On Saturday 26 May at 12 noon and 12 midnight and Monday 28 May from 6.00pm you can hear Mary K Burke chatting to Seamus and Kenna Campbell about the family and the CD.
The roots music world is well familiar with the on-air persona of Mary Ann Kennedy, the ‘first lady’ of World Music in Scotland. A hugely respected broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere on BBC radio and television and an influential performer and producer in her own right, she has spent her life championing the music of others with her trademark passionate knowledge and sense of fun.
Now, Mary Ann has turned to her own roots for a landmark album and book release which celebrates one of the great dynasties of Scottish Gaelic song, and which has attracted the attention of Grammy-award winning producer Jerry Boys, one of the team behind World Music phenomenon, the Buena Vista Social Club.
Mary Ann’s family are the Campbells – Caimbeulaich a’ Ghnìoba in their native Gaelic – pipers and singers from the Isle of Skye, where they grew up in what they saw as the musical ‘centre of the universe’ – the last house at the end of the road beyond the one-street township of Roag. Looking out from this dramatic headland towards the legendary Cuillin Hills, the family were part of a world where music was the absolute constant to the whole community’s rural way of life, across generations.
The combination of piping and singing, and their great love of dancing drew the singers especially to puirt-à-beul, the mouth music of dance tunes and tongue-twisters, cross-rhythm and mischievous comment that forms one of the most deceptively difficult genres of Gaelic song. The family elders are rightly regarded as the masters of the art, sine qua non.
From the start, the Campbells’ repertoire was a reflection of the world around them – songs of work, worship, land, sea, dancing, love and sporting; songs from the village itself. The world conjured up by these are of a genuinely happy time and place, of little wealth but great riches, and one where community was the bubbling life-source that sustained them.
No fewer than seven Campbells have won Mòd Gold Medals – Gaeldom’s premier award for singing at the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of the Welsh Eisteddfod. And five of them have now come together to record, perform and lovingly recount the story of the world and people that brought them their music.
Each of the quintet have had their own impact on Gaelic and traditional music in Scotland. As well as performers in their own right:
- Dr. Kenna Campbell, Mary Ann’s mother, has mentored several winners of the BBC’s top Folk and Trad awards for young musicians as senior tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
- Her brother, Seumas Campbell was the instigator of a 1980s movement in Gaelic choral singing that shook the repertoire of a then conservative musical genre.
- Wilma Kennedy, Mary Ann’s sister, leads the vocal team at the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music in the Highlands of Scotland.
- Maggie Macdonald, Kenna’s niece, is one of the most highly-respected tutors in the government-sponsored Youth Music Initiative, which introduces young people throughout Scotland to music.
In 2009, the family were introduced to the producer Jerry Boys, who had been enticed to Scotland to look at a Gaelic music project. Jerry’s Grammy award-winning career as producer and engineer and former owner of London’s legendary Livingstone Studios stretches from Abbey Road and the Beatles, to Malian world music legends Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure, to Havana’s Egrem studios and Buena Vista Social Club.
On hearing the family perform in a packed, and mostly Gaelic-speaking, Dunvegan Village Hall at a celebration for the matriarch, Kenna Campbell, he had a ‘eureka moment’ and offered then and there to produce an album.
He went on to join the family at Mary Ann’s brand-new Watercolour Music studios in Lochaber for one magical week, and the result was ‘Fonn’ – an album of songs and puirt featuring the five singers and special guests, Scots-Californian fiddle star, Alasdair Fraser and his cellist partner, the America Natalie Haas; James Lindsay from the award-winning trad band, Breabach, and Lorne MacDougall from the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
‘Fonn’ (pronounced Fown) is a Gaelic word which means both ‘land’ and ‘melody’, one word summing up the essence of what is special about – and means most to – the Campbells.
The family had already been approached by Acair Books to compile a biography and music collection, documenting the world of an essentially modest, quiet family who revelled in music, and to bring together the songs that are part of the family repertoire.
And so, ‘Fonn’ has become part of a wider project to bring the family’s music and their place in British traditional music to the outside world. Welcome to their world.
Album of the Week, Saturday 12noon and 12midnight and Monday at 6.00pm.