From Bol Chaal to Saoghal Thormoid

norman

Co-writing “Hindi Urdu Bol Chaal” for BBC TV in the late eighties was a big and ambitious piece of work for me. Obviously a major lucky break, you might think it would be hard for an ageing one-time language teacher to cap that now. However, in terms of personal significance, I feel my latest recording venture, “Saoghal Thormoid” (“Norman’s World”), is certainly up there with it, albeit on a much more intimate scale.

hubcLooking back, and perhaps strange to relate, in many ways the former project set the latter up, being a first serious professional engagement with “community language” or “mother tongue” issues, especially in the context of recording technology and what it can potentially mean for one of my linguistic obsessions, the Primacy of Speech. Being filmed entirely in these islands, from London to Glasgow and at various points in-between, I also allowed myself to hope that we were doing something to challenge or subvert any complacent conceit that Britain is properly a “monolingual” country. Anyway, little did I imagine then, as a newly begun learner of Gaelic, that I would one day get to sit, chat, and record with the iconic Norman Maclean over an extended period as he chronicles a remarkable life and reflects upon it – and that in my own mother’s mother tongue, a language that, typologically, feels like it’s as far away as you can get from English while staying in the Indo-European “family”.

There’s plenty of laughter and entertainment along the way, of course, but it’s well worth listening to Norman for many other reasons than that: vividly recalled childhood memories of mid-Twentieth Century Glasgow and the Hebrides; open introspection on the community relations issues of those days, and their lingering effects; wide-ranging discussion of creative influences in music, literature, and popular entertainment; all brought right up to date with acute, and sometimes cutting, commentary on current affairs, but topped off with a generous commitment to the continued sharing of cultural gems. And all in language that I, as my mother’s son, can only describe as beautiful. Strange to think that, if he’d been sent just a few miles further north than Benbecula for his wartime primary education, she might have been one of his first teachers.

I really recommend giving the videos a shot (using the transcripts if necessary), but for those who prefer reading to listening, or perhaps enjoy both equally, either or both of these autobiographical works by Norman himself will provide fascinating parallel insights: The Leper’s Bell: The Autobiography of a Changeling and Eavesdropping on Myself: An Outsider’s Boyhood in Glasgow. But you’ll need to content yourself with English in order to access these written accounts!

مجھے اردو لکھنا نہیں آتا

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اردو کیسے لکھی جاتی ہے؟ یہ تو میں نے کبھی نہیں سیکھا. بڑے افسوس کی بات ہے، کیونکہ میرے کچھ دوست ہیں جنکو اردو آتی ہے. اچھے بات ہوتی اگر میں انکو اسی زبان میں لکھ سکتاinput-tools

مگر کل میں نے ایک نیا تریکا سیکھ لیا، گوگل ٹرانسلیٹ اور گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کی مدد سے. پہلا قدم یہ ہے کہ میں، گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کا استمعال کر کے، اپنی چٹھی ہندی میں لکھوں. پھر میں کاپی اینڈ پیسٹ کر کے اس چٹھی کو گوگل ٹرانسلٹ میں رکھونگا، اردو میں ترجمہ کرنے کے لئے

ہندی اور اردو کافی نزدیک ہیں، اس لئے گوگل ٹراسلےٹ کی غلطیاں کچھ کم ہوں گی. پھر بھی ایک اور قدم کی ضرورت ہے. جو بھی اردو گوگل ٹراسلےٹہے سے نکل آتی ہے وہ تو میں پھر سے کاپی کرتا ہوں، اس ٹائم گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کا استمعال کر کے. اس تریکے سے میں چیک کر سکتا ہوں کہ گوگل ٹراسلےٹ کا آؤٹ پٹ ٹھیکہ ہے

بس، اردو میں لکھی ہوئی چٹھی بن گی ہے. اپنے دوستوں کو بھیج سکتا ہوں

اور اردو میں جواب مل جائے تو؟ یہ تو دوسرا سوال ہے

Susannah’s a Funniful Man

A public Facebook post by my daughter, Morag. I think I’ll just leave it here for a while…

What she had to say about it:

“I hope this might bring some light relief to my small corner of the internet as we try to make sense of the grave and muddled state of affairs we seem to be living in. On Saturday, following the funeral of my dear Great Uncle John, my Dad, Gordon, and his two brothers Stephen and Gerald presented a song, ‘Susannah’s a Funniful Man’, that has often been their party piece at large family occasions over the years. I know nothing about its origins, except that it comes from a rich heritage of silly songs and games of rural English vicars, but I think it basically speaks for itself…enjoy, if you will…”

I would only add that, while Dad (from whom we got the song) and Uncle John often took opposing political viewpoints, and might have taken differing views on this latest “Brexit” question too, they remained firm friends always, as well as brothers-in-law. Their religious calling certainly gave them both a profound respect for serious matters and considered debate. Truth, or the diligent search for it, was important to them, but they also shared a delight in silly absurdities. I can’t help feeling that gave them a wider perspective than our and younger generations can sometimes manage, despite (or perhaps because of?) our “always on” social media connectedness.

The Sounds of Musics

Singingtryptych

Why do solfa and sargam have the same name for the supertonic? A common Indo-European linguistic root buried deep in the past, parallel evolution, or just plain coincidence? It’s this kind of question, once formed and lodged, that can keep you awake for hours…

Most people reading this will probably have heard “Doe, a deer, a female deer” enough times to know that it’s followed by “a drop of golden sun” – “ray” (or re, as it’s generally written in solfa), and can probably go all the way up to the “drink with jam and bread” (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti) that brings us back to do, do, do, do etc.

Compare and contrast with the Qawwali style of singing of North India and Pakistan, in which the lead singers launch into improvisations using the sargam system (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni). In this Coke Studio fusion piece you get a taste at 4 minutes in, and then again from 5.55 onwards when Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan set up a ma ma ga ga re re sa riff, and then let rip right through to the end.

So how is it that the second note, the supertonic, has the same name – re – in both systems?

Wikipedia tries to be our friend here, but doesn’t answer the question – though it does pose an alternative to the conventionally advanced explanation of the solfa terms, by comparing them with the Arabic system (dāl, rā’, mīm, fā’, ṣād, lām, tā’). A cursory glance establishes that the Arabic system appears to be much closer to solfa than to the Hindustani sargam, so perhaps we can pass over my vague Indo-European “language family history” idea – romantic in its own way, but overly fanciful, as so often the case…

While on the subject Wikipedia does also point out that there is also a “home-grown” Gaelic sort of equivalent here in Scotland in the form of canntaireachd.

And is the Scottish supertonic also “re”?

Well, no, it’s much more complicated than that, though Barnaby Brown, an early visitor to Ceòlas, evidently has a good handle on it in his notation guide, and has also been exploring Indian links. It turns out there are no easy answers to my sleep-disturbing question, but I do have an excuse to finish with a couple of clips of South Uist’s own Rona Lightfoot, who is a real Ceòlas stalwart…

Here’s a nice piece of work from Education Scotland with an audio clip of Rona:

http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandssongs/gaelicsongs/canntaireachd.asp

And here she is again, in YouTube style, with Phil Cunningham adding his own brand of edge-softening “fusion”.

Rona really does know her musical stuff, is grounded, and has a lovely voice. Suitably soothed, I can go back to sleep…

Of Islands and Identities

TeampullSunburst
Here’s a question, prompted by witnessing yet more Facebook fractiousness – never in short supply when threads weave around “independence”, or “nationalism” (whether in the context of Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK, or the UK’s with the rest of Europe). Does the giddy whirlpool of identity politics ever stop swirling through the social media? I can do without it.

One of the things that made me a willing island-dweller is the enhanced sense of detachment from attention-seeking, loyalty-demanding “centres of power” – be they based in Brussels, London, Edinburgh, or even Stornoway. I may or may not agree that the various responsibilities the big towns claim for themselves are fairly distributed. The point is that, even if I do, I clearly don’t need to “identify” myself exclusively with the polity or jurisdiction over which each one exercises its “authority”. That’s fundamentally not sensible, in my view. The real world is mobile and multi-polar. Our loyalties and attention shift and divide – and properly so.

TeampullCrotalThis is not new. Take Gaelic, for example – an important part of my current cultural make-up (as I’ve mentioned once or twice elsewhere). One of the many highlights of a recent visit from Irish language enthusiasts was seeing how close we could get to Teampull Chaluim Chille in Balivanich (Baile a’ Mhanaich – The Monk’s Town). The name alone evokes a “pan-Gaelic” past that pre-dates notions of “Ireland” and “Scotland” as the separate “nations” we think of today. But history moved on, and while we may still feel the pull of cultural and linguistic affinity as Gaels, there probably aren’t many around today who will profess a loyalty to “Gaeldom” alone, wholly to the exclusion of other cultural constructs – such as “Scotland”, or “Ireland”, or even indeed “Britain”, or “Europe”.

As it turned out, the land around the Teampull is so boggy that most of us didn’t properly complete our mini-pilgrimage, with the noble exception of Mairtín. His perseverance paid off though, as he got some stunning shots there that sit very prettily alongside the rest of his Benbecula album. Surely we can all recognise and acknowledge the beauty to be found here, irrespective of IMG_0786autocorrecthow we each place ourselves “culturally” or “nationally”. We all have the capacity to appreciate others’ work and worth, and that seems to me like a better basis on which to construct healthy relationships, and so reasonable dialogue, than any over-emphasised or falsely attributed “cultural differences” that tend only to solidify as self-fulfilling prophecies. I wish folk would stop disrespecting other people’s integrity or intelligence on the basis of how they divide up their communal identities. It’s disturbing. I may be about to relieve my FB friends list of a few folk (none pictured here) who can’t seem to break out of a vicious-looking circle. Time to set course away from a “virtual Coire Bhreacain” being fed by dodgy-looking ethno-essentialist undercurrents…

(Disclaimer: These are my own musings. None of the gaisgich pictured above should be implicated in any political, constitutional, or other conclusions that readers may wish to draw from them. I think it’s fair to say the consensus was that we had a jolly good time…)

21st Century Brits: Young, Black – and Gifted?

“Cyber Nat!” “Brit Nat!” “Scot Nat!” “North Brit!”

Divisive name-calling in the blogosphere or “social media” does nothing to enhance what’s billed as the most important political and constitutional debate we’ve had in Scotland in hundreds of years. In a global context, how two of the larger parts of these smallish islands choose to structure their relationship is probably not very significant, but I do have some regard for Bill Clinton’s reported view that the way the debate is conducted is at least as important as the result of the vote itself. I think it may be more so. After all, as wiser people on both sides have said, once it’s over we will have to live with each other. And, without being too pious about it, that does mean minding our language, and treating each other with due respect.

Take the word “Brit”, for example. I dislike the dismissive and scornful way it’s being used by some. OK, in part it’s personal. After all, I myself am an English-speaking, Gaelic-speaking, Hindi-speaking “Brit”. While the first three elements of that package are accomplishments in which I take a lot of pleasure, the fourth is a simple matter of mixed parental (English and Uibhisteach) fact, a badge of neither honour nor disgrace, and certainly not deserving of knee-jerk animosity from those claiming to be on the progressive side of political history.

But there’s more to it than my own personal sensitivities. I am far from alone. In fact, it appears that “Brit-bashers” are quite simply behind the curve on basic demographic trends. According to 2011 census data, as reported by Mark Easton, it’s younger people living in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods who are the most likely to identify as British – and plainly not because of some sentimental hankering after the days of the openly racist Raj, gone long before they were even born. Far from it. “British” is now owned and used as a handy catch-all label that embraces a wide range of heritage ethnicities or nationalities on these islands. (The BBC report deals mainly with more detailed figures for England and Wales, but a quick check of the Scottish census site suggests similarly higher proportions of British identification amongst the same ethnic groups.)

Twisting a lyric from my own youthful exposure to Bob and Marcia, it appears 21st Century Brits are increasingly Young and Black – and dare I say Gifted with a contemporary identity that has moved on from either glory or shame in past imperial history. I’m now pretty old, evidently white, and of questionable talent, but this kind of inclusive and multicultural Britishness seems rather positive to me. To knock it for no good reason looks strangely out of touch in this day and age.

Could it be among the reasons why the youth vote may not pan out as first predicted?

Rionnagan Reggae

“From another island, from another time”… I’ve enjoyed putting together a wee Gaelic “series” for our nascent community radio station here in Uist, featuring favourite tracks out of Kingston, Jamaica, from the sixties and seventies. I’ve nicked a short extract here to put on SoundCloud – just as a wee taster.

It features Clancy Eccles with “Fattie Fattie”. Other tracks in the series are “Red, Red Wine” (Tony Tribe), “Monkey Man” (Toots and the Maytals), “Sweet Sensation” (The Melodians), and “Johnny Too Bad” (The Slickers). Younger readers may remember the UB40 covers of some of these, if not the originals…

It’s a bit of a trip down memory lane for me – mixed memories to be honest. The music was great, in starkly disciplined and danceable contrast to the self-indulgent and seemingly stoned “oeuvres” of the likes of Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead, the preferred listening of many of my would-be hippy schoolmates. But like them I wore the “grammar school uniform” of the times (shoulder-length hair and a greatcoat) – and so was an obvious target for the other new counter-culture, the “hippy-bashing” skinheads. I remember a few high-tension stand-offs on the meaner streets of outwardly douce Didcot and Wallingford…

How incongruous looking back, when the skinhead image is now so firmly established as a badge of identity for many violent and white-supremacist groupings across Europe and North America, to clock that the founding members took their musical inspiration from Kingston, Jamaica…

The soundcloud clip offers a short taste of the featured song. Here’s a YouTube recording of the full track. Check it out…

And you can listen to An Radio here. (Click on An Radio Player.)

Machraichean Uibhist

What a flower show this past few weeks. You can’t beat Uist fields and roadsides for “Gàirnealaireachd Ghàidhealach“! Click to enlarge…

Might anyone wish to use any of these pictures, that should be fine. Just drop me a line – and give me a credit…🙂 .

Hindi Text to Gaelic Speech

Hindi Text for Gaelic SpeechI had some fun on Facebook last week, posting a link to a Google Translate page – not because I was at all interested in the machine translation, but because with some languages, including both English and Hindi, an additional “Text To Speech” (TTS) facility is thrown in. It’s this synthesized speech function I was wanting to highlight. I’m not sure all my friends got that point, so I’m posting again, but this time with a bit more explanation and a screenshot thrown in. (This is where WordPress wins over Facebook hands down!)

So here goes. If you’re interested in Gaelic “TTS” follow this link to get my own “off the shelf” take on it. Never mind the proffered translation on the right hand side of the page. That’s irrelevant to my purpose. Just click on the “Listen” speaker icon (circled in red in the picture above) in the left hand box containing the “Hindi” script.

Some of my Gaelic-speaking friends were quite taken with the result, whereas I can be sure none of my Hindi-speaking friends would have made head or tail of it – unless they could also understand Gaelic…

Ho hum, if only our Gaelic-speaking forefathers had chosen to write in Devanagari instead of the Roman alphabet, how much further forward might we now be!? Actually, you can do the same sort of trick with “English” TTS. Follow this link – which, if nothing else (if you can bear to listen), demonstrates the phonetic distance that your “average” English English speaker has to travel in order to get anywhere close to the Gaelic sound system…

A bit of fun, as I said. But I’m tempted to extract a linguistic moral, nonetheless. Language and writing are not one and the same thing. Speech can be effectively represented on the page or screen in many different ways. When we privilege one system over another, perhaps in a search for standardisation or normalisation, we may be prone to accord an exaggerated importance to orthographic orthodoxy, at the cost of undervaluing oral ability. Yet speech comes to us first. It is the real deal, writing a mere representation.

Me, music, and language

The hunter hunted. (When I helped Loriana get started with her fantastic blog and interview work, I didn’t expect her to turn her guns on me…) Fair game, I suppose, and if the second clip encourages others to try things out with Island Voices, then fair enough. It’s achieved something.

FROM THE WATER'S EDGE

This interview  with Gordon Wells, the Project Officer of Island Voices, is given in two parts.

I. In the first part, Gordon speaks about his home made flute – the ‘ Gaelic Shakuhachi’, the Winter Blues and why he has chosen to live on the Uists.

To listen to part I (13.30 min), click here:

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II. In the second part of the interview, Gordon talks about his interest in languages  and gives a very beautiful and inspiring definition of language. At the end he shares with us the background and the vision of the project Island Voices.  To listen to part II (15.30 min) click here:

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