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New Life in Old Ears – The Rit Fal Dal Effect

I experienced a strange sensory assault when I went back to India at the age of 20 as a York University student, having lived there as a child until the age of 4. Strange because the distinctive “new” smells and tastes I came across, like rose-flavoured lassi, were not actually new to me at all, but had lain undisturbed in some long unused part of the brain to the point where I had forgotten that I knew them. It’s hard to capture in words the sensation of discovering something already familiar in what purports to be new. But it was exciting.

42 years later I’ve just had a similar experience, with the overdue fitting of a pair of NHS hearing aids in Ospadal Uibhist agus Bharraigh. (“Overdue” in the sense that I should probably have sought help years ago. I have “moderate to severe” hearing loss at higher frequencies, like my dad before me – and his dad before him. This means it’s difficult for me to hear the difference between language sounds whose distinctiveness is evidenced at the upper end of a vocal spectrogram – like voiceless th and s, for example, in “thing” and “sing”.)

Even as the audiologist was still talking me through the fitting process, I found myself “rediscovering” that the word “still” does indeed start with an s. Of course, this is something that, conceptually, I “knew”. It’s just that the brain, which is a very clever piece of kit when it comes to dealing with language, had disguised from me that my failing ears were no longer picking up important distinctions, by using the redundancy which characterises all language to supply a best guess, usually accurate, at which sound I should be hearing, and allowing me to “think” that I actually had. So, although I wasn’t physically hearing a clear s, nine times out of ten I probably thought I was (if I thought about it at all). Quite disconcerting then, in a pleasant kind of way, to be confronted with the evidence of a “real” s exactly where you’d expect it, and the realisation that the sound I had thought was always there had only been supplied to me by my own imagination.

Add to that linguistic complexity the simple pleasures of clocking the starlings twittering away as soon as I walked out of the hospital, or noticing for the first time in a long while the range of sounds your shoes make when they scuff the doormat when you get home. It’s quite an intoxicating auditory brew. And, as with my earlier Indian experience and the way it rekindled memories from infancy, so again I found myself reminded of an earlier period of my life, when hearing the sound of birdsong was an unexceptional experience. I hadn’t particularly noticed its absence, but again there was something very refreshing about this reacquaintance with a familiar thing.

Then in a moment of serendipity, just as I was pondering this strange coming together of revived sensory perception and uncovered self-deception and its capacity to stimulate vivid reminiscence, and wondering if there was a name for it, Jon Blake went and revealed a hitherto unheard 40-year old recording of the Rit Fal Dals, the folk group that he and I and Chris Heron sang and played in when we were all students at York… And not just a recording – he also had 40-year old photos of the band and the city, which – as you do – he’d put together into a nice wee picture sequence on YouTube. A man of many talents. The hits have since been pouring in from the York Past & Present Facebook group, and probably other sources too. It seems I’m not alone in taking delight in recovering remembered but repressed sounds or sights.

(Jon has some other Rit Fal Dal tracks from the same recording session on his Soundcloud site.)

So can anyone help me out here? Is there a name for this syndrome, in which revived or remembered sensations stimulate forgotten memories, simultaneously affirming the enriching power of your sensory capacities while exposing their liability to wither, conceal and deceive? Until someone points me to a higher authority, I claim its discovery (or perhaps invention) and name it the Rit Fal Dal Effect… Ta dah!

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


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:

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…

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.

Part 1 on SoundCloud here:

Part 2 on SoundCloud here:




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:


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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Meet Catrin Evans, new singer-songwriter

Agus seo pìos eile, a’ sealltainn nach eil òigridh Uibhist gun tàlant san nòs ùr…

Island Voices - Guthan nan Eilean

Catrin Evans lives on Grimsay and studies at Sgoil Lìonacleit. And in her spare time she writes songs – songs which are making an impression. She’s started to be a regular performer at Taigh Chearsabhagh’s Taigh Ciùil, and she’s been away to the “Wee Studio” in Stornoway to make some recordings, thanks to family support and a Creative Scotland award for young musicians. Here, she talks to Gordon Wells about how she started writing songs, what the process is, and how the island environment inspires her. She also talks about the experience of recording in a professional studio, and how it’s boosted her confidence and desire to do more writing and performing:-

(If you’re an iPad or iPhone user you may need to follow this link:

Here’s the Wee Studio recording of one of her songs – “Battleship”. (And you can follow the words if you…

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Sianail Phàdruig

A piece from the day job blog, highlighting a new Ipadio channel from a younger communtiy member who values his traditional inheritance…

Island Voices - Guthan nan Eilean

Tha Pàdruig Moireasdan air sianail ùr aige fhèin a stèidheachadh air Ipadio. Ach an àite a bhith ga cleachdadh airson phonecasts a dhèanamh, tha e air tòiseachadh le faidhlichean MP3 a chur oirre.

Tha CD a’ dol leis an leabhar aig a sheanair, “Thugam agus Bhuam”, air a bheil Lachlann Phàdruig (athair Phàdruig òig) a’ gabhail feadhainn dhe na h-òrain aig athair fhèin agus e a’ còmhradh le Gordon Wells. Tha Pàdruig òg air an cur air-loidhne a-nis, gus an tèid aig luchd-ionnsachaidh is eile air an cluinntinn gu furasta. ‘S e goireas ùr cuideachail a tha seo. Agus ma tha sibh airson na faclan fhaicinn cuideachd chan fheum sibh ach an leabhar fhaighinn… Nach math a rinn e!

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Music of the Muezzin

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…

Doubling up on Shak and Sax: Musical Bilingualism?

Learning languages is not a zero sum game. The notion that there’s only so much space in your brain to accommodate your linguistic competence and/or diversity, and that therefore, for example, you’re doing your kids a favour if you abandon your own home language in favour of whatever standard is used in their school, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, a good exposure to two or more different linguistic codes may well stand to boost your capacity in both of them. Dick Johnstone reported finding higher order English skills in children attending Gaelic medium education.

So what about music? Is there, by analogy, a chance or indeed likelihood that playing more than one instrument, say, will you make a better musician? Broadly speaking, I can see sense in that, but I wouldn’t want to push it very far without caveats. My keyboard skills are pretty rudimentary, but it’s probably true that my harmonic awareness, such as it is, which I’ve developed in part through playing around on the keyboard, has contributed in some degree to any melodic innovation I might try on the flute. If I know the chords that are coming I’ve got a better idea of where I can go with a tune.

But if you pick that apart a bit all I’m actually saying there is that harmonic awareness enhances melodic invention. The fact that I happen to play mostly chords on the piano and tunes on the flute is coincidental.

So what about two melodic instruments, say flute and saxophone? We’re in murkier water here. There’s plenty of debate (examples here) on the web about the merits or otherwise of doubling up on flutes and reeds. A lot of professionals do it, but the debate is almost always framed in terms of damage limitation rather than mutual enhancement. The consensus seems to be that, yes, it’s possible to be a very good player of both instruments, provided you put in countless hours of practice so that your lip muscles in particular can easily adjust to the very different requirements of either instrument. And the nagging doubt remains that if you chose to focus on just one of the two and put in the same hours you could be better still on that one instrument.

So, if you’re looking at this question from the perspective of musical technique, I think it’s difficult to argue very strongly for the bilingualism analogy. However, to the extent that different musical instruments are associated with, and adapted to “encode”, different musical traditions, there may well be grounds for arguing that learning two instruments, and therefore two different traditions, stands to enhance overall musical competence/capacity/creativity.

A couple of examples to finish, offered with some trepidation. They’re both from Bi Beò tracks. On Dannsa a’ Phortain I play alto saxophone, and on Hougharry Reel my own haund-knitted “Gaelic shakuhachi”.

Dannsa a’ Phortain:

Hougharry Reel:

In my case, doubling up on the two is clearly no guarantee of superior technique on either… But on the other hand experimentation with both Western and other traditions has been, for me at least, a refreshing musical experience, and offered the opportunity to create something new and different. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I finally found a place for it in a Gaelic band?

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?

Musing on musico-linguistic linkage

This blog is broadly meant to provide some sort of reflective hinterland for my language work, but a recent spurt of recording and performing with the band in which I sometimes play has prompted me to think again about the links between language and music. It’s perhaps a bit of a diversion, but music has long been held to have a particular salience in relation to Gaelic language and culture, so it shouldn’t be irrelevant.

A Google search under “musico-linguistics” unearthed this article – – by Mihailo Antovic, which provides a summary of research trends and developments in this area in the past 30 to 40 years. To “summarise the summary” a number of folk have taken an interest in using a linguistic model of analysis as a template for investigating music. At a theoretical level there has been some progress in aligning language and music analysis in a broader cognitive science context. Neurological investigation has also identified areas of overlap.

Though I haven’t studied the field it makes sense to me that features common to both language and music, such as rhythm, stress, and contrastive pitch should have some common genesis. I can probably take or leave (though preferably leave…) the intricacies of the latest advances in Optimality Theory, but I am interested in how we learn both language and music, and whether/how progress in one can support progress in the other.

I suppose my questions and concerns from what I’ve read and/or thought about so far are twofold.

Firstly, if such a thing as a “Universal Grammar” of both language and music is conceivable, then on the music side of things it needs to be inclusive enough to embrace not just the Western classical tradition, which appears to have been the focus of early study in this field (for example by Bernstein), but all other strands of musical tradition across the world – perhaps begging the question of what we mean by the term “music”.

Secondly, again in relation to music, a unifying model must surely describe “musical competence” as it applies to the population at large, not just to individual perfomers and/or composers. If, by analogy with language, music is to be viewed as a natural feature of human behaviour which we all share to some degree or other, then a focus on the output of exceptional exponents risks missing the general point – probably by some distance. Particularly in relation to my own “applied” interest in music learning/teaching – and how that relates to language learning/teaching – it strikes me that Music Therapy approaches in particular, which explore/develop the musical in us all, may have something to offer.

The above are two pretty fundamental concerns at a theoretical/conceptual, maybe “rarefied”, level. In terms of practical application my general interest would be in how music activity and acquisition may influence/assist language activity and acquisition, and perhaps vice versa. And, given my location, I would take a particular, though not exclusive, interest in this field in relation to Gaelic maintenance and transfer. I guess that narrows the focus somewhat. To be continued?

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