Còmhla Cruinn – Gathered Together (CD)

Féis an Eilein Gathers Community Together to Release Gaelic CD

Féis an Eilein and CBC Cape Breton are proud to announce the release of the CD CÒMHLA CRUINN /(pro.Ka~ Wa~ Kruinne) Gathered Together — A Cape Breton Gaelic Celebration. This project brings together the talents of the many people who have nurtured the Féis over the years. The singers, musicians, organizers and supporters pooled their talents to complete this historic project.

Click here for lyrics/translations.

Select destination (includes $4.00 shipping & handling)

Order by Mail

Order your copy by sending a cheque or money order to:

Communn Feis an Eilein
PO Box 317 Christmas Island
Nova Scotia, Canada B1T 1R7

In Canada $20.00 + $4.00 shipping and handling
In United States $20.00 + $5.00 s/h (CDN)
Overseas $20.00 + $7.00 s/h (CDN)

Produced in cooperation between CBC Radio and Comunn Féis an Eilein.
Recorded on Location at the Christmas Island Fire Hall April 2002

“This is important for the Féis. It is important to our community, and it is important to Gaelic” says Allison Mac Kenzie, co-chair of Comunn Féis an Eilein. “This is truly a community project and one that we can all be proud of for years to come.”

gaelic singers 1

For many years, organizers of Féis an Eilein wanted to make a clear recording of the Gaelic singers and tradition bearers who participate in Féis events. For various reasons they were unable to capture the songs without background noise or technical difficulty. At the same time, CBC Cape Breton was interested in producing a high quality recording of Gaelic singers on location. An intern at the Féis, who was also an employee at the CBC, arranged a meeting between the two parties and a recording date was set for the spring of 2002.

gaelic singers 2

The singers were asked to select a local song that they liked to sing that may not have been recorded before. After the tradition bearers selected their songs, the others in the group made sure they knew the choruses. It was all recorded at the Christmas Island Fire Hall one day in April. The musicians were recorded the next afternoon. The recording was produced by Wendy Bergfeldt of CBC Cape Breton and engineered by Rod Sneddon of CBC Halifax. Lisa Patterson and Greg Macdonald from the IT Innovation Center at the University College of Cape Breton videotaped both recording sessions.

gaelic singers 3

Other members of the Féis community became involved in the postproduction work. Hector Mac Neil of St. Ann’s Gaelic College researched the songs, interviewed the singers and wrote the liner notes. Margaret Williams led the group through the manufacturing process. Award winning photographer Carol Kennedy took the pictures and designed the cover. Paul MacDonald completed the layout. Seamus Watson of the Nova Scotia Highland Village, Frances Mac Eachen of Am Braighe magazine and singer Mary Jane Lamond sifted through hours of tape to find a recording of the late Mr. Neil John Gillis to include on the recording. Neil John was a long-time contributor to the Féis in Christmas Island and the community wanted his singing represented on the CD as well.

gaelic singers 4



Review by Jonathan Dembling

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.


Review by Margaret Bennett from The West Island Free Press

Henry Whyte’s ‘Fuadach nan Gaidheal’ is familiar enough to most Scottish Gaels, though few seem to sing it. The tune is better known as the pipe march, ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament’ — brisk enough for keeping step, or even raising morale, providing there’s no connection to the original meaning, (The Eviction of the Highlanders). Although Whyte composed it long after the event, the song seems to have been better assimilated into the tradition of Gaels overseas — Nova Scotian folklorist Helen Creighton recorded a version of it in l947, five years before Scotland had a folklore archive.

A new recording of the song by Cape Breton’s Rod C. MacNeill (Ruairidh Mac Iain Sheumais Dhòmhnaill) coveys the essence of it with total sincerity. The voice is up in years, occasionally it quavers, yet it is all the more moving to hear him sing:

Gur a mise tha tùrsach/ A’ caoidh còr na dùthcha,….,

[How sad I am / Lamenting the state of the homeland…]

The lyrics are accompanied by the distant sound of bagpipes, never overtaking, far less drowning them. Such is the skill of the piper (Rod’s son Paul) and the production team of this CD, which opens with ‘Fuadach nan Gaidheal’. Co-produced by the Comunn Féis an Eilein and the CBC, ‘Còmhla Cruinn: Gathered Together—A Cape Breton Gaelic Celebration’ was launched last October at Cape Breton’s Celtic Colours Festival. It features twenty tracks of over twenty singers and instrumentalists, three of which are scheduled to be guests this year’s Ceòlas in South Uist — Rod C. MacNeil (Gaelic song), Paul MacNeil (bagpipes), and Paul’s wife, Tracy Dares, (step-dance). Better known for her live-wire piano accompaniment of Natalie MacMaster’s fiddle, Tracy exemplifies the versatility of Cape Breton’s traditional musicians, singers and dancers. Spend any time in their company and you can’t but sense how naturally they range the breadth of their traditional culture — it’s second nature to most of them to lay aside an instrument, pick up another one, step-dance, sing or simply join a chorus. Ceòlas will also feature two Cape Breton fiddlers, Shelly Campbell and Troy McGillivray, adding to the promising line-up for the week.

This is the tenth year that South Uist hosts a teaching festival fostering the links between exponents of Gaelic traditions from both Scotland and Cape Breton. Hector MacNeil, (different genealogy) whose 32-page booklet accompanies the CD, gives the Cape Breton view that, “There is an innate tendency to hold on to traditions brought to the new world and a heightened identification with an t-Seann Dùthaich (the old country) that seems to defy passage of time.”

Hector — or, as his kinsfolk might call him, Eachann MacEachainn Mhìcheil Dhòmhnaill Oig — was brought by up Gaelic-speaking parents who, like so many of their time, felt pressure to speak English to their children. (I am yet to meet anyone of that generation, either side of the Atlantic, who would agree they got on better without Gaelic, and the more impassioned among them feel they were denied a birthright.) In Nova Scotia, as in the Highlands and Islands, however, Gaelic songs were retained in many such households — English became the language of speech, Gaelic remained the language of song. (My own family might have been relegated to silence were we to rely on my mother’s repertoire of English songs.)

Having learned Gaelic as an adult, Hector MacNeil speaks it fluently and works tirelessly to promote it. Among other roles he fills, he is Gaelic Program Director at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton. His liner notes give biographies of the singers, background and transcriptions of songs, and an excellent summary of the history and culture of Cape Breton. There’s also a sober reminder that there were over 75,000 Gaelic-speakers in Cape Breton at the turn of the twentieth century, and today a mere 500.

Hector (who also sings) describes the ‘milling frolic’, the original setting for most of their songs. Perhaps overly-generous in remarking that the luadh in Scotland is “held from time to time to demonstrate the work process and its attendant social activities” he compares the milling frolic in Cape Breton “as a strictly social event.” Scottish Gaels who have seen the Cape Bretonners in action invariably conclude that such vitality and enthusiasm is almost never encountered in Scotland. Perhaps that is not surprising as the luadh actually survived longer in parts of Eastern Canada than in most of Gaelic Scotland. When Alan Lomax recorded waulking songs in Benbecula and South Uist in 1951, the women re-created a special demonstration luadh, as the practice had virtually ceased by the Second World War.

Aside from John Ramsey of Ochtertyre’s 18th century description of a group of singers holding handkerchiefs when they sang for leisure (as opposed to waulking), I know of no custom in Scotland that compares to the Cape Breton milling frolic with participants invariably seated at the milling table, and all hands on the cloth. It not only draws singers together but also as many people that can squeeze into the room or hall. At the same time, it keeps their songs alive and encourages folk to learn them. Furthermore it reflects the fact that men took a major part in the luadh, in Cape Breton whereas in Scotland (apart from a few exceptions) it was the domain of women.

This milling kicks of with Jim Watson singing Ma Bhuannaich Thu Nighean Ghrinn setting a steady pace, afterwards picked up by Hector MacNeil, then Frances MacEachen followed by Peter MacLean. Typical of such a gathering, the singers take a breather. Time for a song — Jeff MacDonald sings in praise of Christmas Island, then, before launching into the milling again, Joe Peter MacLean plays a driving medley on fiddle accompanied by Janet Cameron on piano. Such vigour and spirit makes it easy to understand why Scottish musicians listen to Cape Breton style music and learn from it.

Quite apart from representing a milling frolic, the changes of pace and reflections of light and shade produce a well-crafted play-list for the CD. The participants range across generations, spanning eight decades. I would hope that young Colin Watson’s lively singing of Ged A Sheòl mi Air M’ Aineol might encourage others of his generation. The other singers include Beth MacNeil, Allan MacLeod, Barry George, Angus MacLeod, Betty Lord, Jamie MacNeil, Maxie MacNeil, Seumas MacNeil, Mary Jane Lamond and John C. Gillis. There is a good balance in the songs, between those known both sides of the Atlantic, those composed in Cape Breton and some from Scotland, including one by South Uist’s Donald John MacDonald whose bardachd will also be featured at Ceòlas.

I think Mary Smith (from Lewis) would agree with me that one of the best nights ever spent in Cape Breton was in the hall on Christmas Island where this CD was recorded — Mary and I were invited to join the singers during Celtic Colours Festival last October. “Packed house! Sold out!” we were told. But nobody had to explain why folk would travel hundreds of miles to be there. The true spirit of authenticity is reflected in the singing and the CD is a real treasure-trove. Contact Comunn Féis an Eilein, P.O. Box 317, Christmas Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, B1T 1R7, or email feisnaneilean@ns.sympatico.ca. Ceòlas is in South Uist, July 6 — 14.


Review in Off the Beaten Track Sing Out – Vol. 47 #1. Spring 2003

Every now and then a recording comes along which, although not groundbreaking in its musical direction, nor commercially destined for Grammy greatness, is so important to the discussion of folk music in North America and to the function of our industry as a carrier of culture, that it deserve special attention. This CBC CD of traditional Cape Breton work songs is such a recording.

The participants/performers on Gathered Together were gathered in the Fire Hall on Christmas Island to recreate an old-time “milling frolic,” at which village residents have met for hundreds of years in the town hall to “mill” or “waulk” woolen fabric.

Waulking is a tedious, but necessary step in the production of wool in which a length of wet fabric is continually pounded and kneaded on a hard surface. As is common in most tedious activities performed by hand, thousands of rhythmic, repetitive,(and in some cases naughty) songs have been composed for the process.

The singers and musicians – pipes and fiddle are included – range in age from seventeen to eighty. Some are professional, some academics who have studied Gaelic language and folkways in Cape Breton, some just singers-for-the-love-of-it; but all are drawn to these old songs and committed to their preservation.

Unlike the Scots waulking song, with its two line verse and three line chorus, the Cape Breton variant can be a four line verse – often borrowing from the sea songs and other typed of work lyrics. Many of the songs included here are newer ones, written after 1990, some with the teasing, ribald imagery inherent in small-town life. In the various Gaelic speaking communities around Cape Breton (where there are still some 600 fluent speakers!) the listening can detect the accent of Uist, Barra, or Harris, both in the daily speech and in the songs. Singers like Rod Mac Neil and Allen MacLeod remember the songs sung by parents and grandparents, and have passed them on to younger singers like Colin Watson. My only complaint about this recording and its accompanying (and very informative) liner notes is that translations of the lyrics are not included.

What’s most striking to me about this remarkable recording is that the songs are alive. They are in daily use still, not just trotted out for tourists. Fiddler Alisdair Fraser has called Cape Breton music and song the “missing link” in Scots-Gaelic music, revealing what was lost with the industrialization of the 19th century and subsequent Anglicization of the culture. Gathered Together forges that link more strongly into the chain of culture spanning two continents and 300 years.