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SALM: VOLUME 1 - Gaelic Psalms From The Hebrides Of Scotland Ridge Records 024

To begin I quote from Finlay J. MacDonald's writings about his life on Harris between the two World Wars (Crotal And White, 1983): "The precentor 'gave out' each line of psalm, and the congregation chanted it with him when he repeated it, with the few who could claim good voices grace-noting the musical lines. There are few more moving experiences than being in among a large Gaelic congregation singing in the traditional manner with soul and feeling. It is more than moving; it is unforgettable in the depths of one's being."

Those sentiments express this music perfectly - this is a deeply significant recording of around 500 members of the Back Free Church, Lewis - it is of profound interest to anyone interested in (ethno) musicology or in the preservation of Gaelic culture (and language). I would strongly recommend the listener to watch the enhanced CD presentation before listening. In Calum Martin's words (he produced this album, and is himself an elder of the Presbyterian church) it captures 'one of the most unique musical forms to be found anywhere in the world'. He seems to have realised a personal dream in getting this recording made. The 12 Psalms are deeply spiritual, and were recorded without any rehearsal. Calum Malcolm produced the album.

My feeling upon listening (and especially from watching the video presentation) is that to witness this style of singing must be an overwhelming and unforgettable experience. There's a powerful emotional 'pull' in the precentor's 'call', and a unifying, moving harmony in the massed response. This very special form of singing has become the subject of debate in recent years. Willie Ruff, a Yale music professor and respected jazz musician, has proposed that black gospel music emerged from this Scottish Presbyterian tradition. He is convinced that the tradition followed Scottish émigrés to the US, and found its way into the vocal techniques of that country's great soul singers. There are still similarities with the singing style of Ethiopia's Coptic Church, but Ruff's is an interesting theory! Another noteworthy fact is that precenting was common across the whole of the UK following the Reformation, but is now confined solely to the Western Isles.

All the proceeds from this recording go to The Bethesda Home and Hospice, Stornoway, Lewis. I understand work is underway to record a second volume. You would file this CD under 'treasured historical archive' - it defies categorisation. It has been a pleasure to review.

Debbie Koritsas

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This album was reviewed in Issue 59 of The Living Tradition magazine.