The Living Tradition
by Francis Morton - Issue 27 June/July 98
Shepherd are one of the most popular bands in Scotland. They play with tremendous
skill but also a sense of fun.The skill is not accidental and they see sessions
as a key to learning.
This may sound as if they are saying 'anyone can do this' and in some ways they are, however, behind their success is some degree of career planning as musicians. They have a love of traditional music coupled with a belief that played straight and with enthusiasm it will have wide appeal.
They have quickly joined the ranks of other bands with a longer track record who have ploughed the traditional furrow, bands such as The Boys of the Lough, Altan and Dervish. The future looks bright.
Saturday Night Fever is easily imaginable in any cosmopolitan city, but in Edinburgh, the folk capital of Europe, a touch of Saturday Night Fiddle Fever seems to be making more of a noise than your average disco or nightclub. Deaf Shepherd's spot at the Shoots and Roots '98 Festival seemed to capture not only the fiddle buzz, but dare I be so adventurous as to suggest a bit of pipes mania as well? Maybe, as the gig was an exothermic performance of adrenaline pumping Scots flair on pipes, fiddles, Bodhran, bouzouki and guitar, which simmered along nicely beside the more heart-rending of vocals, providing a floor for a bunch of enthusiastic divas, all intent on the dancey approach to Scottish music.
Yes, it definitely seems like some red stage lights at night are Deaf Shepherd's delight! After a series of concerts in Portugal, Galicia, Milton Keynes and then Gosport Easter Festival, and with festivals looming in the future, Deaf Shepherd seem to have successfully grasped the traditional nettle. But why this particular nettle? Before some members of the band travel north to Findhorn, then fly off to Italy for some musical engagements, I took the chance of finding out who and what initially encouraged them to get involved in traditional music, and how they would recommend others to do the same.
"I met Angus McLaughlin in Stirling Folk Club, and he asked me to join the band." relates piper Rory Campbell. "That's how I met with John Morran and Gavin Pennycook." For John Morran things were almost the same, meeting Bodhran player Angus McLaughlin in Glasgow, where they met up with fiddle player Gavin Pennycook and guitarist Petr Pandula. This all happened back around 1992, with Malcolm Stitt; guitarist, piper and bouzouki player joining shortly afterwards after doing sound for one of the early gigs. "I auditioned. In the pub!" Malcolm recalls. And so the band evolved. With Gavin Pennycook leaving, fiddler Clare McLaughlin was recruited in late 1994, debut album 'Ae Spark o' Nature's Fire' was recorded around September 1996, and another fiddler, Marianne Curran, joined in November of the same year. There were more changes before "Synergy" was recorded, as bodhran player Angus McLaughlin left. Deaf Shepherd have since worked with Tony McManus, Anam's Brian O hEadhra, and presently, Mark Maguire from Glasgow. So, with this range of musical dynamism and input, what initially sparked them off?
For the brother and sister in the band - Rory Campbell and Marianne Curran, both were influenced by their father, famous Gaelic singer, Roddy Campbell. "My Dad asked me if I wanted to play the pipes. And I said yes." Rory begins. "I took lessons at school but it was my Dad first. He showed me where to put my fingers on the chanter." Rory joined his father's band Gleus, along with sister Marianne, and guitarist Don McKenzie. Another band, Talisker, followed, and then of course Deaf Shepherd, as well as working with Caledon, and also releasing a solo album. So what was the impact on his life? "Massive" Rory replies. After feeling a bit limited and restricted by pipe bands, Rory feels there is now a lot more freedom for pipers on the music scene today, such as playing small pipes and whistles, especially in the thriving session scene. And he believes there is a definite buzz from traditional music, especially in the active encouragement for people to get involved with traditional music. "There are established organisations like the feisean movement. It's Gaelic orientated, and its great for young children.
" With Deaf Shepherd, Rory feels that there is always a constant learning process. "Deaf Shepherd is great fun, and if that comes across then its brilliant. Because everyone is learning all the time, you get encouraged.
" Marianne Curran took a slightly different musical path. "I took up the piano when I was about six" and obviously encouraged by her father - "I used to sing as well, in the Mods" she explains. This led to her interest in fiddle music, and her involvement in Gleus with Rory, though later, fiddle was not always her main interest. She played locally around Stirling, and was aware of Rory's musical commitments at the time, that he was playing with a musician called Tony Fox, and Deaf Shepherd. But Marianne firmly established her fiddle playing when the opportunity of Deaf Shepherd arose. "Its great to play Scottish tunes abroad, and travel abroad to promote Scottish music" says Marianne, optimistic about the scope for Scottish music, not only at home but for enthusiasts further afield.
Multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Stitt was also inspired by musical parentage. His father, Jack Stitt was an accordion player, and leader of his own dance band, providing a background for Malcolm's musical interests. "I took up the guitar at school and I played the pipes in the school pipe band." Also mastering bouzouki, Malcolm played with traditional band Train Journey North, before joining Deaf Shepherd. Malcolm considers that to meet new musicians, make new friends and hear new influences through music is rewarding. "You learn different things from others, and get ideas from others all the time. One of the influences for me is Deaf Shepherd." And this has led Malcolm to new heights, as he is playing with Tabache, Keep It Up and Boys of the Lough. "My Dad gave me a Boys of the Lough CD when I was about 14" says Malcolm, and obviously this has been a significant influence for him. "Its important to inspire younger kids" he vouches, and agrees that Deaf Shepherd is an ideal way to do this.
For founder member John Morran, traditional music was not always prevalent in his family. His parents were both singers of popular songs, and John was encouraged by regular, family, music hall singsongs. John remembers: "My Grandpa played the fiddle. I didn't appreciate it at the time. There were about four or five fiddle players in the village." His interest in traditional music was sparked by a combination of factors. He started listening to Irish singer/songwriter Christy Moore, and also became involved in music sessions in Glasgow. Coming from Muirkirk in Ayrshire, a Scots language stronghold, John was eager to promote Scots language and culture in wider Scotland. "I moved to the borders, and this rekindled a love for Scottish music and song." And that's what Deaf Shepherd is all about, although John, from a singer's point of view, thinks many people are more interested in tunes. But he is glad of the compromise in Deaf Shepherd, and the balance seems polished.
So are there many opportunities for singers in Scotland? John states quite a few. The TMSA, who hold singing competitions, there are folk clubs throughout Scotland, and also singing sessions in Edinburgh. Sessions seem to be instrumental in getting involved in traditional music, as fiddle player Clare McLaughlin is adamant this is the way forward. Coming from the Irish Comhaltas tradition, and after quickly developing an awareness of Scottish music, sessions have been vital for involvement and enjoyment for Clare. "In sessions you can learn everything; there are new tunes, and chances to see and hear amazing players. It is a privilege, and always a chance for improvement." But not only sessions were significant for Clare's musical activities, as Deaf Shepherd has been a "total awakening" of her interest in Scottish music, to work as a team with different strengths, and build on relationships. "The spirit adds to the music immensely, and the spirit should be the influence." This is undeniable with Deaf Shepherd.
Bodhran player, Mark Maguire, also from the Comhaltas tradition, is playing on a regular basis with the band. He also considers that musically and socially, sessions are an excellent way to learn. "Sessions are the key" he states. "You also meet people, meet other musicians." Mark admits that the band has undoubtedly broadened his musical horizons. "Deaf Shepherd has opened my eyes to the Scottish scene. It's new and I'm loving every minute of it".
So there is a big fun factor in Deaf Shepherd's music. Positivity and determination seem to spell out success for the band, and of course, their skill and dexterity have created one hell of a sound. With their current line-up, Deaf Shepherd are attracting major attention in the folk field right now, and setting off to pastures new; Europe and possibly America in the summer, and also the prestigious Cambridge folk festival. Deaf Shepherd are attracting a flock of global supporters, especially as they make a return visit to Italy in July. But when they return to sunny old Scotland, I'm sure they will still be the same, good old Deaf Shepherd. Which is very good for us Scots. Or should we say 'tres bien', or perhaps, even 'bella bella' by then?!
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