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.
Looking 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!
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.
This 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 how 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…)
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… 🙂 .
“For the Corncrake’s Sake” – an addition to my (very) occasional series on the theme of “Gàirnealaireachd Ghàidhealach”. If you’re thinking “RAF” or “bullseye” you may be on the right lines, but you’re still wide of the exact mark… (Click to enlarge.)
I’m just back from a short visit to Istanbul. With over 15 million people and over 3,000 mosques the contrast with Benbecula, with its 1500 people and 2 churches, could scarcely be starker – you might think. But there again, the waterfronts and ferry traffic, while on a completely different scale, provided at least one familiar point of reference.
It was a pleasure to cross the Bosphorus between Asia and Europe (for 2 Turkish Lira..) and wander down streets, through bazaars, and past mosques and museums. And what a tram service! (Also 2 Turkish Lira, flat rate.) Edinburgh, eat your heart out…
I snapped away with the iPhone, but the strongest impression made was not visual but auditory. Given there are over 3,000 of them in the city it seems like you’re never far from a mosque when the call to prayer goes out, and I made a few recordings. This one was at 4.30 in the morning on my last day – no need to worry if I’d set the alarm properly to get me to the airport on time…
Back home and googling “muezzin” I found some interesting links. While I had no complaints, the BBC reported some time ago that the musicality of some in Istanbul had been called into question, leading to extra training being delivered. And Sun Myung Moon’s Wikipedia-style “New World Encyclopedia” makes a link between Muslim Muezzin, Jewish Hazzan, and Christian Precentor. Being an adherent of none of these faiths, I’m happy to leave comparative theology in others’ hands – but a possible musical link does interest me. And I’m evidently not alone, judging from the comments section on this YouTube video showing some fine examples of the precentor’s melismatic role in leading traditional Gaelic psalmody. (I’m indebted to The Croft for bringing this clip to my attention, where further discussion of the local singing tradition can be found.)
So, perhaps the link from Byzantium to Benbecula, while attenuated in space and time, may not be as thin as first appearances may suggest…
Question: How do I get from Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to All American renaissance man Paul Robeson via the Reverend George Reginald Wells (alias my dad) in less than six degrees of separation? And end up at home in the Hebrides?
Answer: Follow the musical trail…
Step One. Here’s the Qawwali master in a spell-binding performance in the video clip below of “Ye jo halkaa halkaa suroor hai”. (Go to this blog for Romanised Urdu lyrics and English translation of the basic text.) The clip takes you through a transcendental Sufi meditation on “light intoxication” in the presence of the divine. Recorded live in Birmingham in 1983 – the year I started working there – it’s a full seventy minute rendition. (I wasn’t at this performance, but did get to see him performing some years later.) If you’re in the mood, stay with it right the way through. Alternatively, after several introductory “scene-setting” verses, just check the introduction of the main theme at 5.22. The central lyric and melody are gradually expounded over the next couple of minutes, before the musical ante is raised again at 7.24. Having now clocked the tune, feel free to move on “from the sublime” straight to Step Two. But be careful. It’s quite a jump.
یہ جو ہلکا ہلکا سرور ہے
Step Two. Now check this song “Chale jaise havaien” from the Hindi film “Main hoon na”. Recognise that tune from somewhere? Yes, it’s a classic example of the Bollywood capacity to “borrow” musical patterns that work, and “recycle” them to mass popular acclaim. Note also the location of the film, shot at St Paul’s School, Darjeeling.
चले जैसे हवाईएँ
Step Three. Wind back the years to the Second World War. Same location. Very different ambience. This is pre-Independence India, and St Paul’s, originally an Anglo-Indian school, is in its colonial heyday – run on traditional English Public School lines, complete with the then young (but to be long-lived) school “padre” fresh out from Blighty, George Reginald Wells. Despite (or maybe because of?) his intensive choral training at King’s College, Cambridge, Dad confessed to having a poor ear for Indian musicality, so quite what he would have made of the Ustad I’m not sure, but I fear he would perhaps have been “less than impressed” by this Bollywood jollity in a setting he always looked back on with deep and serious affection, bordering on reverence. Which cues a return from lighthearted if skilfully executed fun and exuberance to something rather more spiritual.
Once in Royal David’s City
Step Four. Dad was actually the only one of four Wells brothers who didn’t get to do the opening treble solo at the annual festival of carols, but he did become a very fine bass-baritone himself, and he appreciated the talents of others too when he recognised them, which took him to Sheffield Town Hall, even before his Darjeeling days, to see and hear Paul Robeson in concert, another experience he liked to recall in later years. “Deep River” was one of his favourites, but this clip, wherever it was recorded, is worth listening to right through, as it gives an impression not only of Robeson’s singing talent, but also of his wider humanitarian drive and motivations. Often described as decades ahead of his time, was he also an early exponent of what we now call “World Music”?
Deep River (and then some)
Step Five. Here in Benbecula, I’m left wondering if Robeson’s rendition of the “Eriskay Love Lilt” (from 4.58) was Dad’s first introduction to Gaelic music, an initial Hebridean connection before meeting and marrying Uist crofter’s daughter Anna Sheonaidh ‘ic Ghilleasbaig – “Ban Uibhisteach ann an India”?
And the rest, of course, is history…
Have I woven an unusually complex web? Well no, I don’t think so, though I’m pleased to have inlaid a couple of sparkling gems in the pattern, despite my “humble” crofting stock. If we’re all a maximum of just six steps away from everyone else, metaphorically if not literally, then we’re all capable of intricate variations on this kind of theme. It’s a great game. Just pick a couple of big names from the worlds of music, sport, politics etc, and trace a linking path through a family connection. We can all be touched by distinction or genius. Everyone should try it!
For all my pro-Gaelic sympathies it was inspiring and instructive to witness some fine Scots recitations at Nunton on Saturday night – in the very heart of Benbecula indeed. The somewhat informal theme was Burns – the perfect excuse for an evening of good food, poetry, and song.
First up was the Address to the Haggis, delivered by the knife-wielding, Dumfries-born and raised Denis Johnston.
Can you get more authentic than that?
And after the appetiser from the South West the main course: Tam O Shanter given a riproaring North Easterly slant by Rob “One Take” Keltie. The bravura performance speaks for itself, but it’s worth recording that it was genuinely delivered entirely from memory.
Then to the songs, led by an ad hoc “Benbecula Burns Band” anchored by Rob again. The first set consisted of The Silver Tassie, John Anderson/Margaret’s Waltz, and Ye Banks and Braes, with the audience participation growing as they warmed to the task. A taste:
In the second half we were treated to a section of Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, delivered this time by the very firmly rooted Lachie Morrison of “generational fame”, again entirely from memory and beautifully filtered through his own high fidelity Gaelic sound system, and which he then followed up with a reading from Thomas Campbell’s Lord Ullin’s Daughter.
Further musical contributions were made by Kate Dawson and John Buckmaster, with notable keyboard pyrotechnics provided by Lachie’s son Padruig. “Formal proceedings” were then completed with a second set from “BBB”, rattling through the following old favourites (while adding an element of innovation/uncertainty by keeping everyone, including themselves, guessing as to the preferred tune…): My Love is like a Red Red Rose, Ca’ the Yowes/Chì mi na Mòrbheanna, Ae Fond Kiss, Auld Lang Syne. By the end the “audience” had more or less completely taken over the performance – difficult to know which side was more relieved…
But all in all a great evening’s entertainment, self-generated from within the community by both “incomers” and “tùsanaich”, of which these recordings can only give an inferior impression. And a reminder to me, and any others in this blog’s readership/audience who might share a linguistic interest, of the rich oral resource that our languages can create and embody, a resource which the written word by itself may seek to imitate or record but can never adequately replace.
And that’s just one half of the story in these parts, by the way. See here what they were getting up to over the causeway in Berneray just recently …
I’ve just had a chat with Archie Mackay, sitting in his offices here in Balivanich. Congratulations on the Award, Archie!
Visit http://ipad.io/GSv to hear my Gaelic phonecast
Or listen here:
That was such fun we did it again – in English this time – which should mean we get a free automated transcript thrown in for good measure! From phone to phlog to blog in less than ten minutes. Hmmm…..
Visit http://ipad.io/GSw to hear the English phonecast
Or listen here: