It's been a source of continual amazement for me to watch the way different cultural traditions have gone in and out of style with the various flakes and fakes selling salvation under the catch all of New Age. Initially it probably started in the '60s when pop stars started to traipse off to India looking for a quick fix of spiritualism to go with their new found material wealth and drug habits. That then got mixed up with ideas about the occult, Alister Crowly, the mish-mash of spiritualism that oozed out of the 19th century, and various misunderstood concepts of Buddhism, Tao, and other Eastern belief systems.
From the Far East it wasn't that much of a jump to the pre-Christian religions of Europe and other indigenous cultures around the world. At one time you couldn't walk into a New Age store without tripping over white turkey feathers painted to look like they'd fallen off an eagle and other so called "medicines" that promised enlightenment. But it was the coming of Riverdance, and the Celtic invasion it spawned that took the bullshit out of the New Age specialty shops into every gift store and boutique across North America. Celtic Crosses have sprung up like weeds and people who couldn't tell you the difference between the Book Of Kells and Kellogg's Corn Flakes are able to tell you all about their Irish/Scottish heritage.
The saddest thing is what's been done to the music. While Riverdance and even its successors did a fine job of showcasing Celtic music as a vital, bawdy, and raucous celebration of life, in the hands of those selling enlightenment it's been turned into the musical equivalent of puffed wheat. Instead of pounding drums, violins, pipes, and guitars supporting lyrics celebrating food, drink, love, war, and all the other realities of a hard but full life, you now have synthesizers and ethereal voiced, genderless people singing about elves and fairies.
Thankfully there are some people out there who have ignored this disturbing trend and play the music of their culture the way it is supposed to be. While the Scots have escaped the ravages of New Wave relatively unscathed, at least compared to their cousins in Ireland, a singer like Julie Fowlis, from the island of North Ulst in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, who sings the songs that make up the oral history of the islands in their original Gaelic, is still a rarity. Listening to her first North American release, Cuilidh (pronounced KOOL-ee) on the Spit & Polish label, is to be transported to another place and time.
The 12 songs recorded on Cuilidh are a mixture of traditional songs that Fowlis and her fellow musicians have arranged and songs she's learned from other musicians on the islands over the years. Although, truth be told, I think the only difference between the two is that on one hand she's given a traditional song her own arrangement and on the other she's followed someone else's arrangement. Of course a great deal of the delight to be found in this disc comes from the stories associated with the songs themselves, for they give you a sense of the history behind them and the people.
Take "'Ille Dhinn, 'S Toigh Leam Thu," the fourth track on the disc as an example. We're told that it was written by Mairead nighean Ailein (lower case n in the second name is not a typo) who was the great aunt of Domhnall Ruadh Choruna, one of the most famous bards from the island of North Ulst. She composed the song for the man who would eventually become her husband, Julie's Great-Great-Grandfather's brother. A great many of the songs on the disc are similarly taken from actual events that have occurred in the history of the island, some being as recent as only ten years ago, while others 500 years ago.
Some events are more infamous then others of course and as a result there was more then one version of the song. The story that's recounted in track three of the album, "Ant-Aparan Goirid 's an t-Aparan Ur: Oran do Sheasaidh Bhalile Raghnaill", is of a young woman named Jesse who takes advantage of her engagement party to run away with a man from Skye island who is not her fiancee. If you check the disc you'll see that she's included another version of the song as well, for as she ruefully points out in an interview, she could have included six or seven versions of it.
You'll notice something a little odd about the lay out of the disc in that everything is Gaelic with English being treated as the second language. Gaelic on this disc is a living language, not something mystical or spiritual with secret powers of divination or whatever other bullocks you might have heard. One thing though, the translations for some of the songs aren't going to be that helpful, because they don't really translate that well. These are what Julie calls mouth music songs, or what we might call nonsense. Yet these aren't really nonsense because they were composed to have a purpose in that the tongue twisting lyrics were written to match specific dance tunes. The sounds of the words are important as they become another layer of the rhythm of the song.
As for Julie Fowlis singing and the music on the disc, it's just what you'd hope for. She has a strong clear voice with a good range that allows her to run up and down the octaves at will and as needed. More important is how expressive her voice is and how it can load sufficient meaning into a song's lyric that it doesn't matter that we don't understand a single word in the language. Best of all there's not an electronic instrument to be heard on the disc as flutes, pipes, bass, accordion, mandolin, and guitar handle most of the duties with only the addition of a bouzouki giving it a somewhat exotic flavour.
When you listen to the music on Cuilidh, you're listening to the stories of the people who have lived on the islands off the coast of Scotland known as the Hebrides for thousands of years. This isn't an easy life, scratching a living from the North Atlantic and wind swept land, and most of it is still spent on the business of survival. What little time they have for leisure is given over to playing the music that tells them who they are. If you can't recognize that as magic then I feel sorry for you. Luckily, Julie Fowlis is willing to share a little of this real Gaelic magic with anybody willing to hear and appreciate it.