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VARIOUS ARTISTS - The Archive Project

VARIOUS ARTISTS - The Archive Project
Rusty Squash Horn Records RSH005CD

Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin (a volunteer-run youth music charity specialising in traditional music) formed a partnership with the School Of Scottish Studies Archives at the University of Edinburgh to deliver a project aiming to be both creatively innovative and to allow an academic institution to engage with the public by encouraging new users to the Archive, especially young people. The Archive Project is the result of 18 months of exploration and research at the Archives, carried out by seven young traditional musicians aged between 16 and 23 and mentored by fiddler/composer Mike Vass.

This album presents 13 tracks of new tunes and songs which are drawn from, or directly inspired by, material freshly collected from the Archives; these are performed by the musicians themselves in creative response to that material. Far from being dry re-workings of dusty old songs and tunes from an equally dusty repository, theirs are invigorating treatments that demonstrate a keen and meaningful understanding of the sources and their content and an ability to communicate their essence in a refreshingly unpretentious manner. Their enthusiasm is palpable and their playing and singing reflects this, keeping on the right side of the fine line drawn between proud accomplishment and showing off and showing sympathy and respect for the material while being unafraid to show invention in linking individual items for performance and listening pleasure.

It might seem invidious to isolate any individual contributors for special praise, but I’d have to single out singer Kirsty Law, whose voice commands our attention on the opening track, her setting of an Edinburgh street cry; this sub-genre seems to be somewhat of a speciality for her, since she also turns in a sparky big-band arrangement of Caller Oysters for Oysters And Herring. Also especially compelling are the contributions of singer and guitarist Alistair Mackie, in particular his song Pillars Of Sand (inspired by the “story of a sickly girl welcoming death” as told in the Archives by Stanley Robertson) and Robbie Greig, who provides a fine setting of a song by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chòruna which reflects from the trenches of WW1 on the beauty of his native North Uist. Charlie Stewart contributes some jazzy double bass to Kirsty Law’s own composition Weathered Hands, which addresses the issue of funding cuts to coastguard services by way of a tale from the Archives told by fiddler Tom Anderson, whose ancestors were fishermen. The instrumental playing is scintillating throughout, particularly that of Elinor Evans’ clarsach (her composition Journeys In Time is inspirational) and the fiddles of Robbie Greig and Charlie Stewart; while you shouldn’t read anything negative into my neglecting to mention thus far the consistent, well-managed piano playing of Hazel Turnbull and Pàdruig Morrison.

The only one of the disc’s tracks that might be considered “hard going” for the non-Gaelic-speaking listener is the finale, which places a recording of Pàdruig’s grandfather’s telling of the story of The Bodach against the backdrop of a tune penned by Hazel; “hard going” purely because there is no transcript of the text (not even on the website listed below, where lyrics are advertised as being available). Which brings me to the presentational drawback of this otherwise rewarding release – that the value of the admirably comprehensive booklet notes is undermined by much of the content being printed in white on grey and thus very hard to read.

But the actual process of listening to this enchanting disc yields much pleasure, and I’d say that the young musicians involved are unquestionably succeeding in their stated aim, to make a genuine creative contribution to the living tradition of Scottish music.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 100 of The Living Tradition magazine.