What happens when you combine singers and songs from the three Gaelic “sister nations” of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man?
The result is “like long lost brothers and sisters re-united,” according to Scots Gaelic singer, harpist and broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy, whose latest project finds her in trio with the Connemara sean- nós singer Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin and Manx singer Ruth Keggin.
The project is Aon Teanga: Un Çhengey, which, as they point out, sounds the same, however you spell it, and means “one tongue”. They’re at the Edinburgh Fringe tomorrow and at next month’s Blas Highland festival, while a fine album of the same name has just been released.
The project has been incubating for a while, Kennedy says, having benefited from “Beyond Borders” funding from the PRS Foundation two years ago. It originated during a recording session at the Watercolour Studio she and her husband, Nick Turner, run at Ardgour in the west Highlands. Ruth Keggin was making an album there and Ó Ceannabháin was a member of her band. “We had one of these round-the-table conversations during the session and it dawned on us that there might be something nice to do here,” Kennedy says.
The result is more than nice – an often delicate collection of songs either sung solo or in judiciously arranged combinations, such as the Manx song Creggyn Scarleode – “Scarlet Rocks”, with its mellifluous harmonies and vocal drones. The songs may sound relatively straightforward in their uncluttered presentation but, while agreeing that they went for a “less is more” approach, Kennedy explains that their apparent simplicity belies “the time spent working them out and making sure that we understood each other’s versions. Creggyn Scarleode was an early one, the result of days of just singing and improvising and finally coming down to this slightly baroque-y arrangement.”
The PRS Foundation money gave them time, both to rehearse and to perform the material. “We’ve become very much a family unit,” she says, returning to the “long lost brothers and sisters” simile. ”We’ve had time to develop and expand and play around with each other’s languages.
“Irish I understand pretty well, Manx is a bit harder for me. Likewise Eoghan had studied a bit of Scottish Gaelic at university and had spent a lot of time with Ruth and her songs. But the more time we spent together, the more comfortable we got in each other’s cultural skin. During the last gig we did, I actually found myself singing the Manx words as my own language, with complete ownership and understanding.”
Unsurprisingly, given the ancient maritime highways that linked the three areas as well as their common culture, the album contains numerous songs relating to the sea, ships and seal people, not least a favourite of Kennedy’s, The Song of the Ceannaiche, which refers to a rock off the coast at Glendale, Skye, which she learned from her great-uncle and which she describes as “as powerful an environmental commentary as any contemporary song”.
From the sea, Kennedy and her husband look to the stars with a separate commission for the forthcoming Blas festival, which runs from 2-10 September. Kennedy describes Beul na h-Oidhche gu Camhanaich – “Mouth of the Night to First Light” – as a celebration of our fascination with the night sky, its material ranging from the ancient lore of Carmina Gadelica to her Gaelic translation of a powerful new song about two young Syrian refugees swimming from Turkey to Greece under the stars.
Turner and Kennedy will be joined by guitarist Finlay Wells and by their son, “drummer and resident astrophysicist” Calum Turner, who brings a distinct note of authenticity, returning for the Blas gigs from working at an observatory in Munich.
• Aon Teanga: Un Çhengey has two performances at Merchant’s Hall, Edinburgh, tomorrow, before touring to Bunessan Village Hall, Mull, on 2 September and Astley Hall, Arisag, on 3 September. See www.watercolourmusic.co.uk and www.blas-festival.com