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Gaelic and Gospel groups seal historic connections

Inverness Cathedral will resound to the very different cadences of Gaelic psalm singing and the American gospel tradition when the Gaelic Psalm Singers of Lewis, led by Calum Martin, team up with the London Adventist Chorale on Friday.

Although ostensibly two different streams of religious music, the concert is dedicated to the premise that there is a solid historical and musical connection running between the two. Alex Gordon, the Provost of Inverness Cathedral, is delighted to welcome the singers to the Cathedral as part of InvernessFest, supported by Highland 2007.

“The idea that we want to explore, and the reason why the concert came about as part of Highland 2007, is the musicological connection between the Gaelic psalm singing tradition and its subsequent development in the United States,” he said. “The tradition was obviously taken over with the Scottish immigrants, and we are interested in the way that music then influenced the development of the gospel tradition, particularly in black communities over there.”

As Gordon says, the theory is that emigrants from the Highlands and Islands took their psalm singing tradition with them when the crossed to the New World, where that tradition fused with the imported African musical traditions to produce a distinctive new hybrid.

The work of Willie Ruff, a jazz musician and Professor of Music at Yale University, has informed our awareness of the links. Prompted by jazz great Dizzy Gillespie’s recollection of congregations in the deep south singing in Gaelic, Professor Ruff’s research uncovered evidence that ancient call-and-response services from the Scottish Highlands were still chanted by both congregations of the descendants of African slaves whose Scots owners had introduced them to the service, and white descendants of Scots settlers in the Kentucky hills.

The influence also spread to some parts of the indigenous Native American population, and Professor Ruff was also able to document a traditional Scottish service sung in the language of the Creeks in Oklahoma. Many Scottish traders intermarried with the native populations, and mass conversions to Christianity completed the process.

Ruff found evidence that the venerable tradition of “line-singing”, in which one church member calls out the first line of a psalm and the rest of the congregation continuing to chant the text in unison, had been a common form of worship in colonial America. The subsequent arrival of hymnals, musical instruments and organised choirs largely took over in 19th century Protestant churches, but the chanting of psalms continued to be practised in some remote congregations.

The present collaboration between the Lewis singers and the London Adventist Chorale first took place in Liverpool Cathedral in 2004, as part of the Cathedral’s centenary celebrations. Singer Margaret Bennett took part in the concert, and subsequently persuaded Colin Hynd, then the director of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, that they should also take on the concert as part of the 2005 festival, but this time with the Mt Zion CPCA Church Choir from Alabama as their gospel counterparts.

That performance was recorded and released on CD as “Salm & Soul” on Runrig’s Ridge Records label, which had previously issued two volumes entitled “Salm” by the Lewis singers. The original combination is restored for this concert. The choirs do not actually perform together.

Each sings their own music alternately, allowing the audience to hear the music side-by-side and make up their own mind on likely connections.

• Full story at the Inverness Courier.

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