Ishbel MacAskill - Gaelic Singing's Queen of Soul
PLUS Biography Courtesy of the Artist's site, 2005.
Appearances can indeed be deceptive. Observe Ishbel MacAskill singing on stage, be it in concert auditorium or village hall, and she appears to be the essence of calm, her voice carrying not the slightest hint of involuntary vibrato. Yet, inside, she'll be churning, terrified she's going to make a terrible hash of it.
It's a scenario that calls to mind Michael Marra's observation that, to be believable, the best singers need a bit of the actor in them. MacAskill has done some acting, in Scottish Television's Gaelic soap Machair. But it's her Gaelic singing that has captured hearts in ports of call as distant as Barcelona, Cape Breton and Memphis.
Unusually for someone from Point on the Hebridean island of Lewis, MacAskill was born into a non-singing family. "Point is regarded, I think, as having the greatest number of singers per head of population on the island," she says. "But there were no singers at all in my family. I must just have been born with a rogue gene because I started to sing almost soon as I could talk."
Although she always sang for enjoyment, she was well into adulthood before the idea of singing professionally occurred to her.
"I was never really encouraged to sing seriously," she says. "At school I sang in the choir sporadically, but I was never put forward for the Mod or anything like that because my voice wasn't deemed good enough and I grew up thinking that I really didn't sing very well."
Friends who came to visit, such as writer Cliff Hanley and folk singers Robin Hall & Jimmie McGregor, heard her singing everything from street songs to Stormy Weather and thought otherwise. At their prodding and with encouragement from her husband Bill, who has always been a great support, MacAskill undertook her first paid engagement at the Mod Fringe in 1979, and the rest is geography.
Washington DC, Israel and Brittany are among the destinations on her itinerary for 2001 and the soulful style which has seen her dubbed the 'Aretha Franklin of Gaelic singing' is now available on four CDs, the most recent being Essentially Ishbel, another collection, she laughs wryly, of Gaelic gloom and doom.
"I do seem naturally drawn to sad songs and there are so many of them in Gaelic culture," she says. "But although I feel when I'm singing sometimes that I'm actually in a song, that's not because I have a sad life. I'm generally drawn to a melody first of all, but the poetry has to mean something - it has to tell a story - and I suppose when you've had a bit of life experience you feel empathy with the type of lyric where everything doesn't go swimmingly."
Besides, she points out, not all Gaelic songs are sad. "We do have our lighter side and I think it says a lot about the Gael's spirit that when instruments were proscribed after Culloden, we were so determined to hang on to our dance tunes that we invented mouth music, or puirt-a-beul, to dance to."
In an age where English, and thanks to the Internet, American English, is becoming more increasingly under threat.
For MacAskill, however, there is no danger of her culture losing its relevance. If anything, Gaelic is becoming more valuable, even down to acting as a marketing tool for the tourist industry.
"Our songs give a great introduction to the physical beauty of the islands," she says. "So, yes, maybe we can encourage people to go and visit the source of the music. But the feelings in the songs are universal and ageless. One's emotions are always relevant. Love of your country and romantic love are always going to be with us, as unfortunately, are greed for land and power. So there's no danger of Gaelic becoming redundant."
Ishbel comes from the Point area of the Island of Lewis. She was brought up with the rich heritage of centuries old Gaelic music and song which still survives in Point and indeed all over the island of Lewis. Her music and culture are immensely important in her life and for several years she was very much involved in teaching traditional Gaelic singing to children at the numerous Feisean (festivals of music and song) throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
She fervently believes this approach to be a positive contribution to the revival of the language. She is deeply motivated by the rich beauty of her heritage of Gaelic music and poetry. She is especially moved by the intensely emotive quality of the poetry and, through her unique delivery, manages to convey to her audiences a feeling of involvement in the colourful history and culture of the Gael.Her particular style of unaccompanied, traditional singing, her numerous radio and television performances and countless world-wide live appearances has established her position as probably the best known Gaelic singer today.Regular appearances in her leading acting role in the Gaelic television drama, Machair, has also made her familiar to Scottish television viewers.
Her singing takes her to venues throughout the U.K., Ireland, Europe, The Far East and North America. Her recordings are always in demand at home and abroad and significantly, sell to people who have never before heard the Gaelic language. Whether her audience is Gaelic speaking or not her English introductions to these centuries old songs of love, war, sea and landscape, exile and life itself make each one a memorable experience.
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