um:- Oampaign for real Gael
Thom Dibdin discovers the magic of Capercaillie, with the help of their accordionist and keyboard player Donald Shaw.
Under a full moon at the Acropolis tent on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. Capercaillie attracted capacity crowds to their Festival concerts. For a full ten minutes after the band had ﬁnished their encores on the last night and the house lights had come up for the District Council-imposed curfew. the crowd stood clapping. cheering and generally baying for more. Lots more. Capercaillie are riding a wave of popularity. Much is made of last year‘s Britain-wide hit. ‘Coisich a Ruin‘. but there is more to it than the understandable exclamations at a Gaelic song reaching the Top 40. The wave is carrying them between two separate. although not unconnected forces: the surge of folk-based in-your- face dance bands epitomised by the likes of the late lamented Swamp Trash. and the continued resurgence of serious folk songs and tunes. based on a sit-down. theatre-orientated culture. ‘The whole roots of our music have come from the idea that you would dance to it.‘ says accordion and keyboard player Donald Shaw. ‘We were brought up playing traditional music — that was the bread and butter of
‘We don’t write much Gaelic because there is such a huge wealth of untapped traditional material.’
it. really. reels and jigs. Then we started getting into Gaelic song a lot more and started to work with the possibilities. musically. of the songs. Now we are more of a song-based band.‘
Live. and on the latest album. Secret People. the reels and jigs provide lively and hectic alternatives to the slower songs. This could have been a problem for the band as they started to play larger venues such as Glasgow’s Barrowland. ‘Our fear was that it would turn itselfon its head completely.‘ remembers Shaw. ‘that we would become almost unmusical. But when we did the slower songs. the audience were still really with us.‘
Although the band do write new songs in Gaelic. Shaw points out it is not their ﬁrst language. so they tend to write in English. ‘There is a song on the album. “Oran” (simply meaning “song") where i wrote the music and the Gaelic Poet Aonghas MacNeacil wrote the words.‘ he says. ‘Also. we don’t write much Gaelic because there is such a huge wealth of untapped traditional material. that you don‘t feel the need to
be writing anything new.’
Shaw is aware of the current backlash against Gaelic. with the amount of attention given to the Gaelic television budget: ‘We often get people saying. “Why bother retaining a language that is dying?" But there is such a wealth of literary greatness from over the last two of three centuries that it would be a sin to lose it all.‘
Two of the songs on the album. both given to the band by Norman McLean. illustrate the diversity of the songs which Capercaillie have taken and turned to their blend of ancient and modern. ‘Bonaparte’ is a thundering battle-cry from the Napoleonic wars. ‘The Highlanders of Argyll had heard about this guy Napoleon and all his
feats of glory in Europe.‘ says Shaw. ‘In the song they are saying give us a broadsword and we'll go over to France and show you what being a warrior is all about.‘ On a more lyrical front.
‘The whole roots of our music have come from the idea that you would dance to it.’
there is the haunting beauty of ‘An Eala Bhan‘ (‘The White Swan'). Written by a South Uist man while he was in the trenches in the First World War. it is a song of packed with images and metaphors.
Capercaillie: “riding a wave oi popularity'
Cultural reasons apart. singer Karen Matheson's clear tones are perfectly suited to Gaelic. particularly in the rhythmic arrangements of traditional mouth music. ‘lt is like an early form of rapping. but very musical with dittyish-lype melodies.‘ says Shaw of the style. which originated when the pipes were banned after the failure of the Jacobite uprising. ‘The singers tried to emulate the pipes by singing — the emphasis is on the rhythm.‘ With i thousands of songs left to arrange. i Capercaillie's fans need not worry; there is still more music to come. Much more music.
Secret People is released on [3 September. Capercaillie will tour I
Scotland in November. I
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