March 31, 2002

Soulful music

Colla Mo Rùn, A Blend of Traditional Singing and Piping from Gaelic Scotland
Margaret Stewart and Allan MacDonald
Greentrax Recordings, CDTRAX 217

Reviewer's rating: 4 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Reviewed by Mike Cusack

[Republished from the February 2002 print edition of the Piper & Drummer magazine.]

It seems that as the great Highland bagpipe has become more global in its scope, its music has become less Scottish. I imagine Allan MacDonald would argue that as the Bagpipe became more Scottish – that is, British – it became less Gaelic.

Allan, a two time Clasp winner and native Gaelic speaker has devoted much of the last 10 or 15 years to studying the Gaelic origins of piobaireachd, resulting in some fascinating interpretations of the “big music.” He then recorded a few of these tunes in collaboration with Gaelic singer Margaret Stewart. The first recording was a good blend of Gaelic song and pipe music presented in a new way with the old songs associated with various piobaireachds brought together to show their musical connection.

Their new release is called Colla mo Rùn. Once again Alan and Margaret blend the bagpipe and song reaffirming the Gaelic nature of the noble instrument.

Most of the tracks are traditional Gaelic songs song by Margaret accompanied by Allan on smallpipes in the key of C or the Highland pipe. Other accompanying instruments remain traditional, such as fiddles, whistles, clarsach and even the jawsharp.

The recording opens with a selection of tunes played by Alan on the Highland pipes, beginning with his own composition “Road to Loch nam Bearnas.” With this opening march Allan demonstrates his open style of playing. He uses doublings to great effect bringing out their full rhythmic nature as often heard in Gaelic mouth music.

Besides being a great player Allan is a talented composer. Especially delightful are waltzes that make up the track, “We’re a case the bunch of us.” They are melodic and lighthearted reflecting Allan’s jovial nature.

The songs throughout the recording are mostly about love and loss. While Margaret Stewart sings most of the songs, Allan sings on two tracks. “Tha Sior Coineadh Am Beinn Dobhrain” is a haunting song accented by Iain MacFarlane’s eerie opening fiddle drone note and the occasional background whistle.

On the lighthearted side, a waulking song, “Seann Duine Cha Ghabh Mi Idir,” depicts an unmarried woman slightly worried that all the young men are getting taken leaving her with only an old man. Sung by Margaret, and joined by Ingrid Henderson and Rona Lightfoot, also an outstanding piper, you can see the apprehensive woman with her friends sitting around the table singing and having a good laugh.

The title track, “Collo Mo Rùn,” is the song and piobaireachd, “The Piper’s Warning to His Master.” Accompanied by Allan on the Highland pipe, Margaret’s singing is at times frantic and full of urgency. Allan’s interpretation of the piobaireachd, which follows old timings of echo beats and birls, retains the song’s urgency. At first listen the dithis variation as played in 2/4, with its weak-strong pulse, is full of tension and a bit disruptive when accustomed to the flow of the strong-medium-medium-strong pulse of 4/4. But here Alan stays true to the music rather than to a musical format. That’s the kind of thing that makes music exciting.

Allan MacDonald and Margaret Stewart movingly bring us back to the Gaelic roots of our music, revealing a soulfulness that much of our new pipe music, as exciting as it can be, lacks. Traditional music might be old, but with Allan and Margaret it is never boring. Let’s hope they bring us more in the future.

Mike Cusack is the most successful competitive piper ever from the United States. He has won almost all of solo piping’s biggest awards, and is Pipe-Major of the St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band, former winners of the Juvenile grade at the World Pipe Band Championships. Mike Cusack lives in Houston, Texas.


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