Grit

Martyn Bennett, 2014

GRIT - the stories behind the music
Words by Martyn Bennett (1971-2005)

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.

Grit is dedicated to Hamish Henderson (1919-2002)


1. MOVE
Contains fragments from 'Moving On Song' written by Ewan MacColl, sung by Sheila Stewart of Rattray (courtesy of Lismor Recordings)

I have known Sheila Stewart since I was a youngster. A powerful and passionate singer, she comes from a family of travellers famous for their music and songs. Here she sings of the struggle and persecution of the Roma, who are the oldest race of nomadic people in Europe - they have certainly been in Scotland for well over a thousand years.


2. BLACKBIRD
iContains part of 'What A Voice, What A Voice' sung by Lizzie Higgins (courtesy of Lismor Recordings)

Lizzie, also a well-known traveller, learned most of her ballads from her mother Jeannie Robertson (see track 7). Although sadly no longer with us, 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.


3. CHANTER
Contains a fragment of 'Mrs MacLeod Of Raasay' sung by Mairi Morrison (courtesy of The Alan Lomax Archives)

The inspiration of this dance track is the popular pipe tune 'Mrs MacLeod Of Raasay' sung in the 'puirt ceantaireachd' or 'piping song' style of the Outer Hebrides and David Munrow's narrative on the bagpipes.


4. NAE REGRETS
A medley containing an excerpt of 'No Regrets' by Edith Piaf (courtesy of EMI Music France), 'I'll Awa Hame' sung by Annie Watkins (courtesy of Springthyme Records) and original music by Martyn Bennett

Annie, from Dundee, was about 4' 10" with a voice, not of an angel, but the power of a small PA system. I often heard her unmistakable voice in noisy pubs enthusiastically accompanied by as many as thirty musicians. There was something about her that reminded me of Piaf.


5. LIBERATION
Contains part of Psalm 118, in Gaelic, to the tune of 'Coleshill', sung 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

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.


6. WHY
Contains fragments of 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.


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.


8. WEDDING
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.


9. RANT
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) condemned to death at Banff in 1700 for robbing the rich and giving to the poor. The story goes that MacPherson was a fine fiddle player, and before he was hanged he broke his fiddle over the gallows and threw it into the crowd. It is now kept in the MacPherson Museum in Newtonmore.


10. STORYTELLER
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*)

A tinker piper from Arrochar, Loch Fyne, recounts his version of this well known allegory also known as 'The Maiden Without Hands'. It is a fairly sussed psychological analysis on internal family politics and their power struggles, covering deceit, victimisation, brutality, complicity, guilt, empowerment, reconciliation, and finally, genetic repetition.

The Real World Gold repackaged version of Grit features two bonus tracks. The first is Martyn's remix of Peter Gabriel's SKY BLUE. Shortly after the news that Grit was to be released on Real World Records, Peter had invited Martyn to remix a track from his own 2002 album, Up.

"Sadly we only had the opportunity to work with Martyn towards the end of his music-making," explains Peter. " 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. When I was working on the song SKY BLUE, I felt that it had some of the elements that could provide natural raw material for Martyn. He gave us a beautiful remix, and very sadly it was the last thing he did."

"SKY BLUE was the last thing Martyn worked on," recalls Kirsten Bennett. "We were stuck in Edinburgh while he had more chemotherapy and he used a room in an old Georgian flat that was empty and semi-derelict because it had subsidence! I think doing that remix gave him a bit of a boost - and he actually had lots of fun doing it. I remember him asking if we thought the big low loud rasping sample at the end of the remix was 'too much'. I said maybe, and then Martyn looked with his cheeky wee smile and went ahead and put in an extra one! He said 'well I like it, I hope Peter Gabriel isn't offended'. And then he had a wee giggle to himself. Pushing the boundary as usual!"

The second bonus track is MACKAY'S MEMOIRS - Martyn's final recorded work. This is a stunning piece featuring pipes, clarsach, voice and orchestra, first performed in 1999 at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament by the students of The City of Edinburgh Music School, for whom the piece was written. This recording was made in early 2005; it was only completed the day after Martyn's death, with the news being kept from the young performers until the session was finished. Produced by close friend Martin Swan (Mouth Music), it also features Martyn's favourite ensemble Mr McFall's Chamber with percussionists Tom Bancroft and James Mackintosh. Based around the theme and first variation of the piobaireachd Lament for Mary MacLeod, it explores the possibilities of pipe music as a basis for contemporary music.

"I am very honoured to have been asked to write this piece for the talented students of The City of Edinburgh Music School and I hope that, most of all, this is an apt celebration of youth that will see our heritage firmly united for generations to come." Martyn Bennett

Reviews

  • 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. Martyn’s innovatory approach is recognisable everywhere you listen and, though perennially challenging, supremely rewarding. In the final analysis, Grit‘s emotionally charged sequence of tone-poems is a cathartic and wholly truthful representation of Martyn’s “own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures”; it’s 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)