various artists,
Celtic Mouth Music
(Ellipsis Arts, 1997)

"Mouth music" is known by many different names: cheek music, chin music, lilting, diddling, gobbing, reel bouche, port-a-beul. It is built on favorite old melodies and rhythms and used for making music -- for dancing -- when there are no instruments to play. They are not songs but instrumental tunes whose lyrics power the rhythm.

It can be found in various forms throughout the world, but it is highly developed among the Gaels. It became part of the musical baggage of Scottish and Irish emigrants and traveled with them to Nova Scotia and down into the southern Appalachians. The term "mouth music" is likely to be a translation of the Scots-Gaelic "port-a-beul" ("tunes from the mouth"). It is sometimes sung with sparse instrumental accompaniment (bones, bells, drums) but is mostly unaccompanied. It was used as dance music and to make work lighter.

Lilting is part of a larger tradition in Ireland, called "san nos" or "old style." It emphasizes subtle ornamentation and embellishment in song. But with economic development, lilting declined.

The tradition is preserved in the 37 tracks on the CD Celtic Mouth Music, most of which are quite short. In all of them, you can hear and feel the strong rhythm that enables mouth music to be used for dancing; sometimes, the sound goes straight into your feet. Some of the recordings use actual lyrics, some use just nonsense words to carry the tunes and emphasize the rhythms. Some are a capella, others accompanied with instruments.

The performers include well-known Irish singer Dolores Keane, who performs "Mouth Music" with John Faulkner. It's a song full of action, starting with a tribal drum rhythm that carries throughout the song. The voice harmonization fills the air with a sense of sober urgency and purpose.

Galway's Bridgit Fitzgerald, a founding member of Cherish the Ladies, sings "An Sean duine dite (The burnt old man)" with a lilted chorus. The song's soft vocals makes chores easier to perform while listening or singing along. Norman Kennedy, from Aberdeen, Scotland, learned Scotland's west coast singing style from Annie Johnston (also appearing on this album), who made him do a chore for each song she taught him. Here, he does "Puirt-a-beul" with an intentional nasal drone, providing a bagpipe quality to the song.

Despite the title of "Lilting with Fiddle, Guitar and Bones," sung by Tommy Gunn, I couldn't hear any instruments on the track. The dribbling vocals within the song provide a continuous flow of music and rhythm, making dancing easy. Gordon Easton begins the march "The Drunken Piper" in a simple manner, setting out the melody and introducing changes in a northeast Scots fiddle style.

Paddy Tunney was a member of the IRA in the early 1940s and reportedly exchanged tunes with fellow prisoners in a Belfast jail by tapping on a water pipe. In "Scots Bagpipe Lilts," recorded in 1952, he carries the "piping" to its logical conclusion, squeezing out the "bladder" at the end of the tune.

Elizabeth Cronin, from County Cork, inspired many revival singers with her quiet style. The song she does here, "The Little Pack of Tailors," is sometimes used as a "dandling" song by Irish mothers to bounce babies, and the soothing tone of the vocal is reminiscent of a mother singing to comfort and console a young child.

Seamus Ennis adapted the lyrics of "What Would You Do?" after learning the song from Cronin. Here, a working woman's take on the harshness and absurdity of existence combines uilleann pipes and dribbling vocals effectively. With "Pretty Little Girl with a Blue Dress On," Emma Shelton provides an example for mouth music from the Appalachians. It's a good country folk melody (hoe-down), easy to dance to, and it clearly shows the universal influence of mouth music. Jigs like it were often sung to accompany step dances. A number of stock phrases might be fitted to the rhythm of the tune; commonly diddled tunes include "Skip to My Lou," "Cindy," "Shortnin' Bread" and "Black-Eyed Susie."

The CD comes with an extensive booklet providing excellent information about the origin and history of mouth music, as well as information about the performers and numerous photos. I highly recommend it as an introduction to this old art of music-making.

[ by Maria Cherry ]

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