Ishbel MacAskill,
Essentially Ishbel
(Birnam, 2000)

Ishbel MacAskill comes from Scotland's Island of Lewis; her music is strongly influenced by the region of her birth. Essentially Ishbel is just that -- essentially Ishbel MacAskill singing with little or no accompaniment.

The CD begins with "Will You Go With Me, Mary?" (I'm not even going to attempt to spell the Gaelic; fortunately English translations are included side by side with the Gaelic lyrics in the liner notes), a traditional tune that MacAskill notes has always been part of her life, being one of the first songs she performed in public, before she was even old enough to attend school. Following this is "The Happy Isle," composed by Angus MacLelland in honor of Margaree Island, Cape Breton. Despite the language barrier, the love of the island comes through in MacAskill's voice.

The third track is a Waulking Set, a set of women's work songs from Lewis. Much like work songs from other parts of the globe, a lead singer is joined on choruses or responses by the rest of the singers. This set is lively and fun, accompanied only by the women's clapping. Next up is "The Language of the Gael," which celebrates the survival of the Gaelic language. This is the first track on the CD with a slightly more elaborate accompaniment.

Next is "Piobaireachd Dhomhnaill Duibh," a lament dating to the defeat of the Royalist forces at Inverlochy in 1431. "Farewell to the Place Where I Was Raised" is a tribute to the Isle of Skye by Mary MacPherson; the listener can hear the longing for home.

"The Eternal Surge of the Sea" is another lament. This one describes the way that the land changed between the time of the Clearances and the time that an elderly man returned home. Following this is "Mor a' Cheannaich," a lively little tune about preparing for a wedding. "The Clan of Ulster Will Be at Your Wedding" is another wedding-related tune, this one a lullaby from Lewis and Skye.

The next track -- the only one in English -- is something of a surprise. "Fair and Tender Ladies" just barely escapes sounding twangy; it's an amusing addition to the rest of the CD.

"Darling Gregor" is a lullaby from 1570, but not one that most children would be happy to be sung to sleep to; the subject, Gregor, is beheaded. The chorus of "Obhan, obhan, obhan ri" is very catchy, though; I found myself humming it at odd times. Next up is a mouth music set which completely changes the mood. This lively music is designed, says MacAskill, for dancing. The final track, "Rarest of Maidens," changes the mood once again. This gentle-sounding song is actually a lament by a dead woman about the way her children are being treated by their stepmother.

MacAskill sings almost exclusively in Gaelic, and mostly unaccompanied. Her voice is itself a powerful instrument, more than versatile enough to express sorrow or joy as necessary. Where she does have accompaniment, it is light, background sound and does not overpower her voice as happens with so many other singers. On this CD, where she is accompanied, it is most often by other singers, harp and button box, and occasionally by pipes.

Essentially Ishbel is a pleasant CD from someone who obviously loves what they are doing. You could do worse than find a copy for yourself.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]