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Greentrax CDTRAX132

Allan MacDonald's contention is that pibroch, now ossified by the strict demands of the competition, once enjoyed an intimate relationship with Gaelic song. The consequent result was a fluidity of interpretation deriving from the rhythms of the Gaelic language. It's a grand idea that demands exemplification, and this recording is, in part, an attempt to put musical flesh on the dry bones of the theory.

On four tracks the singing, by MacDonald and predominantly by Lewis-born Margaret Stewart, is joined by the small-pipes, and in one instance, the piob mhor. The fact that this could never have happened way back when - the pipes, even the small-pipes, would have drowned out the voices - make these tracks on "Fhuair Mi Pog" experimental, performances that could not exist without the support of modern studio technology and sound reinforcement. The success of this collaboration - and the pipes sit well with the ornate Lewis singing style - may say something about the past but certainly points the way to future possibilities. New music which would be grounded in tradition, rather than the usual confections where traditional music is the icing on a lightweight sponge of AOR, Victorian drawing-room effeteness, or 'world' music.

There is, indeed, a whiff of macassar on some of the other tracks here: a rained-in waulking song; delicate clarsach and keyboard; a precision of arrangement which the musicians, who include Ingrid and Allan Henderson and Allan MacDonald's brother Iain, abandon in live performance of the same material. Perhaps these are not criticisms at all, for in "S Olc An Obair Do Theachdairean Cadal" (Sleep is Ill Work for Messengers), the track which haunts me most, that same delicacy and precision, and Margaret Stewart's plangent singing, combine with text and story - an exhausted man sleeps while his wife dies in childbirth - to produce something extremely affecting. Compare, though, with the version of Annie and Calum Johnston, who once sang for Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, to see the changes that can be wrought on traditional song by the fashionable musical tastes of the late 20th century.

It is a mark of this disc's importance that not only does it function, on a didactic level, as a provocation of debate, but that it also works as terrific entertainment: lovely singing and great tunes, some of the best written by Allan MacDonald himself.

Honourable mention, finally, to appearances by the mouthorgan and the tromb (jaw harp), instruments once widespread: cheap, easy to learn and fun to play. Feisean everywhere could do worse than press for their immediate reinstatement among younger (and older) participants. As Allan MacDonald himself once remarked of the tromb, "I was never without one in my pocket when I was a boy".

Bob Pegg

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This album was reviewed in Issue 28 of The Living Tradition magazine.