Fàrsan leaves no doubt about what they’re about: Celebrating ‘Gaelic Traditions in the New World’

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
At their worst, band slogans and taglines can be unenlightening or overly hyperbolic: “Changing what you thought you knew about music!” or “Guaranteed to melt faces for generations to come!” But the New England-based quartet Fàrsan hits the mark with theirs: “Gaelic Traditions in the New World.” Clear, concise, cogent.
“Gaelic Traditions” refers to song, dance, and instrumental music from Scotland – particularly the highlands and islands – and the closely related traditions of Cape Breton, with driving reels, rugged strathspeys and the occasional march or jig delivered by Fàrsan (Gaelic for “roam” or “ramble”) on fiddle, border, and highland bagpipes, whistle, piano, accordion, and mandolin.
The song component is especially relevant for the band, which recently released its first album. Fàrsan’s repertoire is in Scots Gaelic, from lullabies, laments and ballads to pòrt-a-beul, often known as “mouth music,” in which songs are used to simulate the rhythm and characteristics of dance tunes.
“We chose the word ‘Gaelic’ deliberately, instead of ‘Celtic,’” says Scots-born Màiri Britton, a current Cape Breton resident who is Fàrsan’s lead vocalist, and also a member of another four-piece band, Huradal. “We wanted to honor the language, and to create a space for it, within the music.”
The “New World” part is where it really gets interesting, as fiddler Katie McNally – a Boston-area native now living in Portland, Maine, – explains: “Place is an important thing when you’re playing traditional music, because it’s very tied into the land and the people in which it originated. So ‘New World’ acknowledges that we are a North American-based band, that three of us are American, along with one who’s Scottish but living in Cape Breton.”
Pianist-accordionist-mandolinist Neil Pearlman, also a Portland resident, elaborates: “The fact of us being in the ‘New World’ has an effect on the music we make. While some of what we play may have originated in Scotland, we’re coming at it with a Cape Breton mindset – and, at the same time, with other influences we’ve all picked up along the way. The Gaelic traditions of the New World are linked to that of the old, but constitute a separate identity.”
Britton – who teaches Gaelic at St. Francis Xavier University – says “New World” can be a metaphorical as well as a geographical term: “I think it also means that you create your ‘new world’: We’re playing with the material in a new way, and with perhaps a bit more freedom than in the past, on this side of the world.”
“These traditions are quite powerful and have traveled so far and wide, deeply affecting so many people, so far from where they originated,” says West Coast native Elias Alexander, who shares in the singing and plays pipes, whistle, and percussion. “It's wonderful to recognize that they are part of the four of us, even though not all of us are from areas considered to be strongholds of Gaelic culture, and that we can come together from such distant places to gather around this tradition and express ourselves within it. It's a sense of belonging that transcends continents and distances.”
The Boston area, of course, has long been a stronghold of Gaelic culture, and represents a common thread for Fàrsan’s three Americans. McNally grew up here, her musical development shaped in part through Boston College’s Gaelic Roots Festival and School and the annual Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School (she has since become a regular faculty member), and events at the Canadian American Club in Watertown, among other places, while performing at BCMFest, Club Passim, and other venues.
Pearlman – whose father Ed co-founded and led the Boston Scottish Fiddle club in the 1980s and ’90s – has spent significant time in the area as a resident and visitor, pairing up with McNally in various iterations, as well as playing with his cross-genre bands Alba’s Edge and Afro-Celtic funk ensemble Soulsha. Alexander, also part of Soulsha, has ties to Boston as well, as a member of locally-based Bywater Band and an occasional drop-in for sessions at Emmet’s Pub in Beacon Hill or The Haven in Jamaica Plain.
Not surprisingly, then, a Boston-area appearance is in the works for Fàrsan this fall.
Meanwhile, the four are continuing to enjoy the fruits of their labor thus far, as represented by the album they recorded in Nova Scotia last year. Throughout it, Pearlman’s piano pulsates underneath McNally’s robust fiddle and Alexander’s vibrant bagpipes – with step dancing by Britton and Pearlman – while Britton’s vocals on the pòrt-a-beul tunes underscore the ideal of the human voice as a majestic musical instrument.
On the strathspeys “Pronn an Caoran (Smash the Ember)” and “Fear Drabastach (Creepy Man),” she and McNally match each other note for note, rhythmic snap for rhythmic snap; equally exhilarating are when Britton teams with both fiddle and pipes (such as later on in the “Smash the Ember” track) and when Alexander joins her on vocals, including the reel “Danns a Luideagan Odhar” during the album’s most uproarious track, “A' Mhisg a Chuir an Nollaig Oirnn (Drunk at Christmas),” that ends with “Fhuaras Am Pige Ruadh (Party in the Hen House)” – for which there is a must-see YouTube video.
The pòrt-a-beul also are a welcome reminder of Gaelic song’s dimensions beyond the meditative, mystical aspects – which, for better or worse, have become a defining impression for much of the listening public – and point squarely to the link between vocal, instrumental and dance traditions, as Britton notes: “They do correspond together. In some cases, we don’t know whether the tunes of the songs came first, but there’s definitely a connection.”
In fact, she adds, the relationship between words and music is a very intricate one. “The vowel length is critical; you have to bend the tune around the vowel, because the words bring out the tune’s rhythmic quality. For that reason, the lyrics may seem nonsensical – especially when translated from Gaelic to English – because their overall meaning is less important than how they convey the rhythm.”
Pòrt-a-beul’s value goes beyond the aesthetic: as a mnemonic device for conveying tunes, for instance, and even as a replacement for instruments. “I went to a dance once where the fiddler was late, so someone just sang pòrt-a-beul for two whole sets,” says Britton. “In the past, pòrt-a-beul was especially important for women, because not a lot of them had the opportunity to play instruments – but they had the singing, so they could be part of the tradition.”
For Alexander, being part of Fàrsan, and working with Britton has in particular, has enabled him to refine his approach to bagpiping. “I've loved exploring how the Gaelic words translate to piping ornaments, and how the way the songs are sung can be closely replicated on the pipes.
“Scottish piping went through a huge transformation over the last couple of hundred years,” he explains. “Largely due to the funneling of piping talent through the military context, the music became standardized, learned off the written page, and played the same way every time. It's been inspiring to go deeper into that connection, and get down to the essence of what the pipes are about. It's fun to imagine how earlier, pre-military pipers, who were coming from a Gaelic context, might have thought about the ornaments they were creating on the pipes, and how to use them.”
In addition to the pòrt-a-beul, the Fàrsan album also features the more contemplative, literary qualities of Gaelic song, including “Òran an Ròin (Song of the Seal)” – associated with the selkie, or seal-people, legends – which features some exquisite vocal harmonies from Britton and Alexander; and “Mas Dìochuimhnich Sinn Ar Cuideachd Nach Maireann (Lest We Forget Our Fallen Comrades),” a tribute to the men from Nova Scotia who died in World War II, which Britton learned from the song’s composer, Rod MacNeil, who fought with the West Nova Scotia Regiment in Belgium. (English translations for all the Gaelic songs are included in the CD sleeve notes.)
MacNeil died last month, about two weeks after his 95th birthday party, which Britton had attended. “When I first heard the song a few years ago I was just amazed,” she says. “I phoned Rod up and asked to meet him, and he told me stories about the war, but also about Gaelic, music, and community. He was one of the few native Gaelic speakers around, and therefore connected to that tradition of learning songs by ear. And he was a kind, generous soul.”
The album closes with the jubilant “Gun Togainn air Hugan (Shout for Joy),” an 18th-century poem that captures the communal task of waulking, where women would rhythmically beat newly woven tweed to soften and thicken it. Britton sings the verses and her three bandmates join the chorus while simulating the waulking rhythm, lending the track an infectious spontaneity and warmth. Punctuating the track is the sprightly “Farewell to Stumpy,” a solo accordion march penned by Pearlman.
“We recorded this one quite differently than the other tracks,” McNally reveals. “We got in a room, sat around a table, and we sang and pounded on the table together. Elias had gathered some kitchen utensils, and if you listen you can hear him using those as percussion. Recording the album was a lot of fun.”
Fun, yes, but also challenging, since Fàrsan’s members have plenty of other collaborations and activities to keep them busy. Fortunately, technology makes it possible to overcome shortage of time and excess of distance: In advance of their first tour, Britton made and sent along recordings of some 20 pòrt-a-beul to the other three members so they could choose the ones they liked; and more of their practices have taken place via video chats than in person.
“Sometimes it is seat-of-the-pants,” says Britton, “but we always end up getting focused and putting our energy together, whether it’s for recordings or gigs.”
“We knew what we were signing up for, and it’s not as if we haven’t all worked this way before,” says Pearlman. “It’s just been so enjoyable to get really enmeshed into Gaelic music, do something more trad-style but also retain my own voice. When you’re in a collaboration like this, you make the time and space.”
“You just get’er done,” declares McNally.
For more on Fàrsan, and to hear their music, go to farsanband.com.