In BRAVO!, Experiential Learning

Julie Fowlis performed and discussed traditional Scottish music at workshops with students

BYU students and faculty had the remarkable opportunity to attend two intimate music workshops with Scottish musician, Julie Fowlis, during her time at BYU.

Fowlis performed in the Pardoe Theatre the evening of Oct. 11 as part of the BRAVO! Professional Performing Arts. The workshops took place the afternoon before and morning after her sold-out concert and were attended primarily by students studying world music and European studies.

Scottish Musician Julie Fowlis
Photo by Donald MacLeod

At the workshops, Fowlis was accompanied by her band, which includes Duncan Chrisholm on fiddle, Tony Byrne on guitar and Éamon Doorley on a unique crossbreed of a guitar and bouzouki he referred to as either a “gouzouki” or “buitar.” In addition to providing vocals, Fowlis played a variety of whistles common in Scottish and Irish music as well as a shruti box, a bellows-type instrument usually used in Indian classical music. In between playing selections from her concert, Fowlis and her band used the workshops to discuss the history behind their songs, the Scottish-Gaelic language and their own musical background as well as taking questions from the audience.

Although Fowlis studied music in college, she never had any ambitions to perform professionally. However, she decided to try out performing full time for a year, after which she planned on “returning to her senses.” The gigs piled up and her career took off. The rest of the group described the very social nature of music in Scotland and Ireland which led to their professional music careers.

The traditional Gaelic songs that Fowlis performs were originally performed without any instrumentation. The songs were also never written down but passed down aurally from one generation to the next as a way to document local happenings. Fowlis described how she discovered many of the songs by listening to archival recordings from the 1950s and then worked with her band to add instrumentation.

Fowlis and the band enthusiastically described how they adapt songs traditionally performed a capella for instruments. The process largely consists of each member trying out chords and rhythms individually before coming together. Some of the songs, they admitted, take longer than others to orchestrate, with upbeat songs generally being easier than ballads. Because the songs were passed down by ear, the tunes and words differ depending on the performer or recording. The band takes advantage of this and uses an element of jazz and improvisation in their approach to recordings and performances.

The songs span a wide range of time periods and styles. Many of the upbeat tunes are categorized as “puirt à beul” or mouth music and resemble tongue twisters. Mouth music originated at a time when instruments were banned in Scotland so dance tunes had to be sung.

Other song subjects include politics, love and work. Often, Fowlis explained, the songs would be sung by women as they did chores. Fowlis performed an example, “Òganaich Uir A Rinn M’ Fhàgail” or “O Noble Youth Who Has Left Me,” which was traditionally sung while spinning wool. These songs provide a rare historical perspective of the female voice since poems written during the same time period were almost exclusively told from the male point of view.

Fowlis’ love for Gaelic was evident as she described how the language is being spoken less and less. Only one percent of Scottish people speak Gaelic, which only equals about 50,000 people. North Uist, Fowlis’ birthplace in the Outer Hebrides, is one of the few and last communities where Gaelic is spoken as widely as English. Fortunately, the last census taken showed the first halt in the decline of the language. Fowlis explained that while singing in a language other than English can be a challenge for her professional career, it is also one of the biggest draws for her audience.

The draw of Fowlis’ native language was certainly felt by those who attended the two sessions. She and her band concluded the events with one last piece of mouth music which displayed an impressive vocal dexterity and left the audience humming as they left.

Julie Fowlis’ new album, “alterum,” will be released on Oct. 27.


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