Jim Gilchrist: Calling time on the Gathering is a gaffe of global proportions

Mary Ann Kennedy
Mary Ann Kennedy
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Mary Ann Kennedy offers a culturally informed perspective

THERE was a certain world-weary irony in learning that BBC Radio Scotland, in another of its unfathomable scheduling deliberations, is planning to axe the excellent Mary Ann Kennedy’s Global Gathering. I had, after all, just recently witnessed yet another highly successful Celtic Connections season in Glasgow, bursting at the seams with the kind of culturally diverse music that Global Gathering celebrates.

Mary Ann Kennedy is an accomplished broadcaster, presenting studio shows as well as such live broadcasts as Radio Scotland’s The Young Traditional Musician of Year and the now defunct Radio 3 World Music Awards. She is also a seasoned traditional musician, a Gaelic singer and harpist, and with her husband, Nick Turner, runs a recording studio, Watercolour Music, on the shores of Loch Linnhe. She is therefore able to offer a particularly personal and culturally informed perspective on the material she has broadcast over the past couple of decades on Global Gathering and its predecessor, Celtic Connections, introducing listeners to everything from traditional Gaelic puirt á beul to Balkan wedding music, psychedelic ceilidh grooves to Portuguese fado singing.

In the past, Kennedy has championed such influential Scottish musicians as Martyn Bennett and Shooglenifty, Michael Marra and Salsa Celtica, and just last month broadcast the premieres of four new works by young Scottish folk-based composers, commissioned by Creative Scotland to celebrate 2011’s Year of Scottish islands.

Earlier this month she featured several international acts who appeared in this year’s Celtic Connections – Meschiya Lake and the Little Bighorns and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, both from the United States, as well as the smouldering-voiced Portuguese singer Ana Moura, recorded during her appearance at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket.

According to Radio Scotland, the plan is to replace Global Gathering with a revamped version of the classical music programme Classics Unwrapped, which currently goes out on a Sunday afternoon. I’m also a classical (and contemporary) music listener, but for that I tune in to Radio 3, which makes a proper job of it, as well as managing to schedule some first-class jazz and world music programmes. If Radio Scotland wants to develop its currently rather limited approach to classical music, that’s well and good but it should not be at the expense of a distinctive and widely valued show such as Global Gathering.

The tired old adage that this is somehow “minority music” just no longer wears. If Radio Scotland requires hard proof of popular demand for the material promoted by Kennedy on Global Gathering, it needn’t look further than the bums-on-seats phenomenon that is Celtic Connections, which this year boasted gross ticket sales of over £1.1 million for the fifth year running. Many of these events featured acts from as far afield as Mexico, Serbia and Senegal, demonstrating the popular appetite for what we conveniently lump together under the title of “world music”.

Such heady moments during this year’s Connections included a barnstorming performance by Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and his band and a similarly memorable collaboration between the Pakistani qawwali (Sufi devotional song) exponent Faiz Ali Faiz and French guitarist Thierry Robin. Then there was the exuberant crosscultural ceilidhing at St Andrew in the Square between Donegal fiddle trio Fidil and Senegalese kora player Solo Cissokho, on a bill which also had flautist Michael McGoldrick’s band hosting the hugely personable young Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. Their audiences were not earnest convocations of ethnomusicological geeks, but demonstratively enthusiastic Glasgow concertgoers (the St Andrews in the Square event had 90 per cent ticket sales).

Global Gathering, in one guise or other, has been priming us for such eclectic delights and broadening our musical horizons immensely for some 20 years, from a distinctively Scottish standpoint. To do away with it gives a hollow ring to Radio Scotland’s catchphrase of “culturally distinctive programming”.