Scotsman News : Bringing it all back home to Glasgow - U2 France
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Scotsman News : Bringing it all back home to Glasgow

dimanche 11 janvier 2004 / par Dom

by Kenny Mathieson

Source : Scotsman News

GLASGOW will once again be awash with Celtic music as the annual cornucopia that is Celtic Connections unleashes its torrent of reels, jigs and general merriment. Among the stars on parade are such well-known Celtic musicians as, umm, Joan Baez, Bob Geldof, Lloyd Cole and the Esbjorn Svensson Trio.

Hold on, surely some mistake here ? Well, yes and no. Colin Hynd, director of the festival since its inception in 1994, has never believed in being hidebound by too literal an application of the Celtic connection, especially where ticket sales are at stake. Hynd has always opened his programming to artists on the periphery of (or miles away from) "Celtic", and with justifying results at the box office.

Celtic music is a fairly meaningless formulation in any case, other than perhaps in the market-driven imperatives of festival bills and record shop racks. There are many and diverse shades of music from the countries which claim strong Celtic inheritance, generally regarded as Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Galicia and Asturias, along with Wales, Cornwall and the more distant outpost of Cape Breton.

What is certain, though, is that the music of these countries, and especially Scotland and Ireland, is not only a thriving concern in its own right, but has been a major influence on music and musicians all over the world. That is nowhere more true than in America, where the waves of mass emigration from the Celtic heartlands carried the music far and wide.

Musical developments in Canada and America have been seeded by the music of the old world, sometimes leaving chunks of the imported tradition intact (and even preserved in greater purity than in their homelands), and sometimes intermixing with all manner of other influences to produce a hybrid tradition of their own.

Folk and country music - and, as a consequence, rock and pop - in America was irrevocably shaped by that influence, and in turn transformed into the genres we know today. Songs and tunes survived intact to be performed as part of the standard folk repertoire, while less tangible influences worked their way deep into the musical subconscious of artists, and became part of a complex and inextricable web. Indeed, music historian Bill Malone argues the interplay is so intricate it becomes almost beyond unravelling.

"It is now next to impossible to determine the exact ethnic origin of a particular song or style dating from the British experience," he wrote in Country Music, USA. "English, Highland Scots, Scots-Irish, Catholic Irish, and Welsh elements intermingled on the southern frontier, as they had previously done in the British Isles. The backcountry South may very well have been Celtic, as two eminent historians have argued, but cultural intermixing had occurred so frequently and for such a long period of time that white folk culture should most appropriately be called British."

Hmm, maybe so, but the fact remains that the Scots and Irish influence is a powerful and pervasive one. The overall influence of Celtic traditions in America filtered directly into the mainstream of American popular music in a variety of ways, but most strongly through folk and country.

Take Bob Dylan. Before he reinvented himself as the archetypal rock singer-songwriter, Dylan liked nothing better than to hang out in Greenwich Village with the Clancy Bothers and Tommy Makem, learning Irish songs. In his biography of Dylan, Down the Highway, Howard Sounes reports on a stellar party at Makem’s New York pub that followed Dylan’s 30th anniversary bash at Madison Square Garden in 1992, in which Dylan, Liam Clancy, Ronnie Wood and George Harrison took a verse each of the Irish republican ballad ’Roddy McCorley’ (ironically, it was Clancy who forgot the words).

Joan Baez came out of a similar folk music background to Dylan, and her early repertoire included songs from the Celtic diaspora. A country singer such as Kathy Mattea, who has appeared at Celtic Connections with our own Dougie MacLean, has forged strong links with Scotland, while Maura McConnell made the transition from the Irish folk scene to Nashville. Let’s not forget that, as BBC’s Hogmanay show reminded us, it was the late Johnny Cash who wrote that well known "Irish" song, ’40 Shades of Green’.

Steve Earle, who encompasses musical genres from plaintive bluegrass (also shaped by the Celtic imports) to rock, has fallen in love with both Ireland and Irish music, and draws direct inspiration from them. He has already written overtly Irish-influenced songs like ’Steve’s Last Ramble’ and ’Galway Girl’, has worked on his stories and novels there, and apparently plans to record an Irish album at some point.

"The first time I went to Galway to play, I just sort of fell in love with the place," he said. "Ireland is an amazing place for artists. Irish people see artists as being such a treasure - quite different from America."

Celtic music has infiltrated the mainstream on its home ground as well. Remember Thin Lizzy’s hit with the traditional Irish song ’Whiskey in the Jar ?’ Remember Capercaillie storming the pop charts with their haunting reworking of a 400-year-old Gaelic song, ’Coisich, a Ruin’ ?

Both Van Morrison and Bono, lead singer of U2, have spoken of rejecting and later rediscovering their Irish musical roots. For Bono, Irish culture was something to rebel against as a teenager, and he was astonished when he met Bob Dylan many years later to find that "Dylan talks about the Clancy Brothers and the McPeakes and how much he was influenced by Irish music. He sees it as a central and formative influence. That blew my mind because I’d never thought of him in that way".

Similarly, Van Morrison admitted that he had no interest in Irish music when he was a youngster in Belfast, but came to realise "it can be dangerous to not validate the music of where you’re from". More recently, Sinead O’Connor has released an album of pop versions of traditional Irish songs.

Morrison’s collaboration with The Chieftains, Celtic Heartbeat, was the most overt example of his absorption of traditional roots, but it has coloured much of his musical thinking. As for The Chieftains, no musicians have been more assiduous in seeking out collaborations across the globe and the genres, working with fellow Celtic heroes such as Galicia’s Carlos Nunez and with American stars such as Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder and Los Lobos, among many others.

In Scotland, traditional music has been undergoing a purist grassroots revival - reflected in the number and quality of young talent emerging on the scene - and engaging in an ongoing cross-over process with rock, jazz and dance music. The likes of Capercaillie, Shooglenifty and Martyn Bennett have forced the pace, and taken traditional music to new audiences, while pop and rock bands such as Runrig, The Pearlfishers, The Waterboys and the more recent Reindeer Section collective have all reflected - at different degrees of distance - an awareness of traditional music.

Scottish jazz musicians have also embraced traditional Scottish music, led by trumpeter Colin Steele, drummer John Rae and pianist David Milligan. The resulting fusion of Scottish music with American influences takes the wheel full circle, and has enabled these players to develop an individual voice within what is basically a genre imported from a whole different culture, based in the Afro-American experience (the influence crossed the other way in the case of the bagpipe-wielding black American saxophonist Rufus Harley, who once played - dreadfully - at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival).

The moral of all this ? The music of the Celtic heartlands has been hugely influential, and that influence has been manifest in a myriad of different forms. Untangling the web would be a musicologist’s nightmare. There are common factors in tune structures and rhythmic patterns (often derived from dance) or the use of modality and shared scales, but if it is hard enough to isolate and classify the broad defining characteristics of the national traditions, what happens when styles differ from region to region, even village to village ? And then how to assimilate the music’s increasingly hybrid existence in today’s global culture ?

No wonder Hynd opts for inclusiveness. As a snapshot of where the music we loosely define as Celtic in origin or influence now stands, Celtic Connections offers an exotic spectrum. At one end, we have the Tradition Bearers, singing the old songs and playing the old tunes as they have been handed down (often with running alterations - a tradition is an evolving beast, not a fossil), and at the other the latest in hi-tech, state-of-the-art fusions.

That is before we even consider the pop and rock, country and jazz adjuncts to the programme. Somewhere, at some level, it is all part of the ever-expanding, rainbow-hued canvas that is Celtic music, and deserves to be celebrated as such. Which is exactly what this most eclectic of festivals sets out to do.

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