BRIAN McNEILL and FRIENDS
The Falkirk Music Pot
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What is Scottish music? Once one accepts the reality that what is glibly labeled "Celtic music" is more useful for marketers than ethnomusicologists, the question becomes a much harder one to answer. Does one root around deeply in the Scottish past to find antecedents for each rhythm, melody, and beat? That was the avenue taken by Dick Gaughan back in 1991, when he spearheaded the Clan Alba project. His was a brilliant undertaking that, nonetheless, managed to anger self-styled purists. In a new undertaking, Brian McNeill, who takes an ethnomusicological backseat to no one, tacks a different direction. Instead of seeking to unearth Scotland's musical past, he presumes that region and culture conspire to create distinct sounds. His is a microcosmic look at Scottish music in one place–his native Falkirk–and he simply avoids definitional battles by presenting music of, about, and played in Falkirk. Strictly speaking, just two of the 22 tracks on this double CD are traditional and McNeill is perfectly willing to accept that visiting students from Malawi's Bandwe Secondary School, with whom Falkirk schools have an exchange program, fertilize Falkirk's music just as richly as a native son such as himself.
McNeill calls this project a "cooking pot," an apt description for the musical porridge stirred by McNeill, local students, and homegrown talent in 2014, when Falkirk won a grant and designation as an official Creative Place. McNeill is on the CD with a few of his classics: "The Lads O' the Fair,' "The Boys that Broke the Ground," "The Best of the Barley," and "The Travelling Nation's Pride." The last selection is actually sung by Sylvia Barnes (ex- of Kentigern) and a reminder that McNeill is as much in his producer, teacher, musical director roles as that of headline performer. Many listeners will not have previously heard Amy Low, Emma Buchan, Ellie Williams, Andy McKean, Willy Thomson, or Andrew Howie. That's because the first two are youthful pipers, Williams a precocious 17-year-old singer/songwriter, and the last three regional folk club staples. And you would have had to be in Falkirk on the right night to hear the Falkirk Schools Ensemble, the Bo'ness and Carriden (brass) Band, or competition pieces from various local songwriters. McNeill gives the final word to pupils from the Bandwe Girls Secondary School as they sing "Phla Phala Phala." How appropriate. The word means "porridge." Go to the head of the class if you guessed that in Malawi it's cooked in a big iron pot.