the only backdrop for the elegant vocal. But when she set Iain Crichton Smith‘s poem in praise of the village of Taynuilt (Taigh an Uillt) to music, Mary Ann provided space for more jazz and theatre than you might normally expect, as bass and percussion join to complete a sleepy quartet, and provide a further reminder of the wonderful music that can be inspired by poetry of the great Gaelic writers.
At times, though, the opposite is the case, and the singers themselves can inspire the poetry. The opening for Dàn Ur do Fhlòraidh NicNìll (A New Song for Flora MacNeil) hints at high drama, with strings, piano and a guest appearance from Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes. All contrive to bring a taste of the sea to Catriona Montgomery‘s poem, inspired by a conversation with the great Gaelic singer Flora MacNeil about her love of primroses. It’s a beautifully presented piece, full of colour and fresh weather, as intricate guitar work weaves among the vocal and is then joined by a soaring, haunting pipe and fiddle duet. That sense of place, the feeling of wonder that pervades in the Western Isles and Hebrides also comes to life in Mary Ann’s own song, inspired by views of Iona from Tiree and Mull, the dream-filled Eadar-Thìr (Between-Land).
Looking west from here –
to a shadow of a place, a suggestion of island,
dissolving in the dipping sun
Às an seo, coimhead gu siar –
faileas àite, fiamh eilein,
a’ sialladh às rè laighe grèin’
A soft chorus of voices hail low whistle and a sedate pace for Iain Againn Fhìn (Our Own John). Professor Donald Meek’s work dedicated to the memory of his great uncle, killed in battle during the great war, inspires a gentle hint of passion in Mary Ann’s voice; mirrored in the expressive guitar work that accompanies it. War and bereavement have inspired Gaelic writers and composers to create words and music that perhaps convey the feeling of loss better than any other art form. Ìrig MacDonald dug deep into the Gaelic tradition for Oran do dh’Iain Dòmhnallach (Lament for John MacDonald). In Mary Ann’s hands, this beautiful elegy for Donald Meek’s uncle John is set among soft percussion, atmospheric keyboards and acoustic guitar. The haunting snatches from a Twana chant about homeland add a ghostly sense of place.
Air Leathad Slèibhe (On a Hill-land Slope) also instils an impression of something mysterious. George Campbell Hay‘s (Deòrsa Mac Iain Dheòrsa) tribute to the sunrise, is set among soft layers of guitar that seem to form a confusing mist around the haunting vocal, making the source seem somehow intangible. It’s a subtly dramatic effect that mirror’s Hay’s unique achievement of writing beautiful poetry in three languages – Gaelic, Scots and English.
It’s the closing song on An Dàn that really stands out. Anthemic in its approach, Marcas Mac an Tuairneir‘s Grioglachan (Constellation) sets Mary Ann’s incomparable voice alongside an initially restrained piano, low whistle and electric guitar to celebrate the life of Mary Ann’s great friend and founding member of Cliar, Maggie Macdonald, who died of cancer last year. From those gentle beginnings, the song rises to glory in a host of voices and a sound as wide as a starry sky…
Now we sail with you, out,
Like a pinnace on the river,
As the news sparks like torches,
Either side of the banks.
Nis ’s sinn a sheòlas tusa null,
Mar shoitheach air an abhainn,
Is an naidheachd na shradag
Do lòchrain an cois dà bhruaich
Perfect from its gentle opening, through rousing verses, to the gentle, twinkling conclusion, Grioglachan encapsulates the album itself. An Dàn is one of those heart-lifting albums where it soon becomes impossible to choose a favourite moment or passage. There’s a wealth of beautiful music and song to explore. The sleeve notes are joy for the information addict – filled with insights, quotes and observations from not only Mary Ann, but her writing partners too. It seems remarkable that an artist as gifted and with the audience appeal that Mary Ann Kennedy enjoys should be finally releasing a solo album so far into such an impressive, and wide-ranging, career. An Dàn was worth the wait, it’s a gem of an album.
Order via Arc Music: https://arcmusic.officialstore.co.uk/Shop/PhysicalDetails?pid=ARC_PH_829
Photo Credit: Sean Purser