November-December 2012

What the Bleepin’ Beep?

By Linda Dewar

Men_of_WorthHands—er, songs across the water…I sometimes find it difficult to keep a balance in this column between items of interest to readers in southern California and news that relates to Scotland, where I make my home. But that won’t be a problem this time. I’ve spent the past five days in Dunoon, just across the water from Glasgow, at the annual Royal National Mod.

The Mod is a gathering and a series of competitions for speakers of Scottish Gaelic, the first language of the Highland areas. Children and adults, fluent speakers and learners are all welcome, and all have opportunities to participate in contests for singing, reciting poems and stories, playing instruments, and even writing.

For the second time in the past 5 years, a group of Americans from California participated in the Mod under the guidance of singer-songwriter Donnie Macdonald. A native of the Scottish island of Lewis, Donnie has lived in the Sacramento area for many years and performs along with his Irish bandmate, James Keir, as the duo Men of Worth. With him were eight Californians, all of whom are involved at various levels in learning both Gaelic and music, who were split into two groups for the Folk Band competition.

Donnie and his Californian traveling companions are quick to say that they make the trip to the Mod not to win, but to experience Gaelic music and culture. Nevertheless, their practice paid off, as the bands placed first and second in the Folk Band category. Singer and mountain dulcimer player Elizabeth Townsend of Sacramento took further honors, placing first in the Self-Accompanied Singing competition. Participants are graded both on their musical performance and on their use of the Gaelic language. Unless your Gaelic is excellent, you’ve no chance of placing highly, which makes the success of the Americans even more remarkable.

Congratulations to Donnie and his group of talented musicians.

**********

"There’s tens of dollars to be made in bluegrass music”  -  Pat Enright

**********

What’s going on with the Beeb??? Earlier this year, the BBC cancelled Mary Ann Kennedy’s Global Gathering, one of the most popular folk music shows not only in the UK, but with folkies around the world who regularly listened in via the Internet. There was an indignant outcry from the public when the cancellation was announced, but it went forward nevertheless.

Now comes the news that BBC Radio 2 folk deejay Mike Harding’s show has also been eliminated, with the final broadcast to be on December 26. Harding has been on the air for fifteen years, and is a huge favourite with fans of folk music. The BBC gave no explanation for its move other than to say that the show’s time slot will be filled with another, already existing folk show that’s being moved.

Listeners are as angry, and as vocal about this move as they were when Global Gathering was cancelled, but there is really no likelihood at all that the Beeb will change its collective mind. And although they’ve tried to imply that it was something that Harding welcomed and supported, his post that appeared on Facebook just after the announcement was made makes that seem unlikely… “I did not choose to go—was told I was going.”

**********

A young, single woman is feeling very ill and has an extensive series of tests done by her doctor. After weeks of tests and more tests, the doctor calls her in. He tells her, I have to be frank with you the test results are not good. You have an incurable disease, and it is terminal. I would think you have no more than six months to live.

Devastated, she sobbingly asks the doctor, is there anything I can do?

The doctor says, well, if I were you I would run out and marry a banjo player.

She asks, “How will that help my illness?”

The doctor says, “Oh it won't help your illness; but it will make that six months seem like an eternity!”

**********

I think it was some time last year when I mentioned the music of Mali in a column, and in particular the sounds of one of Mali’s most popular bands, Tinariwen. Recently, one of the band members was visited by seven gun-toting government militiamen who threatened to cut off all of his guitar-playing fingers. They then removed all instruments, amplifiers, and anything else having to do with playing music, threw them into a pile outside his house, and set them on fire.

How can this be happening in Mali, a country whose music is a part of its national soul? Where music is everywhere and life has a constant soundtrack? It all started when a new, Islamic coalition government was installed in the country’s volatile northern region. One of the first directives it issued was the banning of all music not directly linked to the Koran.

Most of the musicians in the north have now fled Mali, and many are vowing to bring their country’s traditional sounds to as many international festivals as they can.

It’s not my intention to give you my political opinion on the government of Mali, and you should also remember that by the time you are reading this there may have been changes in this situation. I will, however, say quite emphatically that I am both saddened and angered by any government that chooses to take music away from its people. So if you go to a festival any time soon, and you see that someone is performing the music of Mali, take a moment to listen and appreciate that you’re hearing what the citizens of Mali cannot.

**********

“To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.” Aaron Copland

An American now living in Scotland, Linda Dewar is a singer-songwriter and a player of various stringed and wind instruments. Besides being a solo performer, she is half of a duo with Scottish singer Douglas Craik, plays in an occasional ceilidh band, and is a founding member of the revue Simply Burns. Visit her website.

  

All Columns by Linda Dewar