Catherine-Ann MacPhee,
Cànan Nan Gáidheal
(The Language of the Gael)

(Greentrax, 1987; 1993)

Catherine-Anne MacPhee needs no introduction to Gaelic singing fans, having been at the forefront of the Gaelic song movement for well over ten years. Hailing from Barra, MacPhee was recruited (rather reluctantly) to appear in the show, "7:84 Scotland." Her expressive vocals, wide repertoire of Gaelic songs, and acting abilities have combined to make her a commanding presence in her field.

Cànan Nan Gáidheal is a fabulous collection of mostly traditional Gaelic songs, sung in MacPhee's unquestionably traditional style. There is a wide range of material represented here, including waulking songs (songs sung while preparing the Harris tweed for use), mouth music (music sung a capella for dancing), airs and rallying songs. Many of the songs are sung a capella, as would be traditional for waulking songs and mouth music. Others are beautifully accompanied by Billy Jackson (clarsach, whistles, double bass), Tony Cuffe (guitar), Iain MacDonald (Highland bagpipe, flute), John Martin (fiddles, viola) and Jim Sutherland (bodhran, double bass, percussion). The instruments provide pleasing and appropriate accompaniment to MacPhee's moving vocals and occasionally move to center stage for short solos. This helps keep the recording varied and interesting.

"Hì Ri Ri O Ra Ill Ó," a love song, and "Iomair Thusa, Choinnich Chridhe" (Row My Beloved Kenneth), a rowing song, are stand-outs among the a capella songs. MacPhee sings the lead vocals and the responses on chorus songs. She uses overdubs of her vocals to give depth to the responses.

The puirt-a-beul or mouth music is presented in sets on two tracks, again sung traditionally without accompaniment. MacPhee is impressive in her ability to make the music sound musical while maintaining the beat quite well. Better known songs include "Thoir A Nall Ailean Thugam" and "Tha Fionnlagh Ag Innearadh."

Among the most well-known and loved songs on the recording is "Cànan Nan Gáidheal," the title track, a contemporary song by Murdo MacFarlane of Lewis, lamenting the fall of Gaelic from popular culture. The harp accompaniment emphasizes the flowing nature of the song and highlights the dramatic points of the song. The use of the pipes at the end is particularly effective.

There is a protest song regarding the banning of the wearing of the kilt, "Soiridh Leis A' Bhreacan Ùr." The interweaving of the vocals, whistles and strings makes this a powerful song.

Harp and percussion give the lullaby "A Nighean nan Geug Taladh" a dark and mysterious feel, as is appropriate to this song of child abuse. The story in the song is that a stepmother is beating and starving her children so badly that their birth mother returns from the dead to plead for them to a girl herding cattle.

The famous waulking song, "'S Fliuch an Oidhche" (Wet is the Night), opens traditionally, a capella. Gradually the harp is added to accompany the vocals, and by the end the harp and fiddle take over the melody and bring the song to a close. Other songs with strong accompaniment include "Cearcall A' Chuain" (The Ocean's Cycle) and "An Ataireachd Ard" (The Eternal Surge of the Sea).

My only regret with this recording is that the liner notes include only the English translations, not the Gaelic words. Those with an interest in Gaelic will wish for both.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-presented collection of Gaelic songs. MacPhee did a marvelous job choosing classic material and singing it in a meaningful and soulful way.

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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