The English Folk Dance and Song Society have awarded four new bursaries.
Thu, 08 August 19
Released 13 October 2003
Grit was originally released on 13 October 2003. Tragically Martyn Bennett lost his valiant battle to cancer on 30th January 2005, age 33. During his short but extraordinary career, Martyn was simply one of the most exciting, daring and innovative musicians working in Scotland.
A world-class fiddler and bagpiper, Martyn started to experiment with electronic music and pioneered the rare marriage of the folk and modern dance cultures. Following four exceptional albums, Grit was Martyn’s most extraordinary and challenging album, flattening the usual barriers of time, culture and genre that imprison music in boxes.
There have been few images more compelling than Martyn Bennett on stage, hair flailing in all directions, playing a traditional tune on bagpipes or fiddle while a thunderous sound system pounded out beats and samples behind him. His Bothy Culture album is rightly regarded as a landmark meeting of traditional Scottish and electronic music and subsequent albums, the explosive Hardland and the innovative Glen Lyon – featuring the Gaelic singing of his mother Margaret Bennett – pushed the envelope further, albeit in different directions.
Bennett’s most extraordinary work, however, was yet to come. He had been through hell and high water putting together his final project Grit, an astonishing, deeply emotional collection of traditional singers— largely travellers— showcased via an inventive avalanche of sounds and beats. It’s simultaneously rooted in the passionate purity of the past while glorying in modern dance culture. It’s a risky and dangerous balance, but far from being swamped by the swathes of electronica, it’s the amazing voices of the traditional singers like Jeannie Robertson, her daughter Lizzie Higgins and the Gaelic singer Flora McNeil that ultimately dominate the attention.
These were the singers Martyn Bennett was raised on and for him Grit was a deeply personal and painful album. He battled with cancer of the lymphomes throughout the making of it, undergoing extensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy and even a bone marrow transplant. Unable to play himself, Grit was his sole artistic outlet, albeit an incredibly difficult one.
"I don't really know how Grit happened. It just did. I was trying to keep myself alive and survive something really horrible and writing music was quite a good way of focusing on it. Cancer is a piece of grit inside your soul which you can't get out so you have to try and make something of it. But grit is also rock salt, an old medicine. I also see it as representative of cultures trying to survive. Martyn Bennett
Grit was not, Martyn emphasized, a perfect record. It was such a harrowing time in his life, he then found it impossible to listen to it at all. At the time Martyn explained: “It’s so painful because it was such a painful time but I can understand it might give a lot of other people pleasure and I hope it compels people to listen to the old songs again.”
Martyn was close to the traditions —and ideals— represented by the traditional singers he used on Grit. Born in Newfoundland, his family went to Quebec when he was five and then moved to Scotland. The family were close to the travellers —Martyn remembers living with them when he was about eight— and most of the singers featured on the album were personal friends. Samples are mostly taken from his own personal collection of vinyl records —plus private recordings left to him by the late Hamish Henderson— and he believed the gypsy voices represent a lost culture of purity and passion.
“That’s what I like about the singing, it’s the passion. Passion means feeling pain and anger and love. You don’t hear it too much but you hear it more in the voices of travellers than anyone. And of course the tunes are beautiful and the words are economical. Modern songs are often wrapped up in politics or phraseology which can become clichéd, but these old songs seem to have more honesty and aren’t so concerned with fashion. It’s easier to get to the meaning quicker without all the paraphernalia.”
Bennett was always immersed in traditional culture. Back in his early childhood in Newfoundland he lived in a Gaelic speaking community and when they came to Scotland the family first lived on the Isle Of Mull. He was subsequently playing traditional tunes on the fiddle at a young age and continued to play it until he was 16 and studied classical music. At 22, engaged by the Edinburgh club scene, he started experimenting with electronic music, creating the rare marriage of the folk and modern dance cultures.
Later in his life though, he became almost reticent about this pioneering work, at one point describing it as “baggage” and worrying about his contribution to consumerism. “I think it’s great what you can do with electronics, but why twiddle with knobs when you could be twiddling with a fiddle peg or a woman’s breast?”
There are certainly those in the folk community who share his reservations, and he irked the establishment by putting grooves around some of Scottish music’s most precious icons. As a result, Grit might be considered a controversial album, though Martyn was quick to refute their objections.
“I’ve played the tracks to the families of the singers and they are delighted. The songs are taken from recordings made between 1950 and 1979, mostly travellers from the north east of Scotland, Gaelic singers and bards from the Outer Hebrides and the families see it as a way of keeping the tradition going. That’s what this album is about really.”
In early 2003 Bennett destroyed his collection of instruments. “It was the worst day of my entire life. Every day for about three years I’d been trying to play my instruments and I couldn’t. Well, I could play them but the music wasn’t coming out of me, it was like I was a ghost, there was no heart and soul in me. And I just suddenly went into this blind rage and destroyed ever single instrument I owned, just smashed it all to pieces. It was incredible. I got so angry I murdered my little family of instruments. Smashed them all up, £20,000 worth of instruments, not insured. Some had been in my family for generations. I just couldn’t believe what I’d done…
“But it was also the best thing that happened to me because it was catharsis, the destruction of everything I was. It made me realise you have a right to change your path whenever you like, you don’t have to go through an awful trauma to do it. I see a lot of unhappy people who can’t get rid of their shackles. I feel like getting rid of possessions now! I still have physical problems but I’m working to get back. As for playing again, I really don’t know. I don’t know if I have anything to say any more…”
The Real World Gold re-issue 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 in Edinburgh while he had more chemotherapy, and he used a room in an old Georgian flat that was 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.
'Martyn took the soul and passion of the roots of Scottish music, and planted them in a modern, electronic world. I'm delighted that through this project we are all reminded of what an extraordinary talent we have lost, but can now continue to enjoy." Peter Gabriel
Released 15 July 1996
Released 20 September 2004
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