Fgly Bain, Boy of the Lough and master of the Shetland fiddle, is off to America. Before he left,
he talked to Alan Taylor.
Bowdlerized. Wolfgang Amadeus was piped in like Legionnaires‘ Disease: cine kleinc snoozmoozac. Aly Bain opened the door oblivious to the signature tune. Tea was his tipple. not Nancy-boy Earl Grey but muddy char. a brew to dunk digestives in. While he combed neighbouring tables for an ashtray I gave him a hero‘s once over. On an ancient Boys ofthe Lough album cover. dug out the day before the interview. he is flaxen-faced and as hirsute as a yak. Twelve years on and roaring melodiously into his forties the beard has been broken in and he has the kind of complexion you get
from busking on the Mound in January.
Not that you‘re likely to come across him there. I last caught sight of him on Hogmanay just before the bells, sawing away on a programme called Aly Meets the Cajuns. evocative of Livingstone converting the heathen on the Congo. ‘Not your normal fag-end ofthe year fare‘. I observed as he lit the fuse. ‘No‘. he said. ‘I don't think there is such a thing as a New Year‘s Eve programme. My idea would be to put Jimmy Shand and his hand up there and just leave them. But they (the TV moguls) keep wanting to spend loads of money. The cajun one was
different — even if you didn‘t watch it the music was good.‘
The Cajuns. French-speakers beached in Louisiana. play fast, furious punk folk for kids ‘between 17 and 75‘ in roadhouses. barns or even out on the bayou. Aujourd‘hui they are on the crest of a revival thanks to interest generated in ‘world music‘. Esperanto for an orchestra that seems to embrace everything from coconut castanets to Shetland fiddles. Cajun music is. says Aly. happy music but with depth and history. and I doubt ifyou‘ll find a better definition of Aly‘s own foot-tapping fiddling. Nor is Cajun the only music that‘s on the upbeat.
After knocking out an album every year for nigh on twenty there are signs that Aly‘s Shetland ﬁddle can still reel out a jig. Records sell well (but not in the phone numbers to interest the juggernauts in the industry), kids are keen to learn the instrument and Channel 4 is about to broadcast a six-part series called Aly Bain and Friends, though you‘ll have to rise at the unfathomable hour of two on a Sunday afternoon if you want to watch it.
It‘s been a long haul back after the KO folkies took in the 505 courtesy of the hunk-a-hunk of burnin‘ love. Elvis the Pelvis. ‘Traditional music was non-existent for twenty years’. says Aly. incredulous at its recovery in intensive care. But while the King was pining away in the Heartbreak Hotel Aly Bain was whoopin‘ it up in Shetland where he was one of the few kids at school to adopt the instrument. Sure. he was an Elvis fan but the fiddle was his first love. How come? ‘I just picked it up‘. he says, as if it was a DHSS benefit. ‘It was the love of the music and the social life that went along with it. The fiddle was a natural instrument to pick up on Shetland because there were plenty of people you could learn from and see playing it all the time. But I never expected to do it for a living. it was just for fun.‘
By the age of 15 Aly was scraping at dances all over Shetland and earning a few bob. which is more than can be said of his formative years as a joiner. He served his time at the lathe but he wanted to make real dough — as a baker. ‘I always liked bakers‘. They were warm, there was a nice smell and there was always plenty to eat. I did eleven weeks as an apprentice baker but it went bust — not because of what I was being paid.’ Had an agent not spotted him he might still have been woodworking by day and fiddling at night.
Leaving Shetland was a wrench. said Aly, much greater than giving up his job. ‘I thought I‘d be down for a year and then I‘d go back. That was in 1967 and I was 21 .' He bought a railcard and toured at first on his own then with Mike Whellans. doing the pubs and clubs ‘in every nook and cranny in Britain.‘ In 1972 he joined the Boys of the Lough and he‘s been with them ever since. dovetailing his career as a soloist with making films, records and touring.
By the time you read this he‘ll be on the other side of the pond, zigzagging for six weeks. Vivaldi supplanted Wolfgang. the first ofthe four seasons on a dreich winter‘s day in the Old Town. More musical woodchip. ‘I never seem to have enough time‘. said Aly as he wrestled into his coat before stepping westwards. Was it true he spent more time now in Edinburgh than in Shetland? ‘It‘s equal this year. I don‘t know ifthat makes me a Scotsman or not. Do I qualify?‘ Thoughts of a divided self sunk in. ‘Maybe it doesn‘t make me a Shetlander any more which is really worrying.‘
Aly Bain and Friends starts on Sun 19 Feb. C4. 2pm. See Media Listings.
8 The List 10— 23 February