Blas 2005: Julie Fowlis/ North Highland Fiddlers
Lyth Arts Centre, 7 September 2005
LYTH ARTS CENTRE was the venue for a feast of traditional music with a modern flavour as part of the Blas Festival. The idea behind the festival is to work up towards the Highland Year of Culture in 2007, and to celebrate the enormous musical potential we have in the Highlands.
To put the audience in the right mood from the start, all communication was bilingual: Gaelic and English. It seemed perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere of the festival.
The North Highland Fiddlers were the (relatively!) local attraction, under the leadership of Karen Steven. The band consists of six fiddlers supported by two drummers and a keyboard–player, and the members of the group come from Inverness, Wick, Alness and Mid-Clyth.
The visiting artist was Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, who also played on various pipes, and was accompanied on guitar and Irish bazouki and fiddle. Julie is from Uist, but her backing group were from Lochaber and Ireland, respectively.
Both groups interacted well with the audience. There was evident partisan support for our local fiddlers and Karen paid a tribute to the late Bobby Coghill who had encouraged so many people to take up traditional music (Addie Harper Jnr is continuing this tradition in Wick).
Karen Steven herself is well-travelled across Ireland and Nova Scotia, and takes an obvious delight in delivering both well-known and less familiar pieces as well as her own compositions.
The Gaelic language lends itself to creating rhythms, and Julie demonstrated this admirably in her songs.
Her patter was relaxed and witty:
“Tell us something about the African drums.”
“They come from the music shop in Inverness!”
The performance of all the pieces was excellent, with virtuoso pieces by many individuals from the band.
It was quite apparent that Julie Fowlis had a firm grounding in dance. From the moment she started to play, though seated, her feet began to dance to the various rhythms, and this was contagious since the audience echoed the rhythms as they pounded their feet.
The Gaelic language lends itself to creating rhythms, and Julie demonstrated this admirably in her songs. She also managed to play the pipes and sing at the same time (it has to be pointed out, however, that these were the Scottish small pipes powered by bellows!).
As a vertically-challenged individual, Julie drew our attention to the large turn-ups on her jeans, which we probably would not have questioned. Her charismatic delivery made us think we were in the presence of a musical giant. Julie gave us the details of one old song where the heroine is rescued at the last minute from drowning. Such a happy ending is rare in Gaelic songs, she tells us!
© John Sawkins, 2005