Dannsa With First Harvest

13 Jun 2006 in Music

North Edinburgh Arts Centre, 9 June 2006, and touring

© John Sikorski

NEVER MIND the great debate about its role in the origins of gospel music, did Gaelic culture beget the drum solo?

As singers Liz Maclean and Kathleen MacInnes took a few bars rest during their puirt a beul (mouth music), Donal Brown certainly step danced some fine evidence for this claim with the kind of rhythmical creativity that would make any drummer proud.

There’s much percussive drive, too, from Brown and his Dannsa colleagues, Sandra Robertson, Caroline Reagh and Frank McConnell in this celebration of the Scottish tradition’s three graces – music, song and dance – which is touring the Highlands & Islands this week under the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune Up banner.

Manoeuvring nimbly across the floor to their own accomplished musicians, Fin Moore (Highland and Border pipes) and fiddler Gabe McVarish, and to touring buddies First Harvest’s West Highland zest, the Dannsa quartet created a winsome, hypnotic effect with their ensemble phrasing and call and response footwork.

Their sword dance, with the more toe-friendly fiddle bows replacing sabres, was a particular delight, combining technical assurance with gracefulness. And if their joy in reviving dance steps that in some cases have lain dormant for generations tends mostly to be confined to subtle eye contact and quiet smiles, there was no doubting the exuberance of ‘The Spinning Reel’ as bodies flew in a dizzily spinning circle.

First Harvest is built around the long-time friendship of the Iains, MacDonald and MacFarlane, who between tours with Battlefield Band, Blazin’ Fiddles and Boys of the Lough have developed the sort of understanding that allows the former’s pipes, flute and whistles and the latter’s fiddle and accordion to combine as one voice.

With guitarist Ross Martin lending inventive, propulsive accompaniment, they zipped through marches, strathspeys, reels and jigs with expressive and impressive brio and gave informed – although this might not necessarily equate with true – introductions.

They also gave apposite backing to the aforementioned Kathleen MacInnes, from South Uist, whose smoky-toned voice and melodic sensitivity lent real depth of character to songs including the sad, lamenting ‘Oran Dhomhnaill Phadraig Iagain’ and ‘Jimmy Mo Mhile Stor’, a tale of a lover leaving for pastures new.

All in all this is hugely enjoyable presentation and when all eleven participants get together for one final, rousing spree, it only serves to underline the breadth and depth of talent involved.

Footnote: I caught the show in Findhorn, and agree entirely with Rob’s judgement. Unfortunately, Donal Brown was unwell that night – we hope he is restored to full vigour for the rest of the tour – Ed.

Dannsa with First Harvest perform at the Craigmonie Centre, Drumnadrochit, 10 June; Universal Hall, Findhorn, 11 June; Glenuig Hall, 14 June; Macphail Centre, Ullapool, 15 June; An Lanntair, Stornoway, 16 June; Ardross Hall, 17 June.

© Rob Adams, 2006