(Traditional Gaelic Singing)
Some of you have written to ask what the definition of 'sean nos' singing is. Well now! that certainly is a loaded question, but I'll do my very best to help.
Firstly, the term 'sean nos', means 'old style', although this doesn't adequately describe our traditional Gaelic singing. The word 'sean' (old), suggests that it is no longer current and that it is something which has died out. I prefer to use the term 'seinn dùthchasach' (indigenous / traditional / cultural style of singing), although it may not be so easy for non Gaelic speakers to pronounce! However, I feel it better describes this form of singing which has been passed down via oral transmission for hundreds of years, but which is still as relevant today as it was in the past. Although becoming rare there is still a living and unbroken tradition of singing in distinctive regional style in some areas of Scotland.
There is a huge difference between merely singing a Gaelic song in any style (be that in a contemporary, country, jazz, rock etc) and singing a Gaelic song in a traditional or regional style. Any singer can sing in Gaelic if they learn the words and tune well enough, and many are able to imitate traditional styles to a degree, but singing in an indigenous style which has been connected to the singer's own area and culture for hundreds of years, is a much more complex form of singing altogether. It is full of nuances of style, language and ornamentation which can never be totally perfected by those not reared with it. There are many and varied regional styles, and also many forms of ornamentation within those styles; these can be found in the traditional singing of Gaelic areas stretching from the Butt of Lewis, in the Hebrides, down to the tip of Co. Kerry in Ireland.
The traditional and best way to perform 'seinn dùthchasach', is unaccompanied (a capella) of course, and the Gaelic text/poetry should always take precedence over the melody. The technical quality of the voice is never as important as it is in classical singing. There has been a lot of influence from other cultures on Gaelic styles and this is now beginning to influence audience appreciation of the genre. Having a tuneful, natural voice with a natural, uncontrived regional style is crucial, and its essence is its totally untrained, natural, free and relaxed quality. True traditional singers are completely comfortable with their language, their song and their singing style; having been exposed to it and nurtured in it within their homes or communities since childhood and these performances rarely have a contrived feel to them. Some performers imagine that they are traditional singers by merely singing a song which is generally accepted as being from the traditional canon. There is a LOT more to it than that.
The stress pattern of the Gaelic poetry within the performance should dictate the rhythm for the singer, so that no two verses are the same with regard to note values. Rhythmic freedom is one of the most important aspects of traditional Gaelic singing, and is the one least easily understood by those not brought up with it, and indeed the most frustrating for any accompanying musician who is unfamiliar with the genre.
With fewer opportunities to hear traditional singing in the remaining Gaelic communities, younger singers should therefore take time to seek out traditional singers, listen to archive recording and fully digest the text of the song before marrying it with the tune. In this way it is hoped that phrasing and word stresses will be totally understood. This will make a huge difference with regard to how they they will eventually communicate the song to their audience. There has been a tendency for singers to be heavily influenced by regularity of rhythm, and even native Gaelic speakers are sometimes subject to this influence. Some singers can be seen playing out the rhythm with their hands and/or fingers, often with eyes closed, while singing the song. This shows a lack of familiarity with the style and gives the performance a very contrived feel, suggesting that they are still unfamiliar with the song.
The tempo of a song may also vary according to the degree of ornamentation used. In the Scottish Gaidhealtachd, melismatic singing is much more pronounced in Lewis and in Harris, but nowadays there are fewer singers who ornament naturally and effortlessly in the traditional style. However, some singers, wherever they come from, feel that ornamentation is a requisite of any traditional singing; this results in the introduction of a very artificial and contrived form of ornamentation in some performances.
A style of singing which has been nurtured since childhood will always sound natural and will stand the test of time. A true traditional singer, brought up with melismatic singing, will never think about about when to ornament, it will come as natural to them as breathing.
When one is brought up with an indigenous singing style it will always sound natural, but becauses so little true 'seinn dùchasach' is now heard in our Gaelic communities, younger singers often pick up their songs from recordings which, although attractive in sound and quality, are based on techniques and styles outwith their own region and culture, and are usually from a variety of sources, with too many singers now adopting mainstream jazz, blues, rock and pop styles in their performances. This shows that the emphasis is more on pleasing a non-Gaidhealach audience than on respecting the song or the traditional genre. There is an element of the inferiority complex in this trend and suggests that some Gaelic song performers require to be validated by those from outside the culture before they feel comfortable about their own performance. The danger in this is that the fickle nature of fashions and trends will render them ignorant of the true roots of the songs they perform, and they will certainly be unable to perform them authentically and/or pass them on to a younger generation. What then of the unbroken chain ?
Another phenomenon attached to true traditional singing is that the singer makes changes in the song each time it is sung. I know I do this myself, through my ornamentation or by subconciously making other slight changes in the melody notes. It will depend on how one feels at the time, on one's familiarity with the song, on the atmosphere, on how relaxed one is, or on the state of one's voice at the time.
Unsympathetic musical accompaniment has had an adverse effect on the performance of traditional Gaelic song over the past 70 years or so. Songs which should be unrestricted in their rhythm are often forced into measured time because of unsympathetic musical arrangements, and possibly the intimidating tactics of instrumentalists who are unfamiliar with the style. When certain Gaelic songs are forced into a strict, and what is in fact an alien rhythm, many of the words are stretched out unnaturally, poetric phrases are broken and the whole performance therefore loses authenticity. At times the meanings of the words are altered due to distortions of rhythms to match thoughtless instrumental accompaniment.
For those of us 'of a certain vintage', who were brought up in Gaelic speaking communities, this style of singing was always there and always around us, it was part of our lives, just as the language was. I am painfully aware that young people in the Highlands and Islands nowadays do not have this luxury and that their main exposure to Gaelic singing is through the medium of television, CDs and large festivals, which too often marginalises the truly traditional performances.
Traditional singing, within communities, performed in an informal and relaxed manner is becoming a rarity.
I hope the above encourages debate or argument, and I would welcome any questions or feedback.(please use the contact form)
To finish, I'd like to quote Sorley MacLean;
Gaelic songs - "the songs in which ineffable melodies rise like exhaltations from the rhythms and resonances of the words, the songs that alone make the thought that the Gaelic language is going to die so intolerable to anyone who knows Gaelic, and has in the least degree the sensibility that responds to the marriage, or rather the simultaneous creation, of words and music.
It may be that a great piper without Gaelic can play pibroch supremely; it may even be that a great singer without Gaelic can be coached into a great performance of one of those songs; but it is CERTAIN that no one who does not know Gaelic can really hear one of those songs. I am convinced that Scottish Gaelic song is the chief artistic glory of the Scots, and of all people of Celtic speech, and one of the greatest artistic glories of Europe. I have been of this opinion for nearly 40 years, I have reiterated it ad nauseum, and now I am more convinced of its validity than I have ever been".