By Neil Hedgeland
Living Tradition Magazine
“...the major strength of this talented quartet is without doubt the interplay of their four distinctive voices...”
Early in December, the Best Album of the Year prize at the Scots Trad Awards for 2013 went to Room Enough For All, the Battlefield Band’s latest in a long history of over 20 albums featuring numerous line-ups. Notable among the three other nominations was the debut album from Cruinn, a quartet of prominent Gaelic singers with many individual recordings to their names, whose subtly sublime harmonies have rapidly gained them attention following the release of their self-titled album and glowing reviews for their consequent performances.
Cruinn in Gaelic means ‘round’, ‘circular’, or alternatively,
‘gathered, assembled, collected’, according to Gaelic scholar
Edward Dwelly. Cruinn, the group, consists of James Graham, Fiona Mackenzie, Brian O hEadhra and Rachel Walker. Having been impressed by their vocal dexterity and versatility in presentation of both traditional and original compositions at concerts in Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh in the late spring and later in performances during the Blas Festival in September, I arranged to meet them when they played a rare concert at Leith Folk Club in November. At that time they had just been informed of their Trad Awards nominations - as well as the album, Rachel was nominated as Best Gaelic Singer, an award she went on to win.
Brian explained how the group came into being. He had thoughts about forming a Gaelic vocal outfit, contacted Rachel, who suggested James, and then Brian approached his wife, Fiona, with the idea - thus the foursome was formed. Fitting rehearsals and performances into four individual schedules will always be a bit tricky, but since the album came out early in 2013, they have been able to promote the album extensively between their other activities.
Brian, originally from Ireland, but now based in Inverness, came to prominence with the band Anam, which was formed in 1994 and after several line-ups, during which Fiona joined, finally came to a halt in 2005. Originally writing in Irish, he now writes in both Scottish Gaelic and English and as well as recording solo, has recorded and performed with the likes of Christine Primrose, Sandy Brechin and Bruce MacGregor.
Fiona comes from the Isle of Lewis and has performed and
recorded with her sisters, Eilidh and Gillian, as Mackenzie - they recently performed at the Michael Marra tribute concert at Celtic Connections. She also performed and recorded alongside the Wrigley Sisters in the band Seelyhoo and, showcasing her own songwriting, put out a solo album on Linn Records to much acclaim in mainstream music circles.
Rachel was brought up in Kinlochewe in Wester Ross, where
she was introduced to Gaelic song as a young child, although it was pointed out to me when I met the group that they had all started singing in Gaelic before learning the language. Rachel graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, where she studied under Kenna Campbell. She has released three albums, the first of which was produced by Runrig’s Malcolm Jones and the latest featuring her own songwriting. She supported Runrig on their 2008 tour, occasionally plays with her husband’s band, Skippinish, and produced James’ Greisean Greine album.
James Graham’s voice has been prominent in Gaelic music circles since he won the gold medal at the National Mod in 2007. Coming from Lochinver in Sutherland, he had previously made his presence known by winning the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year award in 2004. As well as singing unaccompanied, he sometimes performs with pianist James Ross and, like Manran’s Norrie MacIver, is a member of Mary Ann Kennedy’s Na Seoid. He has released two solo albums and, like Rachel, can often be seen on BBC Alba, recently in a series narrated by Julie Fowlis on landscape and music, Innsean An Iar-Hebrides. He could also be seen in this year’s BBC Alba Hogmanay ceilidh, first-footing and singing! He graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, where as well as singing, he studied piping.
The major strength of this talented quartet is without doubt the interplay of their four distinctive voices, but their vocals are complemented sympathetically by guitar from Brian (also the shruti box), whistles from James and piano and keyboards from Rachel. The album was produced by Jim Sutherland, who added some of his own percussion, the other musicians being Euan Burton and Matheu Watson. The album’s content is a finely honed melee of original compositions in Gaelic from Rachel and Fiona, songs written and sung by Brian both in Irish and Scottish Gaelic and traditional Gaelic songs interpreted with lead vocals by James, Rachel or Fiona.
The album leads off with Fiona’s A Phiuthrag’s A Phiuthair, learned from Christine Primrose. Rachel is featured on a Tiree rowing song, Fhalbh Oirre Ho and James on a love song, Mala Chaol Is Beul Tana, as well as a song from Cape Breton, Caite A Bheil I Ann Am Muile. Fiona’s Phos Iain Ailean was co-written with her sister Eilidh and Rachel’s Gun Dochas was inspired by lonely nights as a student. Faoiseamh is a song Brian wrote in Irish Gaelic in his youth and Ho Ro Mo Bhata was translated from Irish to Scottish Gaelic and sung by Brian. The album concludes with the ensemble Ceann Traigh Ghruinneart.
That leaves two intriguing adaptations - highlights both on the album and in concert performance - Eirich Isean Eirich, with lead vocals by Brian and Rachel and Oran Celia, performed by Fiona. The former is a Hungarian love song originally recorded by Marta Sebestyen with Muzsikas, which Brian translated into Scottish Gaelic from an English translation made by the musician Aaron Jones from the original Hungarian! Oran Celia is an adaption to Gaelic of a poem written by the English poet Ben Jonson in the 17th century, the words of which later became the song Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes. These two arrangements exemplify the thought and attention to detail put into the production of an album full of aural delights.
As to the future of Cruinn and the complexities surrounding the arrangement of concerts or tours in line with each individual’s commitments, both musical and family, Rachel told me that it can be a problem sorting things out with children involved. Her husband, who performs with Skippinish, can help with their two children, but Brian and Fiona have children together who need to be looked after while they are travelling. Brian has often been involved in regional and community projects supporting the Gaelic language and culture, having been artistic director of the Blas festival and Scottish Gaelic Arts and Culture Officer for Bord na Gaidhlig and Creative Scotland. Rachel aside from her solo performances has also worked as a record producer and as musical director for the Skippinish Ceilidh House in Oban, as well as being involved with the recent Clo project, also in Oban.
At present plans are uncertain for performances during 2014, but Brian did tell me they were hoping to have a second album ready to launch at the National Mod later in the year. If this second album proves to be as pleasing to the ears as their debut, it will be well worth the wait.