various artists,
Orain Nan Gaidheal
(The Song of the Gael)

(Greentrax, 1999)

Recorded live at the famous Edinburgh International Festival in 1997, this recording features outstanding performances by a wide array of Gaelic singers. The eighteen tracks by eighteen artists represent a small portion of the series of seven concerts, plus a church praise service, produced by Proiseact nan Ealan (The Gaelic Arts Agency). These carefully chosen tracks show the diversity of Gaelic song and the passionate, heartfelt delivery of its singers.

Singers rarely accomplish the perfection in live performance that they crave for recordings, but these songs are beautifully and artistically sung, without a bum track on the album. The choice of material ranges from puirt-a-beul (mouth music) to laments, from music based on music of the bagpipes to songs written solely to convey the soulful emotions of the author, emphasizing words, not melody. Most of the material is sung a capella, giving the music the stark, emotional sound that suits its ancient nature.

Songs and singers are equally remarkable on this recording. With a warm, flowing voice, Ishbel MacAskill sings an Isle of Lewis favorite, "An Aitearachd Ard," which sings the praises of the land. Na Caimbeulaich, a family quintet from Skye, sings a series of mouth music, including "Come with Me, My Brown-haired Lad," "There's a Man on the Hill," The Ewe with the Crooked Horn," and "The Duck's Nest." Nationally known Lewis singer Murdo MacDonald sings a farewell to his beloved Isle of Lewis, "Slan le Leodhas nam Beann Fuar."

Mary Ann Kennedy sings a Ruairidh Dall Morrison song, "Oran do dh'lain Breach MacLeoid," complete with rolling harp accompaniment. Lewis native Mary Smith sings the sad, lamenting " 'S ann mu an tacsa'n de," while Roddy Campbell sings the upbeat rowing song, "Beinn a' Cheathaich." Catherine-Ann MacPhee sings "Gur e Mo Chille Dubhdhonn," with the audience singing the response chorus of "He's my dark-haired lad...." Kenna Campbell sings the comic heroic saga of a cock fight on "Coileach Peigi."

Margaret Stewart's beautiful, rhythmic rendition of "Uamh an Oir" is based on the Cave of Gold legend of a piper who goes into a cave with a morbid history, and plays his pipes to tell those outside the cave that he is being attacked. Stewart has been a key figure in the study of Gaelic song and its relationship to pipe music.

1996 gold medal winner Donnie MacLeod sings with lilt and heavy ornamentation on "A Bhliadhna gus an Aimsir Seo." Beautifully self-accompanied on clarsach (small harp), Maggie MacInnes' song "Chan e Caoidh Mhic Shiridh" laments the author's loss of her brother to the harsh sea.

One of my all-time favorite vocalists, Margaret Bennett, gives a chilling performance of "Griogal Cridhe" (Beloved Gregor). She is joined by the audience on the chorus, citing "great, great is my sorrow" in stirring unison and beautiful harmonies. Seumas Campbell steps into the limelight from his family's group, Na Caimbeulaich, to sing a lament for "MacGregor of the Banners," who was hanged in Edinburgh after an elaborate deception. Maeve MacKinnon and Cathy Campbell, a daughter-and-mother duo, sing a well-known lament from South Uist, "Di Sathuirne ghabh mi Mulad."

A song celebrating victory in battle, "A' Mhic Lain 'ic Sheumais" is sung with passion and flair by Flora MacNeil, her strong, experienced voice perfectly fitting the motherly role of the song's lyrics, which address her wounded but victorious son Donald. Rona Lightfoot sings the canntaireachd (oral teaching tradition for pipe music) for "Ruileadh na Coilich Dhubh; Ruile Bean Aonghais," deftly albeit uncharacteristically accompanied by Rory Campbell on Scottish small pipes. (You seldom hear canntaireachd and pipes played together.) The one non-vocal track on the recording features the piping of Fred Morrison on part of a piobaireachd "Cumha Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (Lament for Mary MacLeod)." Murdo MacLeod closes the recording with the distinctive Gaelic psalm-singing tradition on "O Sibhse tha 'nur fireanach," which captures the joyful yet mournful spirit of this unusual church music style, complete with congregational participation.

This is a delightful collection of traditional Gaelic songs, sung by the best of Gaelic singers. This would be a great way to experience a little bit of the Edinburgh Festival if you cannot make it there.

[ by Jo Morrison ]