With the new addition of Scottish Gaelic Singer/Songwriter Fiona Mackenzie, the Interceltic band Anam have now both a Scottish Gaelic and - in Brian Ó'hEadhra - an Irish Gaeilge Singer/Songwriter. We met Brian and Fiona to discuss about their different Gaelic background.
Fiona was born and brought up on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. From an early age she started singing and getting used to being on stage; she became soon involved in the local choir because her father was the conductor. She went to the National Mod every year giving her a bit of a start in her singing career. She also has sung with her sisters Eilidh and Gillian for a long time at home (today, the three are performing together under the name "Mackenzie" with beautiful a cappella Gaelic songs).
Fiona was not brought up in Gaelic language. "My dad doesn't speak it, but it's in his family. My mum is from Dundee, so she is an East Coaster, she doesn't have it either. My dad - he was told not to speak Gaelic as a child. So that's why he pushed us to kind of more involve in that." She started with Gaelic at school, and says that school in Lewis has been good for Gaelic - but not for traditional music. "The school I went to was quite bad with songs, we were learning songs like 'I've got a brand new pair of roller skates' - that kind of level - and that was it! There was no traditionals, it was not really an inspiration." She would not have listened to an awful lot of Gaelic music - she heard on the radio along, so some consciousness was always there.
It is a bit frustrating for her that in Lewis there is nobody playing instruments. "If you go to a pub, you never see an instrument - just very rarely. I feel that if I have been brought up in an environment with lots of instruments, I would have picked one up in an earlier age. I mean - I did pick the bodhrán up when I was quite young, but I put it down again. You know because there is nobody playing it - no kind of raw model that you have got."
"I get frustrated with that element because I want to go back - I'd love to live in Lewis, but there is no music really - not even singing. People think that Lewis has a strong tradition, and it does have to some extent, because we do have a lot of singers coming out from the island. But I think it is quite hard to get to hear it - you have to push somebody to give you a song - it does not come out easy."
Piping is the one exception being quite strong, Highland pipes; and piping lessons are even on offer at school in Lewis. "But that's it. And even then, you don't hear people playing it, people don't just get their instruments out, that doesn't happen. But there are a lot of good pipers."
"Then we moved back to Ireland, and I kept hearing music and playing music myself, started singing and writing my own stuff, playing bodhrán and guitar." When he went to university he formed Anam; before that, when he was 18, he was touring as a musician with an Irish Actors theatre company in Germany mostly.
There was always an interest in Gaeilge. "My father is a fluent Gaeilge speaker, and I speak Irish as well. I heard it at home, but I also learnt it in Connemara in Ireland, and in school as well obviously. I have always been interested in the language and in folklore. I studied folklore and English at university. For me it's very important to keep singing traditional Gaeilge and Gaelic - I am learning Gaelic now, Scots Gaelic. So I just keep singing those songs, and also writing in the languages, to keep it alive, keep it young, change it."
Both Brian and Fiona write songs in English as well as in Gaelic/Gaeilge language. Is there any difference in the process of writing? Fiona: "I think the process - for me anyway - is the same. Still, you think it from a different perspective. Even unconsciously, the approach is different." - Brian adds, "Gaelic and Gaeilge are our second languages, English is our first language. You don't have so many restraints; if you are writing in Gaelic or Gaeilge, you can write anything, you are not bound by literary traditions. Just like the way Samuel Beckett wrote in French because he didn't want to have the burden of English - he could have written in English, but he wanted to write in a language that was totally new to him, you know so he probably could write more simple." However, Fiona finds that she still has restraints when she writes in Gaelic; "there are a lot of - not rules as such but you can't get away with stretching out words the same or ... I can't understand why. And there are a lot of purists who might just be checking the language and see if anything is wrong with it. Well I don't look out for that so much, but I am conscious that it has to be sort of properly I suppose - you should get it checked."
We start talking about the new possibilities and chances for the Gaelic language in Scotland with the establishment of the Scottish parliament in May - will it get better with Gaelic? Fiona is quite optimistic. "Hopefully, apart from anything else, there will be more of an awareness that we have this language. Because a lot of people in Scotland are not aware of it - they don't really know what it's about. And I think with the new Scottish Parliament there will be a new awareness, and a promotion of the Gaelic language. I am hopeful; I hope that it won't be just a novelty and then die out again, I hope it will keep going. A lot of the bills, they will be going bilingual, just like in Ireland."
Brian stresses that there has something to be done quickly because Gaelic is in danger of dying out. "They need to be acting in positive measures from the governmental, the institutional levels. All aspects of economy, religion, science, and education, it all needs to be available through Gaelic as well as through English - like in Ireland, maybe even more so - more like in Wales."
Fiona adds that it is about time that Scotland is viewed as a multilingual country, a trilingual country, with English, Gaelic and Scots. "It is about time that the Scottish want it more to have Scots and Gaelic. In Ireland it's different because - it's not a problem; I think it is great that you have got those cultures. It is for us a problem in the sense that it does segregate the country slightly. A lot of people in Southern Scotland don't understand about the Gaelic, and people in the Western Isles for example are totally naive and don't know about the Scots language. I think it would be great to see them coming and working more together. Hopefully that will come as well with the Scottish parliament. The whole country needs to be educated about the cultures that it has - that might sound very arrogant, but I say it from my ignorant point of view; I did not know about Scots really before I moved down, I didn't realise it as a language. Some people think it's more like a dialect, but I think it's a language, I think it's a strong culture." Scots language might be connected to English similarly as Gaelic is connected to Gaeilge, just in a different way.
Up to now, most people have the assumption that Anam's music is Irish. But Anam are - of course - not content with this description, as these days Anam's members have diverse backgrounds, not just in Ireland (Brian, and Treasa Harkin on the accordion), but also in Scotland (Fiona and fiddler Anna-Wendy Stevenson who is Scottish-German) and in Cornwall (bouzouki player Neill Davey). "The easy way of describing Anam's music", says Brian, the only one left of the original Anam line-up, "is that it's just traditional and contemporary Celtic music - which is very broad. It's very difficult to describe. It's difficult also for record shops, they love saying ‚Irish section' or ‚Scottish section', sort of pigeonhole it; and our record company or also journalists, they want to put an easy label on it. I suppose in some ways it's similar to Boys of the Lough - they have a mixture between Scottish and Irish; but we have even a third element - Cornish which doesn't have very much representation; and I think the Cornish link is quite important."
With the new line-up, Brian supposes, people have to realise they can't label them as Irish any more. There are just few Irish tunes in Anam's set; most of the material is original, both songs and instrumentals, written by either Brian, Neill or Fiona.
For Fiona, one thing that is going to be to Anam's advantage is the fact that some of the new stuff that Brian writes has got a bit commercialised to it - in a good way. As Brian puts it, "it's accessible for quite a wide audience - it's not too specialist, it's kind of more open, and you don't have to be totally into folk to like it." With Fiona's natural style of singing and with her owns songs steeped in the traditional idiom, Anam gets at the same time a rough and beautiful traditional edge.
Anam's new line-up is stronger than ever, blending diverse Celtic traditions with modern songwriting, well designed to lead Celtic traditional and folk music into the new millennium.
Anam have recorded a new album in April, which will be out in late summer/early autumn. They keep touring the world, going quite a lot to America this year, but also having a small European tour. Brian and Fiona are planning to do a duo album as well, mixing Gaeilge and Gaelic. Solo albums are also in the pipeline; and Fiona is recording a new album with Mackenzie this year.
And, not to forget, another important month for Brian and Fiona will be this August when they are getting married...
Further infos/contact/tour dates at their homepage.
Photo Credit: Brian & Fiona; and the new line-up of Anam; Photos by the Mollis
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