Celtic Connections – what a generous, open-hearted and exciting festival. Its internationalism rings out with every chord played and every note sung.
Where better than Glasgow, for this inclusive feast of diverse musical roots to thrive in 2023, its thirtieth year?
A world class Québec quintet comes to Glasgow
A highlight for me was a concert last weekend from Québec’s Le Vent du Nord, a quintet of multi-instrumentalists – accordion, violins, guitars, keyboards, hurdy-gurdy plus percussion from the fiddlers’ tap-dancing feet.
No matter if we don’t catch all the heavily accented Québécois lyrics. The rhythms are infectious, the performers charming and the songs universal – drink, farewells, reunions and lost love.
The musicianship is world class, weaving tunes flawlessly, swapping instruments with dazzling versatility. Several numbers feature exquisite vocal harmonies, as sweet as the maple syrup brandy they sing about; Dans l’eau-de-vie de l’arbre. Intoxicating stuff.
The gloriously upbeat reels and riffs got the crowd dancing, cheering and singing along. The Old Fruit market was hoaching – there must have been about 900 people, clearly having the time of their lives.
The affection is reciprocated on stage; there was much talk of missing Scotland during the pandemic years and the five friends – celebrating two decades together as a band – looked delighted by this triumphant return.
The band attracted a rare bunch of fellow travellers, suitably diverse for a Celtic Connections gig. The support group, Dallahan, primed the crowds with a brisk, spirited set, striking the perfect genial tone for the evening. Le Vent du Nord, mirrored by a five-strong brass section (adding some Scottish North Wind), expanded with players from Scottish folk band Breabach and accomplished guests like Julie Fowlis.
By the end I counted 20 people on stage – an exotic ragout of music, talent and pure joy.
Pakistan meets Scotland amid a crossover of music and humanity
A couple of days earlier I saw an even bolder international fusion, this time between Pakistan and Scotland, at Cottiers Theatre. When Mountains Meet is a delightful mixture of music, song and theatre based on the true-life experience of the band’s violinist, Anne Wood. It tells the story of how she crossed continents to track down her real dad (a bit like Scotland’s former Makar, Jackie Kay, in Red Dust Road).
Four singer/storytellers play out the journey, switching roles and narrating us across the country from Peshawar to Lahore, each stop on the way evoked by moving images projected on to a mountain range of bedsheets.
The band play throughout, traditional Scottish instruments — harp, violin, drums — beautifully spun with tanpura, tabla and sarangi. On sitar, Rakae Jamal’s plangent sounds cut straight to the heart.
Not all international connections go smoothly. Anne’s father and family, bound by a stricter culture, reject her. The show doesn’t duck such complexities, but still accentuates the joyful crossover of music and humanity at the heart of the story.
Global rhythms invigorate the soul, along with a dram of Grace Notes
The common strand in the amazing range of musical styles celebrated by Celtic Connections is the fiddle. Unique, ubiquitous and universal, it embraces a huge variety of ethnic traditions, each with its own peculiar sound.
I remember the festival starting in the wake of Glasgow’s Year of Culture (1990). I was at a meeting where the then-director of the new Concert Hall, Cameron McNicol, worried about audiences after Christmas: “Nobody wants to go to a concert in January.”
From small beginnings the event has grown to its present 18 days, 300 events, 2000 musicians, 30 venues 130,000 audience and 30 years. Little wonder a special whisky, Grace Notes, has been released to mark the anniversary.
Christmas has gone, steep bills are mounting up, it’s cold, wet and miserable. How to beat the first month blues? Dry January? It’s a long month. Veganuary? Mebbees aye, mebbees no. Next year, try a diet of Celtic Connections music: life-affirming, joyous and thoroughly democratic!
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