Review by Jonathan Dembling

Review of Còmhla Cruinn – Gathered Together (CD)

Recordings of Gaelic songs tend to fall into two categories: the beautiful and the dusty. The beautiful recordings are performed by singers with amazing voices, usually accompanied by professional musicians and advanced production techniques. The dusty recordings are those unpolished field recordings of native tradition-bearers. While the spirit and vibrancy of their singing always shine through the scratches and hiss, there is an inevitable air of antiquity about them, a subtle message that things aren’t really like this any more. What makes Còmhla Cruinn unique is that it so well reflects what it’s like to sit at the milling table today. The beautiful and the dusty join with just about everyone else, and everyone has a go.

The setting is the fire hall in Christmas Island, where Féis an Eilein has held its annual festival for over a decade. A perennial highlight of the Féis is the Thursday night milling frolic, and this CD was recorded at the same milling table. Appropriately, milling songs make up the bulk of the recording, but there are some slower songs and two instrumentals. The singers are an inspiringly diverse group—roughly equally divided between learners and native speakers, young and old and everything in between. Most are from the Christmas Island/Boisdale/Iona area, but a few representatives of other districts join in. What unites this unlikely crew is a common love of Gaelic songs and an eagerness to share them.

The songs themselves are also a varied bunch. They range from the popular to the seldom-heard, from the humourous to the serious, and are balanced between local compositions and older songs carried over from Scotland. The milling songs are the soul of the album. Jim Watson starts things off with a rousing version of Ma Bhuannaich Thu Nighean Ghrinn, and is followed by Hector MacNeil, Frances MacEachen, Peter Jack MacLean, Colin Watson, Allan MacLeod, Angus MacLeod, Jamie MacNeil, Maxie MacNeil, Seumas “Caluman” MacNeil and Neil John Gillis. Colin, the youngest native speaker at the table, shows his ease and confidence in the language with his rendition of Ged a Sheòl Mi air m’Aineol. And I could only marvel at the complex and subtle language rhythms in the songs by the older singers, such as Peter Jack’s wonderful version of Nigheanag a’ Chùil Duinn Nach Fhan Thu? In fact it is a treat to hear everyone bring their own swing to the songs.

Sometimes you need to rest your arms and tend to your raw knuckles, but that doesn’t have to mean a break in the singing. There are three songs praising different parts of Cape Breton: Jeff MacDonald gives a superb setting of one of Hugh MacKenzie’s songs to Rear Christmas Island, Beth MacNeil sings Malcolm Gillis’ Moladh a’ Chùil, and Barry George sings Angus the Ridge’s popular Chì Mi Bhuam. Mary Jane Lamond gives Thug Mi Gaol do’n Fhear Bhàn an easy swing. Rod C. MacNeil sings two songs—Fuadach nan Gàidheal and a hymn—which are not always thought of as part of the Cape Breton tradition, but which nonetheless have a long history here. Rod’s sensitive performance is accompanied by his son Paul on pipes and his daughter Kim on the flute.

The singers twice give way to the players. Joe Peter MacLean, one of the best of the Gaelic-style fiddlers, raises the roof with a set of strathspeys and reels, accompanied by Janet Cameron on piano. This man should not only have his own CD, he should have an entire box set. Paul MacNeil and Tracey Dares (pipes and piano, respectively), do have their own CDs, and they play another great set here, moving from song airs to reels.

What makes this CD special is how seamless the entire range of performances comes together. Mary Jane’s beautiful voice doesn’t overshadow anyone else. The old timers’ authenticity does nothing to diminish the quality of the younger learners’ performances. The preconception of recorded music as either art or archive is turned on its head. Anyone who has observed or participated in Gaelic singing in Cape Breton, whether at a milling frolic, house ceilidh, or any other informal environment, will instantly recognize the aesthetic captured here. This is less a performance than a sharing of songs. Because we get to hear everyone’s voice, the entire tradition is enriched.

Beyond the music itself, the CD includes a 34-page booklet written by Hector MacNeil, giving a history of Gaelic language and song in Cape Breton, lyrics and notes on the background of the songs, and biographies of all the performers. A black and white photograph of everyone is also included, small yet evocative portraits which accentuate the individuality of the songs. A great deal of care was put into both the recording and the presentation of this CD, and it is obvious that such care reflects a commitment to maintaining the Gaelic song tradition in Cape Breton as communal property. Còmhla Cruinn provides a unique and thoroughly enjoyable glimpse of this living tradition.

Jonathan Dembling is Gaelic learner and singer and PhD student at Boston College. He has regularly attended the Féis and milling frolic at Christmas Island since it began 12 years ago.