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Bagpipe-blasting cops on camels were no mirage
The Sunday Post, 28th October 2007, by Euan Duguid

THE Omani desert, spring 2007. Forty of the Sultan's camel-mounted police emerge through the haze — playing Mairi’s Wedding on the bagpipes.

Phil Cunningham,renowned folk musician and composer, was awestruck by the bizarre yet rousing sight and sound, but what followed left him dumbfounded.

“Later I met members of the band in a music hall. To my complete surprise they played Sarah’s Song, supported by a full orchestral arrangement.”

Phil had written Sarah’s Song, a haunting, slow air, on the back of a napkin during the dinner before a charity auction in 1992. He’d been gripped by a sudden fear that the signed memorabilia he’d originally offered for auction didn’t match what other donors had brought, so the hastily written tune was put up instead. The winning bidder, who earned the right to give the tune a title, named it after his wife, and Phil’s been playing it ever since.

“The music was actually written for bagpipes,” he revealed, “but, by the time I’d finished scribbling, the pipers at the event weren’t in any condition to play — so I ended up playing it myself on the accordion!

“The Oman trip was the first time I’d ever heard Sarah’s Song played by a pipe band — it was a huge surprise and extremely emotional.”

It was just one of many moving moments during Phil’s epic adventure to explore the roots and global reach of Scottish music. During the making of the six-part BBC series Scotland’s Music With Phil Cunningham, which begins on Saturday, Phil travelled the length and breadth of Scotland as well as visiting Ireland, Nova Scotia, America (Appalachia and Nashville) and Oman.

“I was sent on a mission by the BBC to find out about the unique circumstances that create sounds unique to Scotland,” Phil explained. “I wanted to find out what makes Scottish music tick.”

Phil (47) from South Queensferry, played accordion and violin from a young age and at 16 joined his older brother, Johnny, who died four years ago, in folk group Silly Wizard. Since the band’s break-up in 1988, Phil has enjoyed a successful solo career, releasing albums Airs And Graces and The Palamino Waltz, as well as several collaborations with Shetland fiddler Aly Bain. In the series Phil tells the story of Scotland’s musical heritage and the richness of new talent.

“It’s been a journey of discovery. I wasn’t preaching or lecturing to anybody, I was asking the questions.”

Phil found some compelling and often poignant answers. On Skye he met Gaelic singer Margaret Bennett and found out about the role music played in helping her recover from the grief of losing her son, acclaimed musician Martyn Bennett, to cancer two years ago. He was just 33. He also met singer-songwriter John Martyn and discovered how he had managed to create some of his best music in the midst of a traumatic marriage break-up. Phil was almost reduced to tears by one song written during this period. But sometimes the answers led to more questions.

“How can it be that we feel so much yet, some people say, we care so little — and why does all that change the minute we start singing?"

“Surely our music puts to bed this myth that Scots are an unfeeling bunch and, if that’s true, why do we say it best when we say it with music? Perhaps it’s because music is cathartic for a lot of people. I think we do have a reputation as a country for not wearing our hearts on our sleeves, but I think the programme shows we’re as good as the next guy when it comes to expressing ourselves. I think there’s an empathy created with the audience through music that transcends words.”

Although work and music go hand in hand for Phil, he also investigated the role music played in helping generations of Scots get their work done, from whaling crews to shepherds. With the help of singer Kenna Campbell from Tiree he explored “waulking songs”, folk songs traditionally sung by women while “waulking” cloth — rhythmically beating newly woven tweed against a table to soften it. That music has been transformed by Capercaillie. Indeed, Phil found a lot of today’s vibrant Scottish music industry is built firmly on traditional foundations.

Contributors to the series include Midge Ure, Del Amitri, The Proclaimers and Scots singing sensation Paolo Nutini. Eddi Reader explained how the work of Robert Burns resonated with her. The former Fairground Attraction singer, who recites Burns’s iconic love song, Ae Fond Kiss, says, “It’s an extremely sexy song. It’s really wonderful and Burns says everything that you’d really want a man to say to you. It’s a lot better than, ‘Gie’s yer number, doll!’.”

Phil was inspired to compose another tune during his travels.

“My eyes were boggling most of the time because of the number of connections Scottish music has across the world, like the country scene in America. Long before the Internet and downloads, Scottish music had been influencing music across the globe. As an experiment, I wrote a tune and we took it with us abroad, giving it to everyone we met along the road to see what twist they put on it. We got the Nova Scotians to play it their way and then in New York Roseanne Cash (Johnny’s daughter) wrote words to it. She and I sat on the stage of an empty Carnegie Hall and sang it for the first time, just accordion and voice.”

In Appalachia, Phil and fiddler/singer Bruce Molsky got on a freight train for the American’s take on the tune, then on to Nashville, where banjo player Alison Brown gave it a distinctive bluegrass flavour. The finished article was eventually recorded in Nashville’s famous Studio B.

Phil says that very process and his investigations, both home and abroad, captivated his crew, and he hopes viewers can be mesmerised, too.

“I know for a fact that members of the crew would never have listened to traditional Scottish music before the series. But they were amazed by the passion and the complexities behind it — and how it spreads and evolves over the world. They saw it’s not ‘diddly-diddly’ music, and we’ve half-a-dozen converts already. I would love to see that spread as the series is aired. Music is the one thing in this country that makes us unique and makes us what we are.”

  • Scotland’s Music with Phil Cunningham begins Saturday, November 3, at 8.05 pm on BBC2 Scotland.
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