Expressive singer wins music title

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Gaelic singer James Graham of Lochinver has become the first man to win the hotly contested title of BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician in the competition's four-year history.

The final, which took place last Sunday as part of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, featured six singers and musicians.

Graham, aged 23, was joined by fiddle players Jenna Reid (from Shetland), Sarah Naylor (from Skye) and Shona Donaldson (of Huntly), accordion player Tom Orr (of Lanark) and clarsach player and singer Rosie Morton (from Edinburgh).

Each contestant performed for about 15 minutes, with or without accompanists. All performed to a standard which made judging very difficult, but the five judges arrived at a unanimous verdict.

They rightly praised Graham's ambitiousness and the unwavering accuracy of his intonation throughout a variety of four Gaelic songs. He selected the anthemic "Canan nan Gaidheal", a poignant unaccompanied lament and a closing set which began with a fragment of a lost pibroch and accelerated into a frenetic reel and jig.

Graham performed all these with remarkable authority and expressiveness. He has a voice which would stand out in any company, as it had done the previous day during a concert featuring half a dozen of the top young Gaelic singers on the folk scene.

Ms Reid was the most experienced performer in the final, and her dazzling playing must have brought her close to the ultimate prize. Her singing is less distinguished, however, and she may have done better to present herself purely as an instrumentalist. The other fiddlers, Ms Naylor and Ms Donaldson, also performed well.

Ms Morton maintained the high standard of technical prowess and musicality set by all the finalists.

Mr Orr was probably the least experienced performer, but that will surely be recitifed soon. Each of the previous winners - fiddler Gillian Frame, singer and accordionist Emily Smith, and fiddler and guitarist Anna Massie - and many of the previous contestants are now making their way in the music business.

The success of the competitors is indicative of the current renaissance of traditional music in Scotland. The Celtic Connections opening concert, Harvest, in which Capercaillie's Donald Shaw marshalled a massed band of distinguished Celtic musicians and 77 students (mostly aged 14-18) from the Feisean movement, underlined the Feisean's excellent work over the past 15 years.

The various traditional music courses at places such as the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music in Plockton (for school age students), the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Strathclyde University have helped to sustain and develop that grassroots growth and the results are now evident everywhere on the folk scene. The plethora of players adept on more than one instrument is also partly a legacy of these courses.

Musicians who reach the final of this competition represent the cream of the crop from a bountiful harvest that reflects a remarkable turnaround not only in the way that traditional music is performed in Scotland, but also in the way it is perceived by young people. A lot of hard work has gone into changing that situation but the rewards are now being reaped in handsome fashion.

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