Iain Fraser – Kōterana : Album Review

Fine fiddle fare following a Caledonian vein from Ullapool to Waipu, by way of Cape Breton and Australia; a chamber-folk celebration.

Release Date: 14th April 2023

Label: self-released

Format: CD / digital

File under, broadly, unclassifiable. Is it trad, is it classical, new age or what, and does it matter? In truth, as it started, I was reminded most of that odd 80’s chamber baroque with drums creation, Rondo Veneziana, even if that mood was swiftly dispelled, very swiftly, but, never mind, I was a fan of that, and I was therefore gripped. Fraser plays and teaches the fiddle. A Scot, he has been head of fiddle at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; fiddle, not, definitely not, violin, ahead of a role heading up instrumental music for the Borders Education Authority, as well as an active involvement with the Fèis Ros, keeping traditional music alive in Scotland’s schools. Kōterana, and it is Maori rather than Gaelic, celebrates the travails of one Reverend Norman MacLeod, who travelled from Ullapool to Waipu, on New Zealand’s North Island, by way of Novia Scotia and Adelaide, no mean feat for 1817. Especially as he took 800 of his congregation with him, even if the detail around how many made it is missing. This work is in commemoration of that epic voyage, and reflects the cultures encountered, and those left behind, along the way.

Musicians, beside Fraser, include applicable local expertise from four more fiddlers, living in Canada and/or New Zealand, some locally born, some emigrées, being Emilia Bartellas, Doug Dorward, Gillian Boucher and Anne-Marie Forsyth. A further fiddle complement comes with Pete Clark, Gordon Gunn and Sarah Wilson, with Bernadette Kellerman on viola and Seylan Baxter and Wendy Weatherby on cellos. That is one big string section. Signy Jakobsdottir, a staple of the folk and classical crossover in Scotland adds percussion, abetting a rhythm section of Scot Wilson’s bass, Donald Knox’s guitar and James Ross’s piano. Clearly, there are bagpipes, courtesy Lorne McDougall, with additional flute and whistle from Freya Rae. So quite a sizeable ensemble. “The incredible tale has linked the nations of Scotland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in history and heritage forever, and has been a huge source of inspiration for myself as an artist. Their  story is one of grit and commitment, highlighting the true strength of faith,” says Fraser. So how does it spin?

A triad of tunes, Lochinver No More/Suilven/Achmelvich Beach kicks it all off, with that initial aforementioned, before becoming a rich and layered broth of textures, the strings weaving a tale into which the bass can climb up and about effectively. The second tune is more flute led, the strings now an unctuous bed, with twinkly percussion. Very much soundtrack territory, it avoids the risk of generic rent-a-mood and carries the weight of being a decent tune in its own right. The paired cellos are especially evocative. Chagair Chagair Chagair a’ Ghruagach is then more lyrical play, the different echelons of the string section taking turn to suggest the journey, some rippling xylophone a background hint of the inherent difficulty. Which are all too seen brought to bear by MacLeod’s Sextant, a lively diversion that switches tack into a more thoughtful flute motif, the whole calling to mind some of the orchestral works put together by Ossian’s William (Billy) Jackson. That mood and mix of orchestral and trad permeates into The Sunday Gathering, which combines the solemnity of a church piano with sweeping strings. Sandy Cameron/My Brother’s Letter is a slow hornpipe, where Fraser takes the fiddle lead, ahead some deftly picked guitar from Knox. As the rest of the strings convene, the tightly woven tapestry truly shows off the pedigree of all. The second part is pure ceilidh, all strict tempo regimented piano and Shetland style mass fiddling.

From Cape Breton To Good Hope clearly references that mammoth undertaking, 164 days at sea, and starts full of hope and optimism, deeper notes from the cellos then suggesting the size of the seas, and the odd cymbal crash denoting additional turbulence. A piano sequence seems to suggest the eye of a storm, but the overall mood remains upbeat. They got there, after all, as the final flourish seems to say. Some slight jazz inflections from the double bass introduce the syncopated canter of The Gazelle; a brief stopover, I guess, at the Horn of Africa, with trilling flute further marking the leaping animals. Canvas Town sees them further on, with found sounds of the sea and sky, and shows off the accommodation in Melbourne’s gold town, with stately bowed cellos a stoical basis for the melody to cast off from. One of the more lyrical pieces here, it is all coming together as a cogent storyline, with or without the need for words. The percussion at the end suggest the ticking passage of time and the need to go on, for that final leg of the journey, to New Zealand.

There are then some vocals, as the plaintive voice of Calum Alex Macmillan sings the lament of Litir Bho Iain MacGilllosa A New Zealand. Even without much knowledge of the Gaelic, there is sufficient to understand and to appreciate the narrative content, and it is a lovely piece, with understated percussion. Small pipes then usher in Aotearoa/Reel of the Flying Fish, the title showing them to have arrived at the North Island. Whistle, and then the massed strings, all engaging in this tune of relief and thanks, with highland pipes then picking up for the reel. Quirky rhythms mark out the marriage between the hemispheres, and it becomes quite the celebratory dance, which ends in a few notes of mournful reflection on the piano. This then segues into the final collection of tunes, Norman McLeod’s Welcome to Waipu/Celtic Waiata/Kiwi Reel, which squares the circle, allying fragments of earlier themes into an anthemic song of praise, which progressively conjoins elements of Maori into the machair, flitting between tradition and translation. I mentioned that Kōterana is a Maori word; did I say it means Scotland? And, as a postscript, Maori apart, the main language in Waipu remained the Gaelic , from 1854 until the 1950s.

Iain Fraser celebrated this belated studio release, live, with some of the featured musicians, last month, as part of the Niel Gow commemorative festival in Perthshire. It had earlier premiered in New Zealand, in 2016, the 150th anniversary of the voyage, getting a reprise, two years later, in Aberdeen. Here is a studio excerpt:

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