Mac Umba,
Don't Hold Your Breath
(Greentrax, 1996)

Wow. Just wow.

MacUmba was a bit of a mystery to me. I didn't know what to expect. But when I slipped the disc into my stereo and the room filled with the boisterous pipes and percussion of "Moonshine" -- well, just wow.

And the album didn't un"wow" me throughout its 17 exciting, energetic tracks.

I think you need some background information. MacUmba is a collection of 11 musicians who play either the pipes (Highland, shuttle and war) or a huge mound of percussion. While their melodies are drawn from the traditions of Scottish pipe bands, they dose their music heavily with Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms. Yes, it sounds implausible. Yes, it works -- really, really well.

The merger has further evidence in the band's name. As the members explain in the liner notes, "macumba" is a Brazilian religion combining Christian effigies with ritual drumming and gods from the Yoruba pantheon. In Scotland, "MacUmba" means "son of Umba." Based in Scotland, they got their start as a drumming group at the Glasgow School of Art. They added pipes for a performance at a football match, and the result was incendiary.

It's a cultural blending I wouldn't have expected. But ... well, read above. "Wow."

After a pair of amazing pipe and percussion tracks ("Moonshine" and "Mo Chuachag Laghach Thu"), I was startled to hear a clear, beautiful singing voice. Lynne O'Neill, who also plays an array of percussion (surdo, tamborm, agogo and chocalho) has a gorgeous vocal style, and most of the percussionists provide backing vocals at one point or another. Her first appearance is "The Selkie," a traditional Scottish song about the mystical seal people of the coast -- and somehow, the tribal vocal backdrop works. There's a bit more from O'Neill, too -- the melancholy "MacCrimmon's Lament" and "Just Five More Minutes."

There are also more excellent instrumentals, with pipes skirling proudly over powerful percussion. I defy anyone to remain still during "6/8 Itapuan" (a pair of jigs), "Son of Megalomania" (a reel), "Cullen Bay" (a march) or "Heaven Scent" (a hornpipe). "Fairy Glen" is a foot-stomping percussion piece. And it keeps going. Seventeen tracks in all, and not a single disappointment along the way.

Any pipe fans and percussion enthusiasts out there who haven't heard MacUmba are really missing something.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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