Brìghde Chaimbeul’s Carry Them With Us

cover art, Carry Them With UsBrìghde (BREE-cha) Chaimbeul’s second album Carry Them With Us is a masterful, exhilarating melange of traditional and modern music for the Scottish smallpipes. It’s definitely not for the traditionalists among piping fans, but what Chaimbeul is doing with Scottish smallpipe music is very much like what Nils Økland and Benedicte Maurseth do with Norwegian Hardanger fiddling – using the tradition as a springboard for a new thing that incorporates minimalism and other modernist ideas.

“I’m always led by the drone,” Chaimbeul says. “To be a piper you must have a natural attraction to drones. That’s the minimalist aspect, the atmosphere it creates, rather than a rhythm. The other side is melody, one or two of them in a tune, repeating them so it becomes trance-like, and getting lost in them a little bit.”

If you let yourself, you can definitely get lost in this music.

Chaimbeul grew up on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, where she learned the pipes and began developing her own style utilizing its rich droning textures. Her debut album The Reeling on Rough Trade’s folk imprint River Lea was named The Guardian’s folk album of the month and one of The Quietus’ albums of the year. Chaimbeul is joined on this album, her first on Glitterbeat’s tak:til imprint, by collaborator Colin Stetson, an experimental saxophonist and film composer best known in North America for his work with Arcade Fire.

The lead single “Tha Fonn Gun Bhi Trom: I Am Disposed of Mirth” sees her flowing with this traditional tune, and is a great example of how Stetson’s ideas and playing blend wonderfully with her own. On about the third time through the melody his saxophone begins a droning series of downward notes that in effect adds a third drone to the pipes, but with an entirely different tonal “color.” The piece also has a bit of bodhran-type rhythm added to it, and toward the end Stetson begins a series of fluttery ostinatos on the sax that call to mind some of Rolf-Erik Nystrøm’s equally colorful sax contributions to Maurseth’s Hárr.

That tune is “trad. arr. Chaimbeul and Stetson,” as are most of these nine tracks. The whole album lasts only 35 minutes, so don’t worry about getting tired of piping. Between the dazzling experimental takes and the creative uses of Stetson’s sax and the varied tempos, plus the rather short run time, it’s over before you know it. Two of the nine are short(ish) improvizations. “Crònan (i)” is a restful pibroch that draws color and texture from the addition of overdubbed harmonium, and “Uguviu (ii)” is an uptempo romp of a duet.

The way the duo interacts on several of these tunes adds all kinds of textures and effects that sometimes sound like electronics, but they insist there’s no studio trickery at work.

“There are times it sounds as if something’s going on,” Chaimbeul says, “but it was all organic. Only a few of the tracks have overdubs, because of sound bleeding from microphones, and for layering textures, such as with the harmonium. I like to keep it live, for that flavour. The only studio tinkering was some basic mixing.” Chaimbeul has developed ways of coaxing alternative tunings from her pipes, and Stetson sometimes sings into the sax, a trick employed by plenty of jazz players over the years. And Chaimbeul adds some vocals at times, too.

Both the delightful “Pilliù: The Call of the Redshank” and “Pìobaireachd Nan Eun: The Birds,” grew from traditional pieces inspired by birds. One of the two pieces in the latter set is traditional, the other composed by Chaimbeul, inspired by archive recordings. Likewise “Oran an Eich-Uisge: Song of the Waterhorse,” inspired by an archival recording from the Rev. William Mathesen. I believe this one has a dropped-in drone provided by harmonium, over which she plays a lovely tune just on the chanter. It seems it was so closely mic’ed that her fingers playing the holes on the chanter provide a bit of rhythm accompaniment.

” ‘S Mi Gabhail an Rathaid: I Take The Road” is a snappy march with stomping percussion that takes you out on the road with them. The tunes are all inspired by stories, she says, including the album’s title. The phrase “Carry Them With Us” comes from Scotland’s Iain Sheonaidh Smus, a man who was able to recite all the old tales from memory.

“If someone asked for one that he didn’t want to tell just then, he’d say, ‘I didn’t carry it with me,’ ” Chaimbeul says. “So it’s the idea of carrying all the stories and the songs with us.”

I like the sequencing, particularly the way “I Am Disposed of Mirth” is followed by “Banish The Giant Of Doubt & Despair,” which features Chaimbeul’s friskiest playing; it’s pretty much a solo pipe piece with hollow, distant beats provided (I assume) by her foot keeping time.

Carry Them With Us is my favorite new Celtic album to come along in some time. Highly recommended to those who like their traditional music leavened with tasteful experimentation.

(tak:til, 2023)

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Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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