Presenting a new line connecting Gaelic and gospel

MUSICIANS travel far and wide to be at Celtic Connections, but few have travelled as far - geographically or culturally - as the singers from Mount Zion Church in Killen, Alabama. Nevertheless, the group - which has never left the US before - is here because of their own Celtic connection to the Gaelic psalm singers of the Western Isles.

On Friday a group of Gaelic psalm singers from the Hebrides will share a bill with black singers from the deep South who, they believe, are keeping a variant of their tradition alive. After singing separately, the two groups will sing together, uniting the traditions for the first time in 200 years.

It is the conclusion of a remarkable journey from the Isle of Lewis to the deep South and back, driven by jazzman Willie Ruff. He believes that "precenting the line" - the traditional unaccompanied singing of psalms in Gaelic in the Presbyterian churches in the Hebrides - is the ancestor of "lining out", still practised in black churches in the South and, therefore, that Gaelic psalm (salm) singing lies at the root of all black American music.

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"It’s a controversial idea," says Calum Martin, a teacher of Gaelic music on Lewis, who organised a historic recording of Gaelic psalm singing on Lewis in 2003. "When I first heard it, I thought it would be good publicity for the CD, and didn’t think much more of it."

Ruff, who is also a Professor of Music at Yale University, was looking for the roots of the call-and-response singing he remembers hearing as a child in the black churches of Alabama during the Depression. African-Americans believed their music had come from Africa with their forefathers, brought to the New World as slaves. Ruff, however, was unable to relate the music he had grown up with to African tradition.

When he heard Gaelic singers precenting the line he says he realised that this was what he was looking for. He believes that Gaels, who emigrated to the Americas, maintained their language and worship style, and taught it to their slaves, who then continued the tradition. He has found evidence of black churches in the deep South worshipping in Gaelic up to 1919.

Last August, the Lewis singers travelled to the stifling heat of Alabama to put the theory to the test. Martin says: "It was an amazing trip all round. We arrived in the church having not really met them before, and just ended up doing our own singing. We didn’t know whether there would be a connection at all but you could see there was a connection, although they didn’t understand the language. Then they did their music and the commonality was clear."

Folklorist Margaret Bennett, who was with the group, vowed to bring the Mt Zion singers to Celtic Connections: "I thought it was timely to do a concert of Scottish sacred music in Glasgow Cathedral. I didn’t know who should sing with the Gaelic psalm singers, but I knew I would know it when I heard it. When we went to Alabama, I knew immediately that it was right. It was not just a musical connection, it was a spiritual connection.

"Alabama is still quite segregated on race lines, they wouldn’t be invited to a white church. They would never have dreamed of coming to Scotland - financially it would have been out of the question. None of them even had a passport, many had not even been out of Alabama before. When we parted, we said: ‘Here’s hoping we’ll see one another again on the other side’, and the minister, Rev Docary Ingram, said, ‘We’re going to meet on the other side, but it ain’t gonna be the other side of the Atlantic.

"When we got funding agreed by Celtic Connections I called Docary to ask if they would come. He just shouted ‘Hallelujah!’ I almost didn’t need the phone."

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Ruff’s theory has provoked controversy among other music experts and historians. Some argue that the Gaels who emigrated were too few to have such a significant impact. Others are uncomfortable with the history of slavery it uncovers. One expert said that if the theory had been put forward by a white man, it would be regarded as racist nonsense.

However, Ruff sees the discovery of shared tradition as a way of making peace, using music as a bridge between the descendents of slaves and the descendents of slave masters.

"A lot of people get the wrong end of the stick about the connection between Gaelic and gospel," says Martin. "Gospel is a 20th-century phenomenon, the connection with lining out predates that by 200 years. I’m convinced of the connection. The interesting thing is that we are the only two groups who do it now." He says the publicity surrounding the link has helped him achieve his dream of taking the Gaelic psalm singing tradition worldwide. "Gaelic speaking churches are in decline and I became concerned that this tradition would die. Thousands of Scots don’t even know it exists."

The Lewis group is being invited to sing at world music events in various countries. "I wanted to make sure I captured this work on a recording," Martin says. "Everything that has happened since then has been a bonus."

Salm and Soul is at Glasgow Cathedral on 21 January.

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