I will touch the harp-strings of my voice to see if it can fashion a little song for me.

(I promise, unlike Friday’s post, this one is about music.)

There is an elegance about the Gaelic language – a certain tactile satisfaction that lingers on the tongue after forming the words – that purveyors of such a vulgar language as English more than likely have difficulty understanding (I should know, I used to be one). So I was understandably offended when I read today that Highland councillor John Rosie called the establishment a Gaelic development officer for Caithness an attempt to “impose” upon the citizenry “an alien language, of no value to them”. Even more ironic is the fact that I first learned of this on the official release date for Uam, the third solo album from Julie Fowlis who, at least in my circle, has done more to spread the beauty of Scots Gaelic abroad than any other person.

If you are familiar with Julie’s other two albums, Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe and Cuilidh, you more or less know what to expect from Uam, though a few things have changed. Most notable is the presence of English, be it only on one track and used with interesting effect (more on that in a moment), it certainly stands out in context. Uam again features several songs native to Julie’s home island of North Uist (in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland) and Barra (to the south), but also includes a Breton song (“Rugadh mi ‘n teis meadhan na mara”) and one Irish-American tune (“Wind and Rain”). Somewhat less important, though still interesting trivia, Chris Thile doesn’t play on any tracks. As whole, Uam is a beautiful album rivaling in cohesiveness Julie’s hugely successful breakout album Cuilidh.

The first two tracks, “M’ fhearann saidhbhir”, a set beginning with a traditional waulking song followed by three tunes (two recent compositions and one traditional Highland tune) and “Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach” (a slower piano/vocal number featuring lush three-part harmonies) set the tone for the whole album: an album that (thankfully) never settles on one style or tempo for too long. Still, this album is full of stunning moments, the most immediately captivating (at least for me) being the pairing of two songs recounting the story of “The Jealous Sister” (a story which has been dated as far back as the 16th century). The first song, “Wind and Rain”, of Irish-American origin, is performed here (partially translated into Gaelic) as a duet with Eddi Reader. This comes across as, more or less, typical Celtic festival fare, but the ensuing Hebridean take on the same tale, “Thig am Bàta”, is absolutely arresting. Featuring only Julie’s vocals and Martin O’Neill on bodhrán, it is highly percussive, rhythmically intoxicating, and easily the coolest song I’ve heard in months.

Of course, if there is one thing Julie Fowlis does well (and there are actually at least a dozen), it is to bring an album to a memorable conclusion. Whether it is “Moladh Uibhist”, the haunting ode to Uist that closes out Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe or “Aoidh, Na Dèan Cadal Idir”, the a cappella lullaby at the end of Cuilidh, they are without fail, the most charming, organic moments of their respective albums. The case with Uam is no difficult. Allan MacDonald and Mary Smith join in with striking parallel modal harmonies on “Hò bha mi, hé bha mi”, a night visiting song with the most beautiful, lingering lyrical image of the album: “’Cò tha còmhl’ riut, a Sheònaid? / A bheil thu ‘d ònrachd a’ bruidhinn?’ / ‘S làbhair Seònaid ghrinn uasal / Air uachdar a cridhe / ‘Barail leam gur e bruadar / A ghluais sibh nur dithis’.” (“’Who’s with you, Seònaid? / Or are you talking to yourself?’ / And noble, beautiful Seònaid / spoke from her heart. / ‘I think it was a dream that roused the pair of you’.”).

It deserves to be noted as well what a pleasure it is for me to once again hold an actual CD booklet in my hand as I listen to this record, especially one with real, substantive liner notes. The texts, translations, and detailed song histories are an integral part of this album, of the culture, and of human history. I read somewhere once that people of Scottish decent, no matter how distant, can feel the tug of the Highlands and Islands pulling them gently toward home. Had I never read that, I would still attest to the strength of that call. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but a great many of my clan had already settled in the Americas by 1745. And even now, 250 years removed, listening to Uam (or Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe or Cuilidh for that matter), it has taken all the pragmatism I can muster not to drop everything and move to North Uist or Perthshire (where the Robertsons come from) and learn the (“alien and [useless]”) language and spend a few years studying this music – my music. (If anyone knows how I can do this, or can introduce me to someone who can help make it happen, and I mean this in all seriousness, please email the.indie.handbook@gmail.com. Let’s talk.)

A long short interview with Brían Ó hAirt

If I had to guess, I’d say there are about as many Irishmen living in Dublin, OH as there are native Scotsmen living in Granville, 36 miles to the East, which is, approximately, six. But none of this matters on the first weekend in August, when the city’s Irish population increases at least tenfold, augmented by tens of thousands more people who think they’re Irish. (I admit that, once upon a time, even I, now vehemently proud of my Scottish heritage, found myself wishing I could be cool like my Irish friends during the weekend of the Dublin Irish Festival. I really ought to write our Chief and beg his forgiveness.) They come for the music. They stay for the scones. (Ok, so maybe the scones thing only applies to me. Most of them probably stay for the music as well. And the beer.) And there is a lot of music, and pricewise, it is probably, when you think about it, one of the best values out there for such a comprehensive festival covering a (sometimes startling) range of styles.

“…And that’s all Irish music,” Brían Ó hAirt (singer and concertina player for the band Bua) assures me, but “we really are a traditional band. We do some progressive stuff, but most of the things that we do are traditional, [even though] we compose our own tunes sometimes or play newly composed tunes from other people”. Only fifteen minutes ago, the band were on stage, wrapping up their final set of the festival. Fifteen minutes from now, they will be on their way to Ontario for their next festival appearance. Our interview will be short, but Bua are the only band I have bothered to see twice this weekend and I have to talk to this man. I need to find out what makes this band who they are.

But what drew me to Bua (MySpace) in the first place? We don’t necessarily tend toward the traditional here at The Indie Handbook (well, at least not publicly*). Aside from the superb musicianship of, and obvious chemistry between, all of the band members (Brían, Brian Miller, Jackie Moran, Chris Bain, and Seán Gavin) there is the fact that this Brían also speaks fluent Irish (not a skill one necessarily expects from most people living in the St. Louis metro area). As one who has a weakness for, and is prone to, eccentricity in any form, I am intrigued by anyone who would bother to learn such an impractical (at least by contemporary American standards) language as Irish. Brían’s reason:

“I’d heard Irish for the first time when I was in junior high, and I was kind of a bookish kid at the time, so I looked stuff up and started learning things on my own. And when I started junior college, there were courses offered, and by that time I had a pretty good understanding of it. And when I moved to Ireland I progressed even further, because I was in Irish speaking areas and I was using it all the time.”

And what about the road to traditional music? Let’s face it, Brían would not look out of place fronting a Belle & Sebastian cover band (for the sake of argument, we’ll call them Judy and the Dream of Horses).

“I had been doing music my entire life, and when I reached the end of high school, there were three roads really: you could go and get your degree in classical music, or enter a jazz program; but I didn’t really feel like my voice suited that or that it felt like it was really a way to express myself. But, when I heard Irish singing for the first time when I was fourteen or fifteen, it hit home, really, and kind of pulled me in.”

I think I speak for Kristin as well when I say that we appreciate, admire, and endorse such an earnest pursuit of any art form. Add to that the fact that Brían’s delivery and vocal quality is perfectly suited to the music that he is performing (his voice is pure, uninhibited by that affected nasality that so many artists seem to view as a prerequisite for success and the delivery unadorned, allowing the songs to speak for themselves) and the result is bound to impress. But what thrusts Bua beyond the range of “good bands” to the level of the “truly excellent” are the four other stellar musicians standing (and sitting) on that stage.

“There was a band before called Gan Bua (Jackie and Chris were kind of the instigators for that), but a few of the band members moved on with their jobs and careers, so Chris approached each of us about joining the band… And we play well together. That’s kind of the secret. It just clicked. We all seem to work well together.” He continues, “and [there are] connections within the band, too. We’re not all connected together in the same way. Brian Miller and I may be connected in a way that maybe Brian and Chris are not, but maybe Chris and Seán are connected in a way that Brian and I aren’t. There are all these smaller pairings with their ideas of music and the kind of tunes they play. So, overall, there’s more cohesiveness in the group because of those smaller groupings.”

So, this is Bua, folks. Get to know them. You’ll be a better person for it. Their album An Spealadóir is out now on Mad River Records. There is, I believe another one currently available as a download only. And you owe it to yourself to catch a live performance. After all, that’s where many of these songs grew up, long before anyone you or I know ever heard them.

*Personal confession time: For some time now, longer than most of you have known me, I have toyed around with the idea of a serious pursuit of Scottish folk music. Five days after I met Brían Ó hAirt, I bought a beginner’s guide to Scots Gaelic and a Gaelic dictionary. It is happening, kids. And if any of you have an in at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen and would like to put in a good word for me, I would be eternally grateful.