Music: Planet Ulster and Endangered Species

Ulster Scots Folk Orchestra

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said you can always tell an ersatz revival from an authentic tradition. People involved in an authentic tradition often appear glum and uninspired, whereas those involved in a revival are obviously full of enthusiasm. Shaw, we know, frequently preferred rhetoric to sense, but if there is any truth in what he said the Ulster Scots Folk Orchestra on their two cds, Planet Ulster and Endangered Species, turn it on its head. They`re maintaining a tradition in difficult times and evidently having a lot of fun doing it.

They`ve produced a very satisfying mix of serious, sad, joky and often very moving music. Planet Ulster, the first album, begins with a declaration of intent: “We`re fighting for Planet Ulster,” (or something like that; it`s difficult to make out all the words), shouted over some strident fiddles. Then they go off into Ballycarry Fair, with lovely and very celtic slurs and glissandi and occasional heart-wringing dissonance.

There`s more heart-wringing on Bonny Kellswater. You can feel the landscape – both Scotland and Ireland–the sweeps of the fiddles and the accordian echoing the sweep of the grassy hills, with the slow pedal of the rich woody bass suggesting an isolated tree or clump of bushes. This song is beautifully sung by Laura Sinnerton. whose family, so the sleeve notes tell us, come from the area of the Kellswater. Why isn`t she on Top of the Pops? Parcel o` Rogues also has a lovely pastoral feel, vaguely reminiscent of Elgar or Holst. The melody is close to Holst`s Jupiter. There was a lot of interest in folk music about the time when those two were writing. Who knows-? Elgar seems to crop up again on the Ulsterman`s Fareweel tae Whuskey. And him a Catholic!

But there`s a delightful pastoral feel through much of these two cds, as for instance on Bonnie Doon. (It`s sad in a way to reflect that the people of Ulster appear to love Robert Burns as if he was a member of the family, whereas so many people in England never think about Wordsworth, for instance, at all). And then there`s the wonderful Londonderry Air, the tune of course better known to us as Danny Boy. Actually Danny Boy might be a better title on the whole as Londonderry Air if spoken quickly after a pint or two does sound a bit like something glimpsed on a metropolitan building site. A beautiful arrangement of flutes and whistles, though.

There`s humour here too. Dancing tae the Fiddle and I`ll Tell My Ma are almost right out of a Chas and Dave knees-up!

There`s aching sadness, as in Betsy Gray, who was cut down in a 1798 Prebyterian rebellion, and Bonnie Woodgreen, sung beautifully by Davy Sloan, whith a wonderfully produced guitar. You can see the light glancing off the strings.

Naturally a lot of history makes itself felt. In Hi, Uncle Sam we hear about Ulstermen building the USA and `raising Old Glory`. It`s strange to hear ‘Irish’ voices referring to `fighting for our king`.

These cds are wild, not just with jigs and reels but thunderous drumming, worthy of Elvin Jones or Keith Moon. The drums on Endangered Species even fade at the end, just like those on the Who`s The Ox.

And so we have here a wide range of music, from wild drumming through broad comedy to measured arrangements that here and there seem almost baroque, as on Annie Laurie. For some tastes there`s too much reverb drenching things every so often. And some of the words are unintelligible – certainly to a non-Ulsterman like me. Occasionally they do feel a little like `professional Ulstermen`, as people like Bob Hoskins are `professional cockneys`.

But these are small points. The albums feel like living history. They`re beautifully performed. And Endangered Species ends with a lovely thought from Auld Lang Syne:

We`ll tak a cup o` kindness yet

For copies of Endangered Species or Planet Ulster (or both!) please write to Willie Drennan, 125 Grange Road, Ballymena, Northern Ireland, BT42 2EJ. CDs cost £11 each plus £1.50 Postage and Packing (overseas £2). Please make cheques payable to U.S.F.O.

Reviewed by John Hewson


1 Comment »

  1. Victoria said

    Interesting rread


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