I’m still on a high this week after the incredible orchestral re-imagining of Martyn Bennett’s final and most extraordinary album creation - GRIT - on the stage at the Edinburgh International Festival. Sitting there in the stalls waiting for the opening bars, I had a real sense that what we were about to witness together was a going to be a special and significant cultural moment. With the unfathomable talent of Greg Lawson at the helm and with the sheer talent and energy of the singers and musicians involved, the performance lived up to expectation! It was an incredibly moving experience for many, both creating and stirring up memories that will not be forgotten.
I have not yet read any festival reviews that have, in my view, fully expressed or grasped the significance or cultural politics of this performance in its wider historical and cultural contexts (certainly none that match Jim Gilchrist’s review of the Celtic Connections opening event in 2015). In my view, it’s important to reflect on this cultural journey - which stretches far back into the past and into the future - and make an attempt to try and articulate it.
GRIT was a musical event that invoked a context much larger than the immediate performance context itself. This was a moment that combined the present with past and future, the living with the dead, the here and now with the world beyond. With Fiona Hunter’s exquisite tributes to the voices of Sheila Stewart and Lizzie Higgins in Move and Blackbird, David Hayman's studied performance as the fire-and-brimstone voice of Michael Marra in Liberation, Calum MacCrimmon’s tribute to the canntaireachd of Mairi Morrison in Chanter - and of course, the creative force of Martyn Bennett himself – the live performance of GRIT embodied and invoked all pre-existing moments in the tradition, giving voice to the those no longer with us. This made the final encore - Rab Noake's Each and Every One of You - so beautifully poignant.
Musically moving moments like this create their own time: normal, measurable time is suspended and another world with its own time is embraced. In Scottish Traveller culture, there is talk of the 'visit of the Maysie' in these moments - an idea I discovered during my fieldwork research with the storyteller and ballad singer Stanley Robertson (1940 - 2009). This is a fantastic folkloric metaphor that reaches to 'make sense' of the intangible, ambiguous and affective dimension of the shared experience of songs, stories, and music – and particularly the music of the pipes. The Maysie's presence is signified by shivers and chills on the scalp and spine, when the small hairs on your body start to rise and move. She exists in the liminal space between and appears in those fleeting moments created by the bodies, breath, expectations, intentions, memories, histories, and emotions of every person – alive and no longer living – that shares the space of performance. It is on these occasions that we become aware, if only fleetingly, that we are here, that we are alive, that we are connected.
In the Scottish tradition, there are other examples of folkloric metaphors used to make sense of moving musical experiences. In the Cant language, the word conniach is used to describe the special energy or inspiration which can unleash the affective power of a song or tune. Belle and Sheila Stewart used the word to describe a very particular Traveller aesthetic learned from her family’s traditional style of singing. Sheila explains,
The very fact that a work of this nature was a sell-out on the stage of the Edinburgh International Festival is remarkable in and of itself. The EIF has always been the realm of ‘high culture’ and the world’s elite art - certainly not the cultural space for the voices of the people, Traveller culture or raucous breakbeats of '90s rave culture. Until very recently, the festival still very much held to the 20th century ideals of cultural democracy from which it emerged: the idea that the masses could be civilised by giving them access to culture that wasn’t their own.
In my adult lifetime, the EIF has not celebrated what might be described as ‘folk’ culture. In the late '70s, the festival staged the National Theatre's version of The Mysteries (directed by Scot Bill Bryden who had been Artistic Director at the Lyceum), a production full of folk music and folk musicians. In the '90s - under Brian McMaster’s directorship - EIF did put on a series of high profile folk music gigs. This began with an homage to the Greig-Duncan Folksong collection, and was followed by a series on piping, the clarsach, one on Gaelic song and a song series devoted to songs of work and drinking. Since then there has been very little in the programming - next to nothing under the directorship of Sir Jonathan Mills – and certainly nothing remotely resembling the scale and ambition of 2016's GRIT.
A far cry from Mills’ refusal in 2014 to engage with ‘Scottish’ culture for fear of it being ‘too political’ (not recognising the irony in celebrating the centenary of the start of WW1 - and since when did we celebrate the start of wars anyway?), Fergus Linehan's EIF has a fresh energy and a new relevance. In this historical context, GRIT was a deliciously satisfying realisation of the very principle of cultural equity - of the fringes becoming the centre. The Last Night of The Proms it certainly was not: the musicians were relaxed and liberated, the audience were whooping and cheering with joy and delight after every number. In this sense, GRIT was an act of defiance: a bold step on the journey to an exciting future - a future where traditional culture is not a shackle tying us to the parochial past but a potent source of creative cultural possibility.
The original studio album GRIT is a window to a world of music and stories, people and places, opening up landscapes of imagination, meaning and memory. As a first encounter, it might well be be a bit hard-going. It was created from the mind of a young composer, not yet fully mature. It's bizarre at times, left-field, heavy, repetitive - sometimes just downright weird - but with moments of exquisite beauty and tenderness. The album was dedicated to the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, who died the year before its release, but who declared upon hearing an early demo: 'What brave new music!' Martyn himself explains,
As Martyn's friend Greg Lawson has noted, GRIT is 'an extraordinary mix of completely opposing ingredients.’ It is a mix of old unaccompanied song set with uncompromising massive beats; a mix of the organic and electronic, old and new, the air and the ground, pushing the limits of freedom and form. That it was created exclusively using archive material - Martyn was too ill at the time to perform and in a fit of frustration had smashed up all of his instruments - makes it all the more remarkable. The late Traveller singer and storyteller Sheila Stewart said this:
On a very personal level, GRIT is an album that has become woven in with my own life story. Martyn Bennett had been a childhood hero for my brother and I and by the time GRIT came along we were already immersed in his music. The album was was released in 2003; I was eighteen and about to embark on degree in ethnology at the School of Scottish Studies. Every note, every drop, every word on that recording I know intimately. It’s the soundtrack to my early twenties and is forever bound up with that time and that place. In my mind, ‘Blackbird’ is one of the most beautiful things ever created and still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it.
As a student and teacher of ethnology, I have been so very lucky to immerse myself in the rich and colourful diversity of the manifold cultural expressions of place that exist on this part of the planet. From the variety of speech, accent and dialect across Scots and Gaelic to the local style and inflection of music and metaphor in story and song, traditional culture is endlessly fascinating.
The story of tradition - the carrying stream - is a fascinating and international one. Since the 1950s, the pace of change has been incredibly fast. From the taigh cèilidh to international stages of Celtic Connections, we've seen huge changes both in terms of the contexts of performance as well as the choice and style of traditional music and creative arts.
Part of this cultural shift in Scottish public life can be explained by the changing political life and partly by the success of the Folk Revival in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In this movement, folklorists played a crucial role in documenting the various musical styles traditional to various communities. One such folklorist was the American Alan Lomax, ‘the man who recorded the world.’ With guidance from Hamish Henderson, Calum Maclean and others at the School of Scottish Studies, Lomax recorded dozens of hours of ancient ballads, Gaelic work songs, children’s songs, and contemporary folk songs from all over Scotland. The performers included Jeannie Robertson, John Burgess, John Strachan, Jimmy MacBeath, Flora MacNeil and others, recorded in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Elgin, and the Hebrides.
Later, in 1972 Lomax published an 'Appeal for Cultural Equity':
Many in Scotland recognised this need for celebrating local musics and for cultural equity. Since Rudolph Bing's very first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 - and with the burgeoning left-wing folk revival happening in the States at the time - various people had felt that traditional Scottish culture should be represented. The first People's Festival Ceilidh - that some say was an early forerunner of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - took place in the Oddfellows Hall, on 31 August 1951, the same year the School of Scottish Studies was founded. Hamish Henderson was inspired by the cultural politics and philosophy of the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci:
The People's Festival Ceilidh had the explicit aim of saying, 'Look what we have here in Scotland - and up to now it hasn't received any attention from the big Festival - this fantastic tradition of popular culture, both Gaelic and Scots...and here it is!' Describing the ceilidh, Henderson later wrote,
Following on from the Folk Song Revival, the exciting instrumental revival and exploration of the ‘70s and ‘80s led many new young musicians to begin exploring their musical heritage in new ways. The '80s was the decade that really established a commercial traditional music in Scotland and elsewhere; at the same time, the commodifying forces of globalisation gave rise to a new commercial genre of ‘world music.' Singers and musicians in Scotland explored new possibilities by bringing in influences from more modern music such as jazz and early pop. This was also the decade of the beginning of the Gaelic Fèisean education movement, providing tuition and access to traditional music for the very youngest members of society. The decade of the ‘90s that followed welcomed a wave of new bands and artists - Shooglenifty perhaps the most iconic - who embraced new influences from other genres and composed new material. Many were happy to embrace modern styles and ideas; they felt that to try to play music in a historical manner results in a fossilised heritage culture instead of one that is living and breathing. Aided by new technologies, the internet and global performance contexts, musical pioneers such as Martyn Bennett and the late Gordon Duncan were ready to really push the boundaries of tradition.
Since devolution from the UK in 1999, through the early years of the new millenium and the process of cultural re-discovery during the exhilarating and exciting independence referendum of 2014, Scotland has witnessed a growing cultural confidence. With the publication of Professor Gary West’s wonderful ethnological Voicing Scotland in 2012 and with the release of director Robbie Fraser’s feature film documentary about Hamish Henderson earlier this year, many in Scotland are on a journey rediscovering - or discovering for the first time - the story of tradition.
For me, that palpable sense of growing cultural confidence was very much embodied in the performance of GRIT at Edinburgh's Playhouse: the energy, the talent, the playfulness, the excitement, the community, the shivers on the spine, the feeling of being a part of a bigger story. I was reminded of this quote from ethnomusicologist and social anthropologist John Blacking, on the incredible and transformative power of music:
Thank you to Greg for creating this experience for us to share, and to the EIF for having the foresight to recognise that these are sounds and melodies and voices that have a rightful place on the international stage. History will remember GRIT as a profound and definitive moment in Scotland's cultural story. In the words of Michael Marra's character in Liberation: it was marvellous in our eyes.
[with thanks to David Francis for an insight into the EIF programme before my time!]