Campbells of Greepe - family life captured in song


Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye and Havana in Cuba don’t immediately spring to mind as twin locations. But these points, thousands of miles apart, now hold special significance in a career that has seen Jerry Boys working on recording sessions that include The Beatles’ Lady Madonna, Nick Drake’s Time of No Reply and Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure’s In the Heart of the Moon.


Boys also engineered one of the cultural phenomena of the past fifteen years when, in 1997, he became involved by accident on the album that became The Buena Vista Social Club, while in Havana to record a meeting of Malian and Cuban musicians that didn’t actually happen until much more recently. Before that, Boys concedes, he hadn’t really “got” Cuban music, although he has an involvement in world music as long as your arm, and it was a similar experience in Dunvegan that proved his “eureka” moment with Gaelic songs and singing.


“I’ve been around folk music since the late 1960s, working with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and Steeleye Span, and they all touched on Gaelic music in various ways,” he says. “But it wasn’t until I heard the Campbells singing in that packed village hall in Dunvegan that I truly felt the heritage that’s involved. The whole experience was fantastic, very moving and I suppose that, having worked with so many African musicians whose music came out of oppression, I recognised an element of that in the Gaels’ music too, although we English shouldn’t be too proud that our contribution to Gaelic culture lies in the banning of instruments that led to the Gaels singing mouth music for dancing.”


Boys’ involvement with the Campbells, two generations of singers whose familial home in the township of Greepe, on Skye, was perennially filled with singing and who make a rare Glasgow appearance together at Celtic Connections tonight, came through meeting one of the family’s most familiar faces, and voices, Mary Ann Kennedy, presenter of her Global Gathering on BBC Radio Scotland and World on 3 for BBC Radio 3.


“I’d always liked the sound of Jerry’s recordings, particularly his work for the World Circuit label with people like Oumou Sangare,” says Kennedy. “We were talking one day and I happened to mention that the Campbells, which is my mum, Kenna, her brother, Seumas, my cousin Maggie Macdonald, my sister, Wilma, and me, were working on a big Gaelic song project that’s still to come to fruition. Jerry asked if we ever did any gigs and said he’d love to hear us. So were due to do this mad concert in Dunvegan Village Hall for Proiseact nan Ealan, which would expose Jerry to the whole of Gaelic culture from psalm singing to a well-known – to Gaels – for want of a better term, drag queen. I didn’t think he’d fancy this but he and his wife came up to Dunvegan and they really seemed to enjoy it.”


Boys’ immediate response – “We have to do an album” – was perhaps an even bigger shock than the fact that he’d loved his night out in Dunvegan. But with a recording studio also in the family, run by Kennedy and her husband, Nick Turner, in Ardgour, and one of world music’s leading record producers ready and willing, it was an opportunity too good to miss.


“My only proviso really,” says Boys, “was that we should have everyone involved in the studio at the same time. That’s the way I work because it gives you the natural sound of a band, be it a vocal-instrumental line-up or a group of singers, and it sounds very immediate. And in the end that’s pretty much the way it worked out. There were very few overdubs, just the odd instrument where the player just couldn’t be there on the day and some extra vocal harmonies just to make a chorus sound that bit bigger when you don’t have enough voices on hand. But apart from that, it’s the sound of the Campbells with their special guests including Alasdair Fraser, the fiddler, who I thought was terrific.”


The Campbells’ place in Gaelic culture – Kennedy’s mother, Kenna, this year celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of her Mod gold medal win and has been inducted into the traditional music Hall of Fame for her singing and teaching – is due to be recognised with a family biography to be published this summer, and the album recorded with Boys, as yet untitled, will be released to coincide with this. A taster EP, Pha Mi’n Duil (which translates as “in hope or expectation”) is being made available to tie in with their Celtic Connections concert.


“The important thing to say, for me, is that this is not another miserable Gaelic album and it won’t be a miserable concert,” says Kennedy. “You sometimes hear people introducing songs as ‘a rare thing, a Gaelic song with a happy ending’. Well, we have loads of songs in the family that are about the joys of being alive. They were sung out in the fields and around the fire – everything the family did was accompanied by songs - and they could be about almost anything; there’s even one about the first time someone brought a Christmas tree into the village. They sang about daft things, gossipy things, whatever got them through the day, and they passed the songs down the generations. Quite a lot of the puirt-a-beul [mouth music] we sing are unique to our family.”


For Jerry Boys, who has no Gaelic but is well used to working with singers who sing in languages other than English, the special qualities in the Campbells’ singing was obvious from the first line he heard.


“They could have been singing about anything that night in Dunvegan,” he says. “But there’s a closeness in their harmonies that probably only comes from being blood relatives and you know as soon as you hear them that their singing comes straight from the heart.”


From The Herald, January 20, 2014.

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