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Commemorating the gypsy soul of folk singing legend
Mary McPartlan is enthusing about Margaret Barry, the singer known as the queen of the gypsies, whose centenary falls this year. Had Barry been born into a rich family in a country other than Ireland and had she been given access to a classical training, McPartlan contends, she would have been regarded along similar lines to Maria Callas.
Barry’s family may not have had much money but they had riches of their own. Her grandfather, Robert Thompson, was one of Ireland’s greatest pipers and her dad had played banjo for silent movies before he joined a travelling circus. Margaret possibly inherited some of their talents as well as developing her own as she ventured from the back streets of Cork to appear on some of the most prestigious stages in the world.
There are many, many stories about Margaret Barry. Some of them are undoubted tall ones, which she wasn’t averse to devising herself, including one about her grandfather inventing steam. Such were her tales that when she told her grand-daughter that she once toured with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, her grand-daughter thought she was having her leg pulled until Margaret produced a poster that showed her being given equal billing with two of folk music’s 1960s icons.
To those who knew her and worked alongside her – the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers, the Furey Brothers were all in her milieu – being billed with Dylan and Baez was the least Barry deserved. Van Morrison has pitched in with his endorsement of her as “a real singer, a soul singer” and McPartlan, no small talent as a traditional singer herself, has undertaken to commemorate Barry’s life and celebrate her singing.
With the journalist and Irish music enthusiast Colin Irwin providing the script (he also has a biography of Barry on the way), McPartlan has devised a show, She Moved Through the Fair, that makes its Scottish debut at Celtic Connections and will be, she hopes, just the beginning of Barry’s further recognition.
“I never met her in person but I’ve known about her since I was a teenager becoming interested in traditional music and her singing has been with me all through my career,” says McPartlan who, as well as singing professionally, is a great advocate for Irish music through her work in arts administration and as a lecturer in traditional music and song at the National University of Ireland in Galway.
Talking about Barry and making sure she was given her rightful place in the story of Ireland’s traditional music made McPartland more and more interested in Barry’s life, especially as a woman who suffered through the poverty in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s and who, as a woman performer busking with her banjo to football crowds and shoppers, says McPartlan, went against the will of church and state in these times.
“I’d already become fascinated with her when one of my students at NUI said that she wanted to write her final year essay about Margaret,” says McPartlan. “At the same time as I was helping her with research, the National Traditional Music Awards here decided to honour Reg Hall, the musician and Irish music historian. So we went along to the awards and got to speak to Reg, who knew Margaret Barry well.”
Following this conversation McPartlan decided to create a stage show about Barry. A script was commissioned and she was given funding to conduct further research only for the Arts Council of Ireland to turn down the application that would have seen the play staged. By this time McPartlan was thinking about Barry morning, noon and night and when Colin Irwin turned up at one of her concerts and they got chatting afterwards, they discovered that they shared a compulsion to tell Barry’s story. Irwin was planning a biography and the next time they met he had completed both the book and the script for She Moved Through the Fair.
As well as McPartlan singing songs associated with Barry, the show features musicians Mary Shannon (banjo), Garry O'Briain (guitar), and John Carty (fiddle), actors Ruby Campbell and John Wheeler, and Irwin as narrator. It can’t possibly contain all the stories that exist about Barry - and McPartlan says that every time she mentions Margaret Barry to musicians of a certain vintage she hears more – but it contains the essence of her life.
“This is a woman who was beyond unique,” says McPartlan. “She lost her mother at the age of twelve and when her father took up with a girl not much older than she was herself, she took to the road with her banjo at sixteen and lived on her musical ability. She ended up in London, came to the attention of folklorist Alan Lomax, made records, toured America and achieved a certain notoriety, but with the timbre of her voice and her natural talent she should have been really famous, like Maria Callas or Edith Piaf.”
She Moved Through the Fair is at the Tron Theatre on Sunday, January 22.
From The Herald, January 18, 2017
Nomad on a search for the truth through songs
Lula Pena is hoping her house won’t blow away as she’s speaking. There is, the Portuguese singer says, music in everything. It’s just that sometimes she’d rather not hear it, and today is one of those times. Pena’s music is gentle, thoughtful, mesmerising and if there are storms in any of her songs, they’re emotional ones and the storm that’s blasting Portugal’s Atlantic coast as she speaks is not welcome.
The storm and its insistence could be a metaphor for the music industry that expects artists to work at its pace. Pena has just released her second album in almost twenty years, Archivo Pittoresco, hardly the sort of productivity that’s going to win her the description “prolific”.
“I’m not sure why it takes me so long to gather material,” says Pena, who makes her Scottish debut at Celtic Connections this month. “I know I need time to do the research and make connections between the experiences I’m thinking about and the words I need to describe them. I’m always asking questions and if you ask questions the answers sometimes lead to more questions. For me, it’s not just about rational thought – you have to allow the body time to react because music is a physical activity as much as a mental one.”
She hasn’t done it on Archivo Pittoresco but Pena, it seems, could easily credit Google as her co-writer or at least a collaborator. The texts she’s turned into songs on the album come from a wide variety of sources – she likes to use the term ‘open source’ for her ideas-gathering methods – and are written in several languages. She uses French, English, Spanish, Greek and Italian as well as Portuguese lyrics and often lets the rhythms in the words suggest melodies.
“I always loved languages,” she says, “and when an idea comes it’s great to be able to discover what writers across the world have written about these feelings or thoughts. Google is marvellous for that, although I can get lost in all the various possibilities and the choice can be overwhelming.”
Her writing method is, she thinks, an extension of her original career choice. She wanted to be a visual artist but this didn’t work out. Instead she turns the visual thoughts that might have materialised as images into sounds and finds words – she writes her own lyrics sometimes as well as sourcing them on the internet - to accompany these sounds.
She has a reputation as a solitary soul and from the way she describes her childhood it seems she’s always been at the very least self-sufficient. The guitar that her parents left lying around the house became her best friend and she was realistic enough about her ability on the instrument not to imagine that she’d one day become a musician.
“I got to a certain stage of proficiency and that was enough for what I was doing,” she says. “I was never going to be a virtuoso and when I reached my limitations with the guitar as it was, I changed the tuning and found different sounds and textures that way. It became a different instrument in a way.”
She listened to the radio avidly and when she set out on the nomadic lifestyle that she followed for some twenty years she had nowhere to store CDs so would “become my own DJ”, turning the radio dial until she found something she liked. There is, she says, something freeing in not listening to the music you choose and letting other people lead you to new discoveries. The songs she liked and wanted to sing she was able to carry in her head.
At a certain point, travelling light with her guitar, she tried busking on the streets but she found the competitiveness and her fellow buskers’ determination to protect the best spots off-putting.
“I didn’t intend to become a professional musician but I was lucky to be invited to play in small bars and I learned how to be a performer along the way,” she says.
Somehow, with no real thoughts about self-promotion far less a joined-up concert schedule, she has gathered a worldwide following that has been likened to an international secret society. Her reputation has spread largely by word of mouth, although Archivo Pittoresco’s release has been boosted by PR representation.
The album’s tracks flow one into another and it was intended to sound like a suite of songs that wander, just as Pena has done for much of her life.
“I was quite careful with the running order and wanted to present the songs in a way that people would get used to hearing and hopefully grow to like,” she says. “But at the same time, they’re not chiselled in stone. Songs change with each performance and there are so many variables when you play live: you respond to the room, the people, the temperature. I see a song as like a map that offers many different paths on a search for the truth.”
Lula Pena appears at City Halls, Glasgow on January 21.
From The Herald, January 11, 2017
(photo Douglas Robertson)
A Poet of verbal and digital dexterity
People who remember Don Paterson from his teenage years in Dundee and his early twenties in London would be surprised, to say the least, to hear that he’d neglected his guitar for serious lengths of time in recent years. The same people would have been equally taken aback to witness Paterson, the much-decorated poet emerging in the 1990s, confidently holding an audience in thrall to his wit, expertly sculpted phrases and sheer verbal command.
He was always sharp, always skilled with words. You wouldn’t have wanted to be at the opposite side of the Scrabble table from his competitive edge and should a crossword compiler get the better of his cryptic analysis, dark, dark clouds would form. It was the confidence that came as a surprise from someone who often gave the impression that the stage was a living hell to be endured in pursuit of guitar prowess.
That same confidence of expression earned Paterson a certain notoriety when he vented his wrath against Creative Scotland in 2012, calling the arts funding body a “dysfunctional ant-heap”.
Today he has revised this view. “A lot of people were making the same sort of comments,” he says. “It was a protest against a management style and the kind of jargon that puts up barriers. I’m in a different situation now. I’m not looking for funding and there’s been a change at the top since then, so I think the organisation’s style will have changed.”
Whether his broadside had any lasting effect he can’t say and whether the organisation might view him differently as a result, he has no way of knowing. A post in creative writing at St Andrews University shields him from the need to seek funding for his artistic endeavours, which these days are very much two-pronged.
After being silent as a musician for much of the past decade he is back playing guitar with a passion, leading a band formed early this year, The Don Paterson Situation, and exploring the possibility of a trio that involves his co-leader in the Celtic-jazz group Lammas, saxophonist Tim Garland, and the London-based Russian double bassist Yuri Golobev.
There might just be some mild musicianly envy with regard to Garland’s post-Lammas activities. The group recorded five well-received albums during the 1990s and worked with jazz luminaries including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and pianist Jason Rebello. The now Brooklyn-based and widely lauded singer Christine Tobin was also an integral part of the line-up and Garland’s subsequent adventures as the frontline voice of legendary pianist-keyboardist Chick Corea’s The Vigil could mean that Paterson feels he has some catching up to do.
He’s certainly trying. After his guitar silence was compounded by a non-malignant tumour on the tip of his left index finger, resulting in severe pain and an operation that wasn’t, it turns out, absolutely necessary, Paterson got back into the kind of practising regime that once enabled him to replicate, with some success, the styles of his twin teenage heroes, the one-time fingerpicking master John Martyn and the highly individual jazz player John Abercrombie.
“I wasn’t entirely inactive during the noughties,” he says. “There were actually versions of the current band, with Steve Hamilton and Alyn Cosker on keyboards and drums alongside various other players, including saxophonist Laura Macdonald. We did a few gigs and Steve and I did some keyboard and guitar duo things but poetry had completely taken over by then and I wasn’t able to commit or maybe that should be multitask.”
It was Hamilton who nagged Paterson back into making music again with Cosker on drums and Euan Burton on bass. Paterson is not slow to acknowledge the debt he owes the keyboardist for this, especially since Hamilton has generally kept busy with commitments that include work with two major figures in the drumming world, Bill Bruford, whose Earthworks he featured in for several years, and Billy Cobham, with whose band he currently tours.
With the Don Paterson Situation, which has gigs lined up in the new year, Paterson is playing a style of guitar that, he says, takes him away from the competitive mind-set.
“I’ve kept up with developments,” he says. “I watch the way someone like Ant Law plays and can only marvel at his ability. It seems to be less about playing things you might practise to impress people these days and more about genuine exploration of the whole instrument.”
His own playing, on both acoustic and electric guitars, borrows to some extent from another hero, Ralph Towner’s fingerstyle technique. It’s unlikely, however, that he and Towner – broad as Towner’s repertoire is – share the same taste for pop covers that has taken the Don Paterson Situation into the Elton John and Gilbert O’Sullivan songbooks as well as playing the kind of melodic jazz for which Lammas became known.
“I might have some surprises on the next gig,” he says. “I always listened to pop music rather than rock and there are a couple of Wings numbers that I’ve been toying with lately.”
The Don Paterson Situation plays Eyemouth Hippodrome on February 11; Byre Theatre, St Andrews; February 25; and Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 26.
From The Herald, December 14, 2016
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