Shooglenifty - a beginners' guide
The High Road to Linton is a popular session tune with Scottish musicians. Composed by the prolific Anon, it’s said to describe the old drove road over the Pentland Hills, a range that runs south west from Edinburgh to Biggar, in Lanarkshire, and into South Clydesdale. Its melodic contours, however, might sound familiar to musicians in another geographical location altogether: Rajasthan.
It was while jamming recently with a troupe of traditional players in this Indian state on the border with Pakistan that Angus R Grant, Shooglenifty’s distinctive, bearded fiddler, found himself playing a local tune that was just a few variations away from The High Road to Linton, which almost certainly figured in the jam sessions that led to Grant, percussionist James Mackintosh and guitarist Malcolm Crosbie forming Shooglenifty twenty-five years ago.
The original ingredients that went into the Shooglenifty sound included all sorts of styles, although any Rajasthani influences would have been unintentional. They might well be in there now, as over their lifespans Shooglenifty Mk l, Mk ll and Mk lll (Ewan MacPherson replaced mandolinist Luke Plumb in early 2014 and recent addition Kaela Rowan sings on imminent album The Untied Knot) have assimilated music from everywhere on their extensive global travels – and yet, they sound unmistakably like themselves.
There’s the bright staccato mandolin, a wild celebratory, singing fiddle, insistent drum beats, buoyant basslines and churning guitar and banjo rhythms, with an air of mystery hanging over the more atmospheric pieces and a party animal cracking the dance tunes into a frenzy.
“It could only have come about in Edinburgh and it was very much a product of the time when we got together,” says Grant, who learned fiddle from his father, the left-handed Highland treasure Aonghas Grant. But although influenced by his dad’s swinging style, which has the music of the bagpipes and the Gaelic song tradition coursing through it, he had moved on in his tastes to Captain Beefheart, the Fall, Brian Eno, Talking Heads and Miles Davis by the time he, Mackintosh, Crosbie and banjo player Garry Finlayson convened in Shooglenify’s forerunner, Swamptrash.
Edinburgh as 1980s became the 1990s was, says Grant, where and when everyone came out of their ghettoes. Folk musicians were playing with jazz musicians. Jazz musicians, including saxophonist Tommy Smith, guitarist Kevin Mackenzie and drummer John Rae, were forming folk bands. The young concertinist, now Scottish traditional music’s ideas man, Simon Thoumire was discovering free improvisation. And round the large table at the foot of the stairs in the Tron Bar, all sorts of potent musical cocktails were being mixed, with Martyn Bennett among the mixers.
Grant, Mackintosh and Crosbie found their own table, in Christie’s Bar in West Port, formed themselves into a trio and then went off busking in Spain. When they returned, they had the genesis of the Shooglenifty sound, still unplugged, which they expanded with Finlayson, bassist Conrad Ivitsky and mandolinist Iain MacLeod. They took up residency in La Belle Angele, which would later be destroyed by the Cowgate fire, and when word got out about the intoxicating spirit they were generating, they had to plug in to project through the mass of bodies.
Eventually, some five years into their existence, Jim Sutherland, a flavour of whose vibrant cittern playing and catchy compositions for Edinburgh’s early 1980s swing-folk quartet the Easy Club may be detectable in Shooglenifty, locked the band in a studio and produced their first album, Venus in Tweeds.
It very quickly became the talk o’ the steamie, as they say in Shooglenifty’s heartlands. Fellow musicians coveted the tunes and someone came up with the term Acid Croft to describe the music. The audiences who had flocked to La Belle Angele were replicated at folk festivals around Scotland and then internationally as the Shoogle groove became a shoo-in for the late night party slot.
From playing round a pub table, the sextet found themselves playing in rain forests and deserts, collaborating with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Inuit singer Tanya Tagac Gillis, and even starring at Sydney Opera House. When Ivitsky and MacLeod departed after twelve years, Quee McArthur, a friend of Mackintosh’s since Edinburgh Art College days, and Australian Luke Plumb arrived, seamlessly it seemed, on bass and mandolin.
Extracurricular activity – Mackintosh, whose diary seems to be perpetually full, has worked with Capercaillie, Mouth Music and the Michael McGoldrick Band among many others; Grant revisits the highland tradition by teaching at fèisean [Gaelic learning festivals] – has only strengthened the Shooglenifty sound, as have the aforementioned collaborations and jamming with musicians from all corners.
“You’re influenced by what you hear,” says Grant. “In the early days we spent a lot of time in Galicia and Asturias and I think a lot of the feel, rather than the sound, of the music from there fed into the band. It’s a cliché to say that our development has been organic and it’s another cliché to say that music is a universal language, but clichés are only clichés because they’re true and we’re still loving playing together. After twenty-five years, we’ve become like each other’s brothers, only worse: wives!”
From Songlines Magazine, March 2015.