Gaelic minstrelsy

Some musicians trace their careers back to, say, a particularly moving performance by some childhood hero. For Celtic singer Mary Jane Lamond, though, it was a “milling frolic” (an event in which a heavy woolen cloth is beaten rhythmically against a table, while people sing and keep time) that sparked her true calling.

Lured by the ancient strains of her forebears, Lamond never looked back. The Canadian singer’s love of her ancestral language continued to grow during the many summers she spent at her grandparents’ home in Cape Breton, near Nova Scotia — an area sometimes called “the other Celtic country” because of its large percentage of tradition-minded Scottish descendants.

And though her family moved around a lot when she was growing up, Lamond hung onto her fascination with Gaelic traditions, eventually landing at Antigonish’s Saint Francis Xavier University, where she earned a degree in Celtic studies. There, too, she recorded her first album, the self-produced Bho Thir Nan, a collaboration with Ashley MacIsaac that garnered Lamond an East Coast Music Awards “Female Artist of the Year” nomination.

Lamond’s American-debut CD, Suas e! (pronounced “su-ess-ay”) (Wicklow Records/BMG Classics, 1997), is sung entirely in Scottish Gaelic. But despite the rich cultural traditions inherent in her work, Lamond considers her music more personal indulgence than selfless tribute.

“Any cultural tradition is important and interesting and has an intrinsic value worth keeping, but it’s not all about being a martyr to the Celtic tradition: I do it because I like it,” she observes. “People enjoy the music on all levels. Some people are interested in the history and language, some people are enjoying it on a musical level only. It would be like me [performing with] an Algerian group: I might not have the clearest understanding of it, I might never get around to studying Algerian music, but [I’d] still enjoy it.”

While the heavily rhythmic character of some ethnic musical traditions — particularly African and Middle Eastern — more readily seduces non-native fans, Gaelic songs boast no such hypnotic percussion to close the culture gap created by the indecipherable (to American ears) lyrics. The lure here is almost solely Lamond’s voice, an instrument of crystalline perfection that infuses fresh life into this old, old music — though the singer herself likes to play up the funk-edged accompaniment that swaddles some of the arrangements, subtly bringing them up to date (her music has been called “Celtic alternative”).

“I [record] the songs pretty much as they were always sung, but … the soundscaping behind the music … just gives it a more modern element,” she explains.

Lamond says she’s continually awed by the varied profile of the multitudes who come out to hear her sing. “[They range in age] from 3 to 83,” she marvels.

Becoming a latter-day Gaelic diva is not exactly what Lamond envisioned for herself, growing up — particularly since she had no idea that there would ever be a larger market for her native music. “I played in a few garage bands, and we sang my whole life at home, but I never intended to perform,” she remembers. “It just happened that way.”

As for the resurgent popularity of world music, “It’s a reaction to our times,” she surmises. “These days, we have access to any information that we want. We’re bombarded by information and have become a global society. People have access to other cultures, and listening [to world music] is a way for people to [gain] a ‘smaller’ perspective. There’s so much technological advancement, so much innovation, that we need [tradition] back in our lives. People are looking for that.”

Listening repeatedly to lyrics you can’t understand requires more imagination than intellectual yearning, however. “A lot of people make up their own English lyrics,” says the singer, with a laugh.

Not to mention accompanying story lines. I, for one, was so sure that the mournfully beautiful “Hi ri him bo” was some kind of deathbed lament that I almost protested when Lamond revealed the the 17th-century hunting song’s actual theme: “I like that one, too.”

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