Martyn Bennett - an innovator with Grit

Martyn Bennett is describing how his adaptation of Sorley MacLean’s poem Hallaig, one of the most revered works in modern Gaelic writing, had come about so naturally that it was as if it was meant to happen.

In the poem Maclean equates time to a deer, a strong, vital creature that doesn’t know – can’t know – about the bullet that’s coming its way.

It’s a poignant moment in a conversation that happened about twelve years ago. Bennett had been like that deer, a vigorous, toned young man who had once caused quite a stir when, feeling the heat onstage during Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations, he went topless and found himself being talked about as a bagpiping sex symbol when a photo began circulating. But it wasn’t the unseen camera that was about to do him harm.

When we talked that day Bennett had been undergoing yet more treatment for the cancer that would claim him three years later at the age of thirty-three. There was an awkward pause as we looked at each other, realising the significance of the deer analogy. Then Bennett, typically, waved the thought away and said, “Yeah, so, anyway, I was going to tell you about Sorley once trying to make a phone call from his hotel room with a hair dryer.”

There’s no reason to doubt that MacLean did such a thing but Bennett could be mischievously irreverent about the people whose work he integrated into his fusion of tradition and modern dance culture. One of the traditional singers whose recordings Bennett sampled on Grit, his final album, which has just been reissued with two bonus tracks, was quite shockingly defamed during our conversation. I’m not sure which Bennett enjoyed more, his choice of epithet or watching me choke on my coffee in response.  Impudence aside, though, Bennett genuinely respected these singers and loved their music with a passion. It was, after all, as he said, where he came from.

His mother, Margaret, is a singer and folklorist whom Bennett made the subject of one of his last projects, Glen Lyon, on which he added found sounds, including a threshing machine, bees humming, birdsong, a clock ticking and even guns and bombs on newscasts from Bosnia, to create an environment that suited each song’s subject. When it had become apparent that Martyn had real musical talent as a boy, Margaret encouraged and nurtured it, seeing an ability to pick out a tune on the whistle being transformed into skill on the bagpipes and fiddle that that made him a familiar presence in impromptu folk festival sessions and would ultimately earn him a place studying violin and piano at the-then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

It was there that Bennett decided that he needed to take traditional music to the people. Having acquired a keyboard with a sequencer and a drum machine, he’d worked out how to create backing tracks that he could play along to on fiddle and pipes. With a lorry battery powering his home-made cassettes and dreadlocks flying, he entertained passers-by on Sauchiehall Street who’d stop and listen or dance to the music and ask if he had tapes for sale.

Subsequent immersion in the club scene made Bennett determined to find a way of making traditional music connect with people who otherwise might have regarded it as twee or just not part of their culture. By the time of the conversation mentioned earlier, he was feeling like he’d failed. “Instead of turning people onto traditional music, I turned folkies onto something they thought was cool and folk music stayed in its own little ghetto,” he said. And yet, the crowds in Princes Street Gardens whooping it up on Hogmanay and numbering some 80,000 were by no means all, if indeed any of them were, traditionalists enjoying this notion of getting their beloved reels to a club beat accompaniment.

In sales terms Bennett’s albums, beginning with his self-titled release for the small Edinburgh independent label Eclectic, which was also home at one point to someone who made a major contribution to Grit, Michael Marra, didn’t perform as he hoped. He moved to Ryko Records for Bothy Culture, which he recorded in a cramped room at home and which featured the lovely Hallaig, and when he sold 1000 CDs after a set a Cambridge Folk Festival he thought he might have found a market. “The problem with dance music,” he said, “is that it’s such a fast-changing scene. What’s hip this weekend is old hat next Friday, pretty much, so it’s hard to keep up because you almost have to predict what people are going to want – or be in a position to lead them there, and I’m not in that position.”

After Ryko’s new overlords, Palm Pictures, rejected his next two efforts, Bennett worked with Martin Low, a Dundonian who, like Bennett, had moved to Mull, on Hardland, which boosted his status as someone doing interesting things with traditional music but didn’t make the required impact on the dance market. Bennett himself regarded it as a learning process and ultimately flawed but felt that people would look back on it as a milestone. It certainly piqued the interest of one figure who has remained a fan and whose regard for Bennett might have become even more significant had illness not struck, Peter Gabriel.

Gabriel was even more impressed when Bennett produced Grit for his Real World label, loving the unique balance of traditional singers, including Jeannie Robertson, Flora MacNeil and Sheila Stewart, with swathes of electronica

“Martyn took the soul and passion of the roots of Scottish music and planted them in a modern, electronic world,” says Gabriel, whose admiration for Bennett was such that when a tribute concert was held in Edinburgh, he attended primarily as a member of the audience because he wanted to be there but also performed a song in Bennett’s honour. “I loved how he created and handled his work. There was always a mix of intense emotion, compassion and pride, served on a bed of atmosphere and rhythm.”

The reissue of Grit includes the remix of Gabriel’s song Sky Blue that was the last piece of music Bennett worked on. Gabriel felt when he wrote the song that it might provide some natural material for Bennett and was and is delighted with the result.

What of Bennett’s legacy, as a musician taken too young and who surely would have gone on to further adventures in who knows what direction?

Simon Thoumire, who organises the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year competition, the Trad Music Awards and the Distil project for composers working in the tradition who want to stretch themselves, is a contemporary of Bennett’s and released Glen Lyon on his Foot Stompin’ label. He regards Bennett as a “game-changer” who, despite Bennett’s own doubts, made traditional music sexy and hip.

“I was doing a lot of teaching in the 1990s,” says Thoumire, “and at that point the young players were all listening to Martyn. He really helped bring traditional music in all its forms to the wider public, making it more accessible. The great thing about Martyn, for me, is that he always loved his roots and he knew the music intimately whether it was dance tunes or Gaelic psalms.”

For Thoumire, Grit, great though it is, with its splicing of Edith Piaf and the equally diminutive Annie Watkins on Nae Regrets, its marriage of Psalm 118 in Gaelic with Michael Marra’s wonderfully granite-esque recitation and its playful eroticising of Jeannie Robertson’s The Bonnie Wee Lassie Who Never Says No, comes second in value to Bennett’s inspiring effect on young people and making them want to play.

“If you ask people like Treacherous Orchestra and other bands who are being creative with traditional music, they’ll tell you that Martyn was a catalyst,” he says. “And the Martyn Bennett Trust is doing a lot to keep his music and his inspiration to young composers alive. I think that’s what he’d want. I remember going round to see him in Strathearn Place, where he was sitting staring at computer screens and making these minute adjustments to electronic dance music. He couldn’t play pipes or fiddle to the level he once could any longer because of his illness and I got the feeling that he just wanted to get out and play – the people he’s inspired are getting out there and playing for him now, and that’s a wonderful thought.”

Martyn Bennett’s Grit is reissued on Real World Records on May 19.

From The Herald, May 17, 2014.

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