“Saltfish Forty. They’re a bit Orcadian,” my daughter said when I told her I was going.
But what does that mean in the modern world of traditional music. True, Brian Cromarty (guitar, mandola, vocals) has broad flat vowels when he speaks to this ‘Sooth’ audience and Douglas Montgomery has an ‘island’ sense of humour – but the music, like all that is best about ‘traditional’ music, is eclectic, cosmopolitan, skillfully-inflected, modern, affectionate.
There are Orcadian rhythms and motifs worked into the craft of the playing but the ‘tunes’ include Shetlandic, Mainland (Scottish) and Canadian pieces, Western Swing and 12-bar blues. For this is North Atlantic music. (if Texas can be co-opted for now as a North Atlantic Province – delete Florida and Louisiana – it’s all about the Gulf Stream after all!).
I note in myself, as a musician of ‘limited accomplishments’, an interest in mid-20th century jazz and (Celtic) traditional music when I play. No pop nostalgia or rock anthems. I go back – and come forward. These genre share – I think – a quality of syncopation, appropriation, openness – and an established aural tradition. Learn by ear – then improvise. The orchestral score and the cover band ‘nail’ the tune – ‘the karaoke blues’ as Brian Cromarty sings in one of his pieces – but trad and jazz flow. As transatlantic music should.
The Orcadians were on the mainland here – Glenbuchat on Donside – Strathspey territory I suppose – with its own local ceilidh traditions, a strong fiddle heritage (Scott Skinner et al) and the Old Blind Dogs as the local headline group with a network of excellent ceilidh bands and associated groups such as Clachan Yell, Danse Mccabre, Clype and The New Distillery Band. This is, I feel, my home territory – odd for someone who has never felt quite at home anywhere. Here, in the West of Aberdeenshire, where the land lifts onto the Grampians, the sense of community is strong and the community I know is a community that dances.
It was a sell-out event, about a hundred people of all ages – teens to octogenarians – seated at trestle tables, whisky, wine and beer, crisps and cashew nuts. Tie-dye and printed fabrics on the walls – fairy lights. A stage. Two men. Fiddle, guitar, mandola. (and a rough box of a stomper Douglas Montgomery swears he made himself). And the sound comes. The music comes.
Netherbow and The Glassel Jig. The Red Diesel Reels. Reiländer. Some Canadian jigs. A tune from Shetland.
Provenance is tentative…Cromarty speaks of where the tune was found…as if it were a piece of driftwood. This song, he says, ‘I found…I’ve changed the tempo, the key, the tune…and some of the words.’ So he teaches us all the chorus to sing along to…La-la-la – La- la- la. Oooo-ooo-ooo-aaa-aaa-aaa. And we sing along to a tale of lost love, drowned sailors, mermaids and such. It is traditional. Now it is part of our tradition.
Strong throbbing stomping rhythms. It took until half way through the first half before the women (and a few men) began to dance. The rhythms could not be resisted. In the beginning people clap, then tap time with their feet, their fingers, glasses, beer cans. And then the women dance. For it cannot be denied. We are dancing to Orkney, to the North Atlantic drift, to Western Swing and Blues, to jigs and reels, strathspeys. It is all traditional and re-invented in the moment, at this moment, now. It is alive. We are alive. Musicians bring this gift of life. Outside the night is dark and full of stars. Driving back, I saw an owl on a post. It turned its head to watch me pass.