Purity of essence distilled into a fine Manx mist.
Release date: 8th July 2022
Label: March Hair Records
Format: CD / digital
There come those moments when you seek solace from the wider world, the shenanigans and shitstorms of the 21st century, for when the latest burst of hypno-dub neo folkstep wyndhamtronica can no longer hit the spot. Well, gentlemen, ladies, I may have found the elixir for that mood, with the Isle of Man, the smallest of the six, sometimes seven, Celtic kingdoms, being the source. Certainly an overlooked nation, compared to the bigger hitters of Éire and Alba, there is a whole lot more to Man, or Mannin, than TT, tailless cats and Christine Collister. Indeed, it has as vibrant a backstory as those far bigger neighbours, and, like them, its own language, the Manx variant of Gaelic, which, unusually, is spelt entirely phonetically, rather than utilising all the mouth swirling bh’s and ig’s. Plus, with 2% of the population speaking it, it leads Scotland’s miserly 1.2% trailing a tad. (We’ll ignore that 2% equals less than a thousand speakers…..It is out of date by now, hopefully, anyway. On both counts.)
Ruth Keggin and Rachel Hair are ably propelling that Manx Gaelic culture forward with this release. Lossan means light, or glimmer. It can also mean flame, as in a flicker, and the powder is certainly dry for it. Keggin is a native, born and bred on the island, at Port Erin, and, fluent in her island tongue. She here sings, her voice pristine and pure. She has previously been part of the pan-celtic/inter-Gaelic project Aon Teanga: Un Çhengey (One Tongue), with Scottish musician and broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy and Irish sean-nós singer Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin. Hair, a fine proponent of the Scottish harp, hails from across the sea and upwards, Ullapool, but don’t hold that against her. She is now, at the very least, an honorary Manninee, courtesy her musician husband, Adam Rhodes, who plays for the Manx band, Barrule. She also has a body of work alongside guitarist Ron Jappy. Over the years she has become the leading expert on the Manx harp and the musical tradition associated therewith. So, harp and voice. Some occasional fiddle, bouzouki and bodhran. A little serious, a little dull? Wrong, and so wrong, on both counts, this proving a near mystical experience, tapping into genetic memories, real and imagined.
The first song you will hear, Araneyn Cadlee, is stark and hymnal, Keggin’s voice possessing an icy clarity over the tinkling cascade of harp. It sounds somehow both warm and frosty, and instills the mood of a wintry scene, every twig encased in silver hues, with a toddy providing some central heating. A pair of Christmas tunes, that season is still evoked within Mish As Y Keayne, an Annie Kissack tune blended with a traditional lullaby, and it matters not a jot that the sun is shining here, on one of the warmer days of the year, so skilful the sleight of mood this duo have conjured up. Some beautifully mellow fiddle filters in, this courtesy Isla Callister of Trip. There is also some understated bodhran from Adam Brown. An instrumental medley, Tri-Nation Jigs follows, but you can forget any frantic sweat drenched festival careering about, these are stately and elegant dances, harp solos befitting the stage already set. Tri-nations? Scottish, Manx and Irish, in that order.
Arrane Saveenagh is a further lullaby, unaccompanied, just voice and lasting a mere fistful of verses. Anything but soporific, so captivating is the vocal, rather than bringing on sleep, it holds you alert, yet suspended, over one minute and forty seconds, that time as long or as short as you choose it be. Keayrt Hug See Graih introduces the bouzouki of Rhodes, alongside the harp, fiddle and bodhran, each adding a delicate nuance that gives a jaunty feel to this song of, apparently, anything but; this and all the songs get some discussion on the gatefold sleeve, also designed by Rhodes. Graih Foalsey starts with a wistful and yearning harp intro, a beautiful tune, ahead of Hair adding suitably emotive vocals. I am working out that Graih means love, learning too that foalsey equates to false, this melody appt and appropriate to the subject matter of this traditional Manx song. Another song from the tradition follows, Ny Kirree Fo Niaghty giving another opportunity for the magic the pair weave together best alone. Telling the tale of a flock of sheep succumbing in a snowstorm, the tune is naggingly familiar, leading me back to my collection, discovering the very same song was covered by Horslips in 1975, for their album, Drive The Cold Winter Away. (Which was where I first learnt Manx was a phonetic language, so there!) Leading into an instrumental coda based on an old Scots air, the sense of loss within it is palpable.
Another mention for Annie Kissack then, for Eubonia Soilshagh, a selection of Manx drinking songs. Both a poet and a composer, she is the fifth and current Manx Bard. A speciality is the provision of tunes for ancient orphaned songs for whom only the lyrics remain, she writing the music for the first and third of this trio. Eubonia is an old name for the island, the full band playing here, a livelier set than before and showing as well the lighter side of the core duo, the harp positively chiming like a bell. Yn Scollag Aeg is then perhaps the dark contemplative soul of the morning after, a gauntly reflective air of sorrow hanging over the two solo compositions, the first traditional, the second Hair’s own. Meaning the young scholar, we have all perhaps been there. A hat trick, now, for Kissack, she having also written Vuddee Veg, a further lullaby, this being for her daughter, with Keegan and Hair’s rendition a delicate bridge to the closer, Arrane Oie Vie, which is, again, a song to close the day with. Gatherings traditionally close with this song, making it the perfect place to close this exquisitely crafted piece of work.
On the evidence here presented, the two main musicians and those playing with them, the Isle of Man can look forward to having a higher profile amongst the Celtic nations. The touch is both light and steady, the recording made by Adam Rhodes, as well as bringing in his bouzouki and graphic design skills. The mixing was by studio wizard Andrea Gobbi, familiar from very many recordings reviewed here. I look forward to hearing more from this island.
Here is Ny Kirree Fo Niaghty: