Gaelic gets a good rap as studio sessions keep language beating

21st August 2009 at 01:00
Music instructor Calum Martin is happy to throw dance music and rap into the mix if that's what it takes to fire pupils with their mother tongue, writes Henry Hepburn

"Why shouldn't you have Gaelic rap?" asks Calum Martin. The music instructor is behind a project at Stornoway's Nicolson Institute that lets secondary pupils loose on pound;20,000 of the latest recording equipment and software - as long as their songs are in Gaelic.

For the language of his ancestors to prosper, he insists, it has to embrace music you won't find at the Mod. This is no new idea for Mr Martin, who, through his band Island Express, was part of a vanguard of 1970s musicians which melded Gaelic folk influences with rock music.

He begins his music and technology classes, which are offered to all age groups, by asking pupils what music they like. About 70 per cent say dance, so a trade-off is agreed: they can make their own dance music, provided the principal element is in Gaelic. "Unless you get the children interested in using the language in styles they like, then what future is there?"

Resultant compositions are more suited to underground nightclubs than ceilidhs. He plays one in which a sample from a traditional song, "Buain na Ranich", is played over and over. "Tha mi sgith" (I am tired) intones a voice, the repetition above insistent dance beats creating an eerie incantation.

Mr Martin (right) "despairs" at defenders of Gaelic who frown upon modern culture, and believes "quite a barrier needs to be crossed" before people are convinced by projects such as his. "You will always have the traditional style - that looks after itself," he argues; the contemporary and the traditional should complement, not rival, each other.

Far from pandering to teenage fads, he believes he is stimulating an interest in the language that might otherwise lie dormant. Many young people dismiss traditional Gaelic song as "granny music or fogy music", he says, so it is futile to force it upon them. Instead, prove them wrong by making credible modern music in Gaelic.

There are plenty of precedents. France has a huge rap scene, and bands such as Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci have had mainstream success singing in Welsh. "Wales has proved that it can be done with all styles of music," says Mr Martin.

Timetabling is difficult for the two-year pilot, which started last session following a trial at the P1-S2 Shawbost School and funding from Western Isles Council. Apart from the fluent speakers, S1 and S2 pupils have only had taster classes; older pupils have attended within already scheduled Gaelic classes. The project's uncertain future is clear from its ad hoc setting in an old science lab. Against walls given over to a faded periodic table and advice on spillage disposal, gleaming recording equipment squeezes between taps and basins.

Mr Martin is wary, too, that some pupils might perceive an easy alternative to other lessons - "We don't want it to become something that can be used as an excuse for Johnny not passing his exams" - and has drawn up proposals for what he hopes the Scottish Qualifications Authority will accept as an Intermediate 2 course in time for 2010-11.

He recalls a steady stream of talented young musicians who would "disappear" from the music scene because they were not interested in traditional forms. Although he would like to run separate "fun" sessions, he sees a nationally recognised course as crucial to Gaelic music's future, and also wants opportunities for continued study through similar college courses.

"The bottom line is that the course has got to produce people who are going to be able to do what I ended up doing all those years ago," he says.

It does not come naturally for pupils to make music in Gaelic, even fluent speakers. "Occasionally, we'll get a eureka moment with one pupil," says Mr Martin. But several generations have become used to thinking first in English, and that has blocked the flow of ideas in the mother tongue.

Pupils appear to have few problems with the concept, however. John Macaulay, a fluent speaker now in S4, thinks Gaelic goes best with traditional music, but is willing to give Mr Martin's ideas a try. It's the music and technology that interests him; language is a side issue. Classmate Calum MacPhee wonders if it might be strange to hear a Gaelic dance track in a nightclub, but sees no reason why the language should not fit with more modern styles.

That open-mindedness and advances in music technology could form a powerful combination. Huge strides have been made recently in providing sophisticated technology on a mass scale. Mr Martin's pupils use Pro Tools, the industry-standard software preferred by the vast majority of studios, and Ableton Live, favoured by almost all DJs. Ally that, he says, to the freedom promised by A Curriculum for Excellence and the potential to share ideas through Glow, the Scottish schools intranet, and the picture becomes exciting.

Mr Martin's course is low-key for now. But if SQA recognition is attained and others start using music and technology to promote the language, he believes a "tipping point", where a new wave of modern Gaelic music emerges, is not far off.

"The combination of computers and music is something quite powerful for this generation," he says. "I think these kids haven't quite understood the potential of it. Goodness, the teachers don't really understand the potential."

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