The Living Tradition
The Compelling Gift
The Music of Christine Primrose By Peter Urpeth.
Earlier this year, traditional Gaelic singer Christine Primrose, was asked by the widow of the late Sir Kenneth Alexander to sing at his funeral in Dundee. But the request was not for Gaelic psalms or other spiritual music, it was simply for the singing of traditional Gaelic songs, of which Sir Kenneth was very fond.
Shortly after the service, Christine Primrose received from his widow a note thanking her for her performance that day. But the note also contained a statement of great insight into the inherent emotional power of traditional Gaelic song. That day, Sir Kenneth's widow stated, she had discovered something about the music - that sad songs and airs do not make you sad. Rather, they release sadness and leave you comforted.
While this observation is undoubtedly true of the songs of the tradition, it is also true that great songs require great singers and such greatness is not, in the Gaelic tradition, measurable in terms of flamboyant technical dazzle but in a virtuosity of the emotions.
One of the songs Christine sang at Sir Kenneth's funeral was 'Ceann Traigh Ghruinneart' ('The Head of Gruinart Sands'), a ceol meadhanach with an achingly beautiful melody; the song is in turns both a heroic and a bitter lament from Islay which Christine sings with typical emotional restraint and sensitivity.
The song also opens Christine's new CD, 'Gun Sireadh, Gun Larraidh' (Without Seeking, Without Asking), (Temple COMD2086), her first studio recording for the best part of a decade and the new recording, resplendent as it is in the robes of majestic understatement, confirms that Christine Primrose is at the pinnacle of her chosen art form.
The new CD, while it does bring to an end a period of studio silence, also catalogues the fact that over the last twenty five years, very few singers have developed such an emotional and expressive range with their music and there is no singer currently performing traditional Gaelic song who so lucidly through their music confirms and renews the contemporary relevance, even need, for that body of music that has become known as Gaelic traditional song.
From the opening phrases of this remarkable recording it is plain that whilst some contemporary Gaelic singers suffer from a crippling ambivalence of the spirit toward the Gaelic tradition, Christine Primrose's voice embodies and embraces that tradition. To this listener, Christine Primrose has attained a rare plateau in terms of creativity. Her music is free of any form of extraneous effort. It is pared down to its essence and yet in the solo voice, or with the subtle accompaniment of Alison Kinnaird, there is also a thousand voices, a chorus of humanity and human experience.
While Christine's attainment may be far removed from the nature, practice and role of singers in the past who did not work as professionals or even performers in any sense that that word is used today - in many ways there are few singers as contemporary as Christine - the focus and clarity of her singing surely is a point of access to all that the tradition can represent in terms of a unique culture with a unique and powerful means of self expression.
When Temple Records' supremo Robin Morton released Christine's first recording for the label, ('Aite Mo Ghaoil') back in 1981, the world of Gaelic traditional song was a very different place to that which it is twenty years later, with comparatively few recordings being professionally made and released on a commercial basis - and a predominating and persistent bewilderment in Gaeldom that any non-Gaels would want to listen to Gaelic song.
In the time since, the moniker 'traditional' has been begged, borrowed and stolen by a plethora of different performers working in different styles with Gaelic lyrics. Some are native speakers, others are learners and others are neither, contenting themselves with the role of the phonetic parrot. Some have approached the music with judgement and finesse, others with gobsmacking temerity.
In the middle of it all the key qualities and distinctive features of the Gaelic tradition of music have been blurred, or simply ignored by some, creating a situation that while there is more Gaelic song than ever on the shelves of the local record store claiming in some part to be, or to be relevant to, the Gaelic tradition, the true music of the tradition grows ever more scarce.
Christine says: "There's an awful lot of young trendy ones coming up now and there's a lot of TV and they want young trendy bands. They've learnt a few Gaelic songs and they're not really ready for that and they are led to believe that they are, because they're invited onto these things. The next thing is that they are invited to big festivals and they're supposedly representing Gaelic songs, but they are not really ready for that and I find that a bit worrying to be honest. It is worrying that they don't go through an apprenticeship before doing these things.
"I do feel that programme makers are not wary enough. It can still be an interesting programme if people my age are asked on to do songs but I'm never asked! It will be interesting to see where all these people are in ten years time, or five years even! I find it happens too fast for them.
"In Portugal, the traditional Fado singers are not seen to be ready to sing in public until they are in their 40s, even their 50s, and I find that interesting, given how I found myself as a singer, and all these years that it took me. I know exactly what that means with the Fado singers because that is when you are ready, but the system doesn't work like that. It doesn't allow you to be like that."
Of course, Gaelic music, in common with most traditional musics, has its share of factional in-fighting; of cottonwool brawls that fritter away energy at the margins in the pursuit of pointless rarefied ontological debates when the only surety we have is that musicality, music making, is a fundamental tradition of human being.
Christine's music shows us that great musics, whether ancient or modern, are those that pertain to the universal in human experience; those that in their power break down language barriers and speak to us beyond the confines of local culture whilst preserving the unique stamp of their origin - musics that tell us of their own particular history while informing us of something more transcendental and universal in human experience.
It takes a singer of quite outstanding quality to realise and communicate on the profound level that this implies and, at a very little over 50 years old, Christine Primrose is, again, one such singer.
When we talked in her small cottage adjacent to the campus of the Gaelic college on Skye, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, it was very quickly apparent that the concept of conformity or divergence from any notion of a 'tradition' is essentially an extraneous consideration when it comes to her art.
"What does the word 'traditional' mean to me? Not much really. It's just the label that's given to the kind of stuff that I do, it's just that somebody somewhere said this is traditional Gaelic song and that's it. Most people who are genuine about what they do musically just want to perform and get on with it. It's other people who want to give them labels and you've got to be careful that you don't become part of that."
But, while Christine does admit to being frustrated by the critical tendency to seek out and impose such blanketing and troubled descriptions as 'traditional' on singers and musicians she does find some usefulness for the term: "There are people", says Christine, "who have got a style of singing that is mostly like a vocal exercise, a musical vocal exercise, and they happen to sing in Gaelic. I definitely want to differentiate between that and what I do. Just because you sing in Gaelic that does not mean you are a traditional singer. That's where the word comes in handy and is handy to use. There's room for both, but some people, some musicians and singers get a bit confused about who they want to be."
Such confusion could never be levelled at Christine Primrose, a singer whose emergence, as one of Gaeldom's pre-eminent voices is the result of a remarkable voyage of self-discovery and of self in relationship to her art. From an early stage our discussion is dominated not by considerations of the Gaelic tradition of song and her place in it, but of her compelling gift of music and of her profound need to sing.
Although she has sung for as long as her memory can recall, Christine's true emergence did not occur until the late 1970s when, a few years after the death of her husband, she started attending and singing at the folk clubs in the then burgeoning Glasgow folk scene. Interest in her singing grew rapidly. In her childhood, though, Christine does recall that there was somebody on her mother's side of the family who was very well known as a good singer and at that time there was a lot of precenting of psalms and people used to come from neighbouring villages to hear her relative perform.
But otherwise, the early influences on her music came from the fact that Christine was born into an area with a vast richness of vocal talent and in which Gaelic song was still a living, breathing entity of daily life. Her style is, (some perceptive and informed commentators with a memory of the time when singing was still a regular part of domestic and social life on Lewis would argue), very much a west Lewis style, as much as, perhaps, Margaret Stewart's is an east Lewis style.
"But singing was just something that I did", says Christine, "I've never been really aware of any time when I consciously said, I am going to be a singer. It is just something that I know that I have to do. It is something that I know is in me and when you've got this gift and you don't use it, it can manifest itself in very negative ways. I find that if I'm not singing, if I'm not singing in public, I get very much on edge. I was like that for years and it took me a while to realise that that is what it was.
"I need to use this gift that is inside me. I need to express it. I find that it is still the same. If I don't go out there and sing on a fairly regular basis I get unsettled within myself and feel just sort of off balance a wee bit. Singing is the most intimate and immediate form of musical expression."
But, her success in singing to non-Gaels, and in terms of her recorded output, also owes much to the fact that Christine Primrose has always placed great importance on the strength of melody in a song. While some may argue that a defining hallmark of traditional Gaelic song is the predominance of the Brach, the words and poetic strength of a song, over the melody. Christine Primrose has always held that strong melody is the starting point of a great song and that without that strength of melody, no matter how good the words, the song will not be worth singing.
"The Gael, like a lot of peoples, are not the best of emotional people in terms of working out their own emotions, especially in terms of showing emotion. That is why the songs, especially the love songs, are so powerful because it was a channel for their pent-up emotion.
"We're talking about an era when people wouldn't be kissing in public or anything like that but they were still human beings, they were very similar to us and they had the same emotions towards each other and all this energy was channelled into these gorgeous love songs and that was a way of expressing that emotion.
"But that is also why modern day writing is not so powerful because we can channel these emotions, we don't have these pent up emotions toward other people now. It is just the way society is now. Some new songs are beautiful but they don't have that depth to them."
In 1978, Christine was singing regularly at festivals and she travelled to Ireland as part of the Poets' Tour. There she was struck by the support the Irish people offered to their own local singers and musicians. It was a turning point in her career and one which led to considerable insight into the factors in her own upbringing (in the village of Carloway on the west side of Lewis) that may have led to feelings of uncertainty and an early lack of confidence that held her back from going forth into the world and presenting the music of the Gael to non-Gaelic speakers.
Whether such feelings are purely personal and rooted in her own upbringing, or are a wider part of the unique psychological make-up of the Gael (if such a thing can be said to exist), is a matter for debate:
"I remember being profoundly moved the first time I went to Ireland as I could not believe how the Irish people were so supportive of their own people, and so openly encouraging. I'm not saying that the Gael is not encouraging toward a fellow Gael, it is just that the Irish do it so openly, so nicely and so positively.
"You know, there would be people singing and playing in a gathering and an Irish person would be singing or playing and their own people would be giving them this sort of gentle and genuine support. That affected me very deeply because I felt that it was such a pleasure to sing under those circumstances. You felt as though you could get on with singing the song instead of fighting through the barrier of the 'oh well, let's see how good you are' kind of attitude that I find is very common in Gaeldom.
"I don't think they mean to do it but when you get a crowd of Gaels together you can just feel it, they are very unforgiving at times! Being encouraged is still a very difficult one. They want you to do well but they won't encourage you to do well, which is a very strange thing to deal with. People of my parent's generation still cannot really understand that I sing Gaelic to the non-Gael.
"I remember being asked by a few people, although it is not so common now to be asked this, but I would be asked 'You won't be singing Gaelic to them? You know it's all right within our small group within the village scene but it was very much 'you're singing Gaelic to these people, they don't have a word of Gaelic? How can you do that? They won't understand a word you are singing?"
While it may be tempting to single out some of the personal tragedy that Christine has experienced in her life, losing her husband at a tragically early age, as a primary source of a lion's share of the emotional authority and depth with which she now sings, it is plain that her voyage has been an internal journey, a process of deep self-awareness and of accumulated insight:
"My life went on a different road and that was just the way it was meant to be. There is no point in saying how different would it be if he were still alive. There's no point in saying that. I am a great believer in destiny and that is just how it was meant to be.
"I think that if you are aware of what you are singing, or if you are an aware person, you experience a lot just because of that sheer fact. Life gives you lots of experiences and some of them are worse than others. I find, though, that when you are singing you have got to be in control of the emotion all the time because if you allow a deep personal emotion to come into it you've lost it. It's finding that balance to put a song across with enough emotion. "I also think this is the only way to do it. If you are singing a song you can be aware of where the vibration of the note is taking you, you're opening yourself up to it and that is exactly what happens. Now, you can go into another dimension and think, oh I lost my husband and I know exactly what this woman is thinking in this song.
"There is a song which is about a man losing his wife and I have to really keep that at a distance and still put the emotion across in the song without focussing on my particular point when I lost my husband. But you've got to keep it there.
"I always feel that these songs are only ours for a wee while. They were written at very stressful times within that person's life and really they were written because it was a cathartic experience for themselves. Some thing they had to do and we have always got to remember that when we are dealing with that kind of emotion. We are really just a vehicle for that person's emotion and we have to respect that.'
"I'm closer now to singing the way I've always wanted to sing", continues Christine. "Where my voice is sitting within me now is something I've been striving to achieve for years. In the past, I would achieve it maybe every so often but I was always left with a feeling of frustration that I wasn't singing the way that I wanted to sing. And I would think, 'I could sing that song so much better', and yet I was not able to achieve that and that was so frustrating within myself. I started sustaining that maybe two years ago and then I started to feel, gosh, this is where I've wanted my voice to sit ever since I started singing.
"I find that you have cycles in your life and certain things point to change within you own lifecycle, where ever it is going. And the major contributing factors for me in identifying change come through my singing because singing is such a major part of my life.
"If I've got a cold I'm like, 'Oh my God, I can't sing well, I can't sing as well as I want to sing, please let this cold go' and I'm really very worried until I'm back on track again. The first thing I do in the morning is I sing out a song. I mean, I'm not even really awake - that's the pleasure of being on your own, I suppose! You have nobody saying will you shut up and you can do these things!
"But, the things that have the most profound effect on you are there gun sireadh, gun iarraidh, and that's where the title for the CD came from. The most profound things in people's lives come without seeking, without asking."
© Peter Urpeth, 2001
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