Folk, jazz etc: Fond memories of the ‘techno piper’ and a man who taught us so much

Martyn Bennett
Martyn Bennett
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THEY slapped through the letterbox in the same morning post, the oddly coincidental arrival of two posthumous CD compilations of music by two very different musicians, both of whose lives were cruelly cut short by cancer.

One may have had a higher profile than the other, but both added significantly and dedicatedly to the ever-accumulating “chuckies on the cairn” of Scottish culture.

Tony McManus

Tony McManus

Martyn Bennett was the lad who became known as the “techno piper” for his formidable musicianship and imagination in merging piping and fiddling with electronic beats and samples in what was widely regarded as the first truly Scottish hardcore dance music. His grounding in traditional Highland piping and classical violin, and far-seeing musical vision, produced everything from extraordinary remixes of field recordings of tradition-bearers to compositions for pipes and chamber ensembles.

Now comes a “best of” CD, Aye, compiled by the Martyn Bennett Trust, featuring remastered tracks from four albums, plus some hitherto unreleased material, which should introduce his mercurial talent to new listeners as well as reminding many of us of just what we lost when he died in 2005, aged just 33. On the orchestral side, his superb composition McKay’s Memoirs, for strings, percussion and Highland pipes is now available for digital download on www.martinbennett.com.

Aye captures the beatier side of this irrepressibly creative spirit, in such tracks as the hypnotic Middle-Eastern procession of Ud the Doudouk, The Swallowtail, with its lusciously chorusing whistle intro, the uproariously irreverent treatment of our patron saint of tartanalia, Harry Lauder¸ in Harry’s In Heaven, and the gravelly tones of Michael Marra declaiming the words of the psalmist in Liberation.

Inevitably with all such compilations, the listener might have been inclined to select slightly differently. I for one regret the non-inclusion of Bennett’s remarkable soundscapes inspired by two poetic works, Sorley MacLean’s Hallaig and Hamish Henderson’s Floret Silva Undique – it was Henderson, after all who, near the end of his own life, declared of Bennett’s talent, “What brave new music.”

Henderson was also greatly taken with another, if less elaborate, musical setting of his poetry. This was the teacher, musician and author Tony McManus’s song treatment of Auld Reekie’s Roses¸ which opens a new CD of McManus’s work, As High as the Wild Geese Fly (www.tonymcmanus-writermusician.com). A dedicated teacher and champion of the generalist values once associated with Scottish education, McManus (not to be confused with the Canadian-domiciled Scots guitarist of the same name), who died in 2002 at the age of 49, was also an accomplished poet, guitarist and songwriter. His fluency in Scots and French resulted in some effective translations from chansonniers such as Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, several of which can be heard on this collection, many of them remastered from recordings released on his friend John Greig’s Songs from Under the Bed cassette series in the late 1980s.

Thus Brassens’s La mauvaise réputation becomes the guitar-driven Scots shrug of Ill-Faured, with such pithy lines as “The guidfowk just canna thole it when / You tak anither gait frae them… Ach! C’est la vie!”, while the Birlinn Ensemble – McManus in the company of Greig, Johnny Cradden and Robert Pemberton – deliver a rousing a cappella rendition of Saint Malo with French lyrics by the French-based Scots poet Kenneth White, whose work McManus championed. Other material includes a rendition of the Irish Lament for Yellow Haired Donough and a spookily querulous incantation of George Campbell Hay’s Flooer o the Gean. Then there’s the The SQA Republic (based on Thurso Berwick’s republican anthem The Eskimo Republic), a scathing satire on the flawed Scottish Qualifications Authority and a reminder of McManus’s advocacy of the democratic intellect and the things that matter.

• Martyn Bennett’s Aye is available from www.martynbennett.com; Tony McManus’s As High as the Wild Geese Fly from www.tonymcmanus-writermusician.com