Martyn Bennett, 2003
GRIT….the stories behind the music
Words by Martyn Bennett
This is my story about triumph in the face of struggle. It is a story of the people and songs I grew up with, and most importantly, it is their voices, traditions and the inspiration they have given to be passed on to the next generation.
Split between the songs of travelling people (Roma) and the Gaelteachd traditions of the Hebrides it brings together by far the strongest links to the ‘real’ folk culture in Scotland. Virtually all the songs and narrative were sampled from vinyl records or from original quarter-inch tape recordings, the sources of which were mostly recorded from 1950 onwards.
The title means many things to me personally. However, it is tied up in my ideas of where my culture lies - a word seen by the roadside, it travels like an expression of determination; onomatopoeic, it reflects the contrasts of this music and topography and has an old intonation which, far from being ‘out-of-tune’, is the real flavour of these traditions.
Rhythmically and sonically I have gone to great effort in this recording. In recent years so many representations of Scotland have been misty-lensed and fanciful to the point that the word ‘Celtic’ has really become a cloudy pigeon-hole. This album was a chance for me to present a truthful picture, yet face my own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures. I hope it challenges your perceptions.
Contains fragments from ‘Moving On Song’ written by Ewan MacColl sung by Sheila Stewart of Rattray (courtesy of Lismor Recordings). Also a sample of ney flute played by Amir Shahzar from the track ‘Bandari’ on the album ‘Imaginary Ritual’ by East-West Ensemble (courtesy of Magda Records).
The big twelve wheeler shook my bed...the farmer said your work’s all done...the local people said to me...move, shift.
“Sheila’s voice is a rare find. I’ve known her since I was a youngster and her voice has always enthralled everyone who hears it. A powerful and passionate singer, she comes from a family of travelers famous for their music and songs, who are best known as “The Stewarts of Blair”. She would refer to herself as Romany, the oldest race of nomadic people in Europe (they have certainly been in Scotland for well over a thousand years). The origins of Roma are thought to be Indian which might explain their striking eyes and jet-black hair.”
Contains part of ‘What A Voice, What A Voice’ sung by Lizzie Higgins (courtesy of Lismor Recordings), and a sample of Gregorian Chants.
“Lizzie, who is unfortunately no longer with us, is a national treasure who learned most of her ballads from her mother, Jeannie Robertson. I will never forget the first time I heard her sing this song. I was about 12 years of age and couldn’t believe that a person could make such an amazing sound.”
This song concerns a young girl who gets pregnant only to find that her lover takes no more to do with her;
When my apron, it hung low,
my true love followed through the ice and snow,
Now my apron it hangs tae my shin,
he passes by and ne’er looks in.
Contains a fragment of ‘Mrs MacLeod Of Raasay’ sung by Mairi Morrison (courtesy of The Alan Lomax Archive. Also contains a fragment of a narrative on bagpipes by David Munrow (courtesy of Gillian Munrow).
The basis of this dance track is the popular pipe tune ‘Mrs MacLeoad of Raasay’ sung in the ‘puirt ceantaireachd’ or ‘piping song’ style of the Outer Hebrides.
4 NAE REGRETS
A medley comprising ‘No Regrets’ (courtesy of EMI Records France) sung by Edith Piaf, ‘I’ll Awa Hame’ sung by Annie Watkins (courtesy of Springthyme Records) and original music by Martyn Bennett.
“Annie, from Dundee, was about 4 feet 10 inches in height with a voice not of angel, but with the power of a small PA system. I would often hear her singing at the folk festivals in Fife in the 1980s, singing above perhaps fifteen to twenty musicians and she could still drown them out! She was a well known character in the folk world and reminded me very much of a Dundonian version of Edith Piaf.”
Contains part of Psalm 118 to the tune ‘Coleshill’, sung in Gaelic by Murdina and Effie MacDonald, and recorded by Thorkild Knudsen in 1964 (courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives/Greentrax Recordings). The English translation of the psalm is recited by Michael Marra.
“The singing of Psalms in Gaelic is sadly a dying art in the Highlands these days, although as a boy I remember hearing it at the Free Church in Uig, Skye where my Grandmother’s family were from. It is exclusively Protestant, or to be more precise, a phenomenon of the Gaelic Presbyterian Churches, where the sound of any instrument except the human voice is forbidden. It is more usually sung by a congregation, with “guidance” from an elder who is known as the Precenter. He will start each strain of the Psalm from the “Psalter” (a book with the words and the basic melody such as Barton’s Psalms published in 1706) and will be joined by the rest of the congregation after the first line. It is the most spine-tingling experience to hear this music in the flesh as the Psalm can often rise to great emotional heights.”
The voice of rejoicing and salvation is
in the tabernacle of the righteous: the
right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.
I shall not die, but live, and
declare the works of the Lord.
The Lord hath chastened me sore: but
he hath not given me over to death.
“I was initially very worried about my setting of this Psalm, as I was sure it would be offensive or misunderstood, so I decided to visit Murdina at her home in Balantrushal on the Isle of Lewis. Although now in her late eighties, Murdina is a most impressive woman. She reassured me that back in 1964 she too had been very apprehensive about recording religious material for inclusion with what she termed ‘the vain songs’. It had given her many sleepless nights but she was resolved by something that came to mind from the scriptures: “I will cast your bread upon the waters…”
“This piece ‘wrote itself’ at the beginning and end of a most traumatic and life changing experience. I could not find any other way to express the profound feeling of losing faith, and the determination to find it again. Out of respect for Murdina’s and Effie’s wishes, proceeds from this recording will go to raise money for the Stornoway Bethesda Hospice in Lewis.”
Michael Marra is perhaps one of Scotland’s most talented and original performers and songwriters, whose work is lyrically rooted in Scotland, its culture, history and literature. It seems apt, then, for Martyn to have chosen Michael Marra to recite the English translation of Psalm 118, which gives this track its powerfully commanding introduction and close.
Contains fragments of a narrative from ‘The Old Home’, a conversation with the great Skye bard Calum ‘Ruadh’ Nicholson, recorded by Thorkild Knudsen (courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives/Greentrax Recordings). Also contains fragments of ‘Mo Ruin Geal Og’ sung by Flora MacNeil (courtesy of The Alan Lomax Archives).
“For the Gael, the subject of war and loss has produced more beautiful songs than any other. The fragments of this elegy, sung by the wonderful Flora MacNeil, come from the words of Christina Fergusson written for her love William Chissholm, killed at Culloden in 1746. The Jacobite Cause has had more effect on the Gael than perhaps even the Great Wars of which Calum Ruadh is referring to.
“Calum, who is apparently a relative of mine, although I never met him, is reminiscing as he looks at the ruin of his family home near Braes in Skye. He wonders why he survived the Great Wars when so many of his brothers and family members did not.”
In the war of your cause
you took all that I possessed and loved
“Flora is perhaps my favourite Gaelic singer. The above song was recorded when she was a young woman, however even in her seventies, her voice possesses great power and majesty.”
7 ALE HOUSE
Contains the song ‘ The Bonnie Wee Lassie Who Never Says No” sung by the late, great Jeannie Robertson (courtesy of Topic Records).
“Jeannie was ‘discovered’ in the early 1950s by Hamish Henderson. Recorded many times over the last twenty years of her life, her heavy, passionate voice and huge repertoire of ballads made her an underground cult figure during the 1960s folk revival. Awarded the MBE in 1968, her singing style influenced a whole generation of singer songwriters including Ewan MacColl and Bob Dylan.
“This particular song is unusual for Jeannie, being very much a male party piece. The subject matter is fairly obvious; it’s basically getting “blind drunk”, getting laid, and not paying the bill.”
Improvisation on piano (Kirsten Bennett) and viola (Martyn Bennett). Contains extracts from the Gaelic Teachers Course compiled by Major Calum Iain McLeod. Also contains fragments of ‘An Treisamh’ by Miss Russell-Fergusson.
“This abstract ‘tone-poem’ describes a fictitious but ‘typical’ Highland wedding. Kirsten and I made the improvisation shortly after our wedding.”
Contains fragments of ‘MacPherson’s Lament’ sung by the traveller Jimmie McBeath of Portsoy, from a private archive recorded in 1959 by Hamish Henderson.
“MacPherson of Kingussie was an infamous 'freebooter' (whisky smuggler/illicit distiller) condemned to death at Banff in 1700 for robbing the rich and giving to the poor - a local Robin of Sherwood, I guess. He was found at Keith after running away and was caught when a local resident threw from an upstairs window, a blanket to restrain him. The local inhabitants raised a petition for his reprieve but when the pardon was on its way, Macpherson's arch-enemy, Lord Braco, the Sheriff of Banff, put the clock forward an hour to make sure he would hang.
“The story goes that MacPherson was a very fine fiddle player and that before he was hanged he broke his fiddle over the gallows and threw it into the crowd. The fiddle is now kept in the MacPherson Museum in Newtonmore.”
Contains the story “Daughter Doris” told by Davie Stewart, recorded in Edinburgh in 1955 by Hamish Henderson (courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives/Greentrax Recordings). It also contains a fragment from ‘Al-ward Al-froll’ from the album ‘Charcoal Gypsies’ by Musicians of The Nile (courtesy of Realworld Records/Long Distance) and a fragment of “Invocation” from ‘The Kilmartin Sessions’(courtesy of Kilmartin House Trust).
“The story is an allegory about deceit, brutality, complicit victimisation and petty power struggles that go on in most families. The King (a control freak) throws out his daughter, Doris, for breaking his milk-pitcher, which is actually the fault of a deceitful jealous stepmother. He then proceeds to remove her limbs and ability to feed her baby using his sword (an allegory for complicit victimisation and cowardly brutality). He leaves her in a state of depression (she’s bleeding to death), but before he goes the daughter curses him, saying that he will be sick one day and the only person that will cure him is her son (guilt). The daughter then meets an “auld wise man” (I guess he would be a psychotherapist today) who points out that she is actually quite capable of managing on her own and she goes on her way. Of course she gets word many years later that the King is dying (of remorse I think) and she goes to see him with her now grown up son. The son uses the very same sword to chop off the King’s “poisoned foot” (he confronts him with what he has done to his mother Doris) and this cures him (of remorse and reconciles the King with his daughter). There is perhaps a twist here, in that the son takes the King’s place - I take this to mean that all our faults and grievances are passed on from one generation to the next no matter who hard we try and forgive them.”
- It's a tribute to Bennett's hyperactive musical imagination that this confection never sounds stale, forced or pretentious. Or anything other than Scottish, come to that. Jewish Chronicle (UK)
- On various levels this is an extraordinary album. The charismatic fiddler/bagpiper/dance innovator has endured an horrendous couple of years battling with cancer, and Grit - born of pain, passion, emotion and a very real sense of roots - is the emmense response. Paradoxically it's tender yet explosive; ancient and futuristic; beautiful yet violent; scarred yet triumphant; quietly reflective yet full-on dance.... Remarkable stuff. fRoots (UK)
- "It took a purposeful artist to make this challenging album. We are the richer for it. Quite, quite remarkable." Bullit (UK)
- Here, his mystical samples of Scottish travellers and Gaelic west coast singers fuse with block rocking beats to create something fascinating and unexpected... Boys Toys (UK)
- ...perhaps the most powerful, defiant, deeply emotional album of the year. After two semi-classic albums with Bothy Culture and Hardland, this is perhaps the most powerful, defiant, deeply emotional album of the year. Made in the midst of a battle with cancer, Bennett digs deep into the Scottish tradition to sample travellers and Gaelic singers, catapulting them into the modern world with thrilling beats and full-on techno. The results are mostly outstanding. Mojo (UK)
- album review You'll see that Martyn Bennett has come top of the list once more. He's a genius, without doubt, and he's taken his talents to an even higher plane with his new album, Grit. As he has done in the past, he's found songs and words in the School of Scottish Studies and put them to electronic rhythms. He's used two different voices - the voice of the Roma (travellers) and the voice of the Gael. ...there's nothing sweet about Grit. Bennett has taken the strongest, deepest, and most fundamental sounds and brought them to the fore - like the last cry of a wild beast, without translation, without gentrification. The Roma provide the strongest voices on the album, but listen to Liberation for a unique Gaelic psalm - which uses the singing of Murdina and Effie Macdonald from the 60s and the low, gravelly voice of Michael Marra reading Psalm 118 in English. There is no-one else on earth so modern and so ancient at the same time: so true to our roots and so free in creating new sounds - and new languages. The Scotsman (Scotland)
- album review Here...Martyn has created something wondrous in terms of sound picture, genuinely breathtaking in its scope, imagination and execution and, most important, very very personal. Martyns innovatory approach is recognisable everywhere you listen and, though perennially challenging, supremely rewarding. In the final analysis, Grits emotionally charged sequence of tone-poems is a cathartic and wholly truthful representation of Martyns own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures; its truly extraordinary, and no exaggeration without doubt an album of the year. www.netrhythms.co.uk (internet)
- album review Grit is Martyn Bennett's tour de force. No-one else welds the Scottish tradition to cutting edge electronica so well and here you couldn't slide an atom between the elements, so well are they interwoven. Potentially controversial and challenging in its groove-clad modernity, the album has gained the delighted approval of the singers' families, who see it as continuing the tradition. Knowing that Grit represents Bennett's survival strategy during a particularly harrowing period in his own struggle with cancer makes sense of the intensity, the deeply personal yet hugely accessible emotion in this album. Do it the service of listening with headphones. It's an astounding experience, simultaneously painful and uplifting. This is a man with a huge voice. BBCi (UK)
- album review ''Just as we near the time for nailing albums of the year here's a late entry that should force it's way to the top of any self-respecting Scottish music fan's list... a triumphant blast... from one of our most influencial talents...'' The List (Scotland)
- album review Quite captivating for it's uniqueness, this extraordinary project blends traditional Scottish music with an inventive avalanche of beats and samples from the world of electronica and dance. Simultaneously rooted in the passionate purity of the past while glorying in modern dance culture, it's the amazing voices of traditional singers like Jeannie Robertson, LIzzie Higgins and Flora McNeil that ultimately dominate. Wave (UK)
- Genre-defying genius from Scotland 'This is a truly astonishing record....Tracks are split between Roma influences and the Gaelteachd traditions of the Hebrides - for many the 'real' folk culture of Scotland. Sources were snatched from dusty vinyl records, some from right back in the 50s, and sonically reinterpreted into a modern dance hybrid....I really can't recommend this album enough, not only for its genre-defying vision, but also for the strength and courage of its maker. You are unlikely to hear a more powerful and passionate disc this year - in any genre.' SongLines (UK)
- CD review Martyn Bennett attempts to reclaim Scottish music from the "misty-lensed and fanciful" representations of Celtic culture that have flourished in recent years. His method is to go back to roots, using samples of traditional Scottish folk singers such as Lizzie Higgins and Flora MacNeil, and his own fiddle and pipe drones alongside modern synth and drum programmes....the striking voices lending the tracks a stirring, earthy quality - never more so than on the opening "Move", in which the eerie tones of Sheila Stewart are lashed to an 808 bassline and crunching breakbeats, streaked with trumpet and ney flute. An absorbing reconciliation of the raw and the cooked. The Independent (UK)
- ...Bennett certainly makes an impression... Caledonian techno-folkie Bennett certainly makes an impression...this music has an undeniable sense of place, very much making it roots music for the 21st century. ...he made Grit with the use of samples and lengthy fragments of old recordings made mostly in the 1950s by traditional singers...Their voices are strikingly beautiful and the variety of settings engages constantly...Among many amazing moments, the most gripping has to be the gruesome and awesome ten minutes of Storyteller. HMV Choice (UK)
- This intense and often very moving collection is carried by the monumental voices...those jewels are timeless. A sonic collage of archive and vintage recordings from the Scots and Gaelic traditions, integrated with Bennett's trademark contemporary dance beats. This intense and often very moving collection is carried by the monumental voices...those jewels are timeless. Scotland on Sunday (Scotland)
- album review- Rick Anderson Ever since Martin Swan's Mouth Music project sputtered to a disappointing halt around 2000, there has been a hole in the music world that's been waiting to be filled by someone else willing to take unabashedly traditional Scottish music and juxtapose it with unashamedly slamming breakbeats and 21st-century production techniques. Martyn Bennett has actually been working that territory since his eponymous debut in 1996, but has really come into his own in the years since; Grit is a tour de force of avant-folk fusion music on which he manages to craft irresistibly hip-shaking beats and bring them to bear on traditional material without sacrificing any of the stark beauty of his source material. "Chanter" is a simultaneous celebration of house music, bagpipe technique and the Scottish vocal tradition of puirt a beul; "Nae Regrets" samples an old man singing what sounds like a variation on the bawdy song "Bonny Black Hare", and throws it in with metal-edged guitars, orchestral strings and a Big Beat rhythm that would make Fatboy Slim weep all over his decks; the aptly titled "Rant" makes exquisitely intricate use of layered and rhythmically manipulated vocal samples, dubwise sound manipulation and a Shetland fiddle. On 'Wedding", Bennett creates a minimalist but richly textured quilt of sound with an altered fiddle, Gaelic spoken-word samples and, eventually, a simple one-two beat. That last track is more interesting than fun, but the rest of the album comes down solidly on the latter side. Brilliant. www.allmusic.com (International)