Bi Beò and Gaelic Reggae: New Island Record
Yes! A lifetime ambition finally achieved – I get to play in (and compose for) a reggae band. Well, rock’n’roll’n’reggae band, but it’s the third R that’s my personal favourite. I filmed James MacLetchie and Kevin de Las Casas as a songwriting partnership for the first series of Guthan nan Eilean/Island Voices. They seemed to be having a lot of fun, so I was later pleased to join in when the chance arose for a broader collaboration with the band’s new album “Ma Sgaoil”.
Anna-Wendy Stevenson has been generous in her appreciation in the local paper. The material is all Gaelic – 12 original tracks plus a dub version – but not exactly traditional. It’s mostly lighthearted foot-tapping stuff, with James’s lyrics bordering on the bawdy from time to time. The sound, recorded and mixed in Kevin’s outhouse studio in Hougharry on North Uist, has a certain insular “rawness”. It would be nice to think it captures an island essence, but only time will tell if the Bi Beò name will one day carry the same resonance as, say, the Melodians, the Slickers, or maybe the Upsetters. There’s a way to go yet…
Eyebrows may be raised at the notion of any kind of reggae rhythm against a Gaelic song. For me it was a question of musicality in the “unleashed” spirit of the album. I had a couple of tunes that would have been fine melodically and harmonically as traditional ballad numbers. “Sgath Sgitheanach” actually started life as the slow air “Catherine Eunson’s Return to Benbecula (after a Business Meeting in Stornoway)”, but adding a chorus and whacking it up to a more Ska-like tempo injected some extra energy into what became a party song. James’s soulful lyric for “Sùilean dubh nan eilean” required a strong melody again but with a rather gentler treatment, so there’s perhaps more of a Lover’s Rock feel to that number, even if it’s still on the brash side.
Anyway, one or two tracks from the album are on the very busy myspace site that James maintains. It’s been a hoot to get involved in creating some real mongrel music. As far as the Gaelic tradition goes this is definitely on the irreverent side, and very possibly irrelevant also. It’s certainly hard to see how it would score on any musical “indigeneity index” were such a thing to exist, though James’s lyrics are plainly “of the earth”. The simple fact is that there are plenty of excellent musicians producing material in a traditional style, or close to it, that this band could never hope to emulate. This is “something completely different”, though not necessarily frivolous, as Kevin’s opening “Ruith leis a’ ghaoith” demonstrates. The exile theme of this song is both universal and particular, and imbued with a real depth of emotion evoked in inimitable style by his singular guitar playing. And the whole is topped off by a nicely moody dub version of the same track to close – and bring us back full circle.
Far be it from me to invoke higher powers – but the linguist in me notes there’s no great articulatory distance between “Dia” and “Jah”. Is this Hebridean-Caribbean fusion a marriage made in heaven?