Scotland’s biggest folk festival is again set to
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ALY BAIN FEATURE
take Celtic music out of the smoky back room and onto an
international stage. Kicking off -The List’s three page guide to Celtic Connections, Eddie Gibb meets acclaimed ﬁddler Aly Bain, who is intent on reconciling his Shetland folk roots with classical music. Celtic Connections events are listed on the following pages.
The reel thing
hen Aly Bain was thirteen, a violin teacher arrived at his school who took great delight in sight-reading traditional Shetland reels, note-perfect, to demonstrate how primitive the music was compared to his own classical style. As Bain states in the self-penned chapter of Alastair Clark’s biography Fiddler On The Loose: ‘I had met my ﬁrst musical snob.’
Bain spent his adolescence hating the indignities that were heaped on traditional Scottish folk music. ‘l’d been brought up on Hollywood orchestras playing “Brigadoon” or horrible arrange- ments of traditional tunes,’ he says. ‘They could play the melody, but they didn’t understand the tune.’
For Bain, generally regarded as Scotland’s ﬁnest ﬁddle player, the tune has always been the thing, whether it comes from the bayous of Louisiana’s cajun country or the chillier northern climes of Scandinavia. Since leaving Shetland in 1968, Bain has travelled all over the world meeting folk musicians with whom he can usually ﬁnd some common thread in musical styles. Now. almost 30 years after running into his ﬁrst musical snob, Bain ﬁnds himself sitting down to play with a fully-ﬂedged classical chamber orchestra, the BT Scottish Ensemble. That he ﬁnds himself in the company of musicians like the ensemble's artistic director and violinist Clio Gould. whose delicate ﬁngers are ' unaccustomed to sawing out jigs in smoky pub sessions, is a sign of how far Bain has travelled musically since leaving Shetland. It also reflects how a younger generation of classical players are embracing folk styles and even, wait for it, ﬁddle tunes.
it all from memory. Orchestras tend to be slightly rigid and Aly just breezed in and enjoyed it. He’s wonderful to work with.’
The Moonstone project is an illustration of Bain‘s determination to innovate, while respecting musical traditions. From an early age he was playing the ﬁddle in folk groups with men 40 or 50 years his senior, learning techniques and tunes passed down the
generations in Shetland. On the family radio, meanwhile, Bain was tuning into American stations playing Elvis, Little Richard and ‘Rock Around The Clock’. The post-war years of
‘The reason I llked rock ’n’ roll music was because it was real and meant freedom. Music started the revolution and in
‘Ach, I guess I just liked Shetland music,’ he says. ‘I knew all the old players and had listened to them since I was young. We always had instruments and we would always play. What I hated was the 505 — the horrible Doris Day thing and the religious rules. The reason I liked [rock ’n’ roll] music was because it was real and meant freedom. It was our generation’s music. Music started the revolution and in my opinion there needed to be the 605 to get rid of all the hang-ups.’
After leaving Shetland in 1968, Bain headed for Glasgow where his brother was a full-time Communist Party activist. Bain ran into guitan’st Mike Whellans and Billy Connolly, an extrovert bluegrass banjo-player with a neat line in between-song patter. By 1970, Bain and Whellans, who formed Irish- Scottish band Boys of the Lough together, were booked to tour America’s burgeoning coffee house circuit where a full-scale folk revival
was in progress. Two years later, Bain hooked up with a group of cajun musicians in the ﬁrst of what was to become an endless succession of collaborations with folk musicians from different cultures.
The most recent collaboration can be seen on The Transatlantic * Sessions, pairing Bain with American ﬁddler Jay Ungar, and uniting a whole host of Celtic and country musicians from Mary Black and Altan’s Maircad Ni Mhaonaigh to Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark. The presence of stars like Ham's, who have enormous appeal to both folk and country rock fans in Scotland, gives this project enormous potential for ﬁnding Celtic folkies like Bain a new audience. British pop music, which has many of its roots in American blues and country, has always been
Bain and the BT Scottish my opinion there needed to be the 605 to get rid of a" separated from the folk tradition in Ensemble’s collaboration has me hang_ups.s this country. resulted in an album, Follow The ‘There are huge similarities Moonstone, a cycle of mainly Aly Bain between our music and American
traditional folk tunes arranged by
Norwegian composer Henning Sommerro, tracing the links between Scottish, Shetland and Scandinavian ﬁddle music. The collision between Bain's exuberant playing and the rich, measured tones of the eleven-piece string ensemble is both bizarre and beautiful. ‘lt’s amazing what a contrast there was between the two styles,’ agrees Gould. ‘We have less room for spontaneity and are tied to the printed page, whereas Aly doesn’t play from music - he plays
dismal, narrow-minded conformity were banished and the teenager had been invented.
Bain flirted with country and skifﬁc in a school group called The Rhythm Aces, but the ﬁddle remained his ﬁrst love and the young ﬁddler’s head was never turned by the pelvis- swinging opportunities offered by the big red guitars the American stars favoured. There was clearly a rebel spirit in him, so why didn’t he form a rock ’n’ roll band?
music.’ says Bain. ‘I remember the ﬁrst time we met the cajuns. it was obvious it was very akin to our own music. They were trying to do the same thing — keep their roots and their culture alivc.’
Aly Bain and the BT Scottish Ensemble play the Tramway, Glasgow on Sunday 7 December: Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham play Barony Hall at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow on ll'z'dnesday 10 December.
The List l5 Dec 1995-“ Jan 1996 29