A Message from Brazil
PLUS A 'Not So' Greenman Review.
You're recording a Gaelic song in Sao Paulo. You need a Gaelic singer (well, it helps when you don't have a word of Gaelic yourself). Flora MacNeil, that great repository of Gaelic lore, would be perfect.
But she lives in Scotland, surely. A phone call later, you're picking her up in your car and taking her to your studio. She's currently visiting her daughter in, yes, Sao Paulo. When you're Paul Mounsey and you're putting your own albums together in your time off between meeting deadlines for advertising jingles and film soundtracks, you need this kind of coincidence, however unlikely sounding.
Mounsey, for those yet to be introduced to his music, is a Brazil-based Scot from Alness whose Nahoo and Nahoo Too albums for Iona Records have been causing much excitement amongst adherents in both hemispheres as well as a little agitation amongst those who don't approve of his fusing the Gaelic tradition with Brazilian rhythms and 1990s recording techniques.
Mounsey's style works. It's done with respect to the tradition. The music flows. And it can be dashed hard to get either CD out of the CD player. Nahoo Too, particularly, also works on two levels: the one purely musical, the other looking at forced emigration - not just from the Highlands but 'clearance' in general, be it in Canada, USA, Australia, Brazil, wherever.
"The thing that I find interesting about the Highland Clearances," says Mounsey, "is that the very people who were forced out there were responsible for clearing the aboriginals in the countries they moved to."
Mounsey's own removal from the Highlands came when he went to study composition and piano at Trinity College in London, where he met and befriended fellow composer Michael Nyman. He'd begun playing piano at the age of four and was sent to classical piano lessons at seven. In his teens he heard and liked his older brother's Hamish Imlach and Corries albums, although he didn't actually get involved in playing Scottish music at that time. He did, however, have a fascination for the relationship between music and pictures from early on and that led him to work on film soundtracks.
Brazilian music was a closed book until he met his Brazilian wife and moved to Sao Paulo in the mid 1980s. Here he became immersed in discovering the manifold musical traditions while carving out a career as musical director with Brazil's largest commercial music house, working with, amongst other notables, reggae star Jimmy Cliff and R&B singer Etta James, and meeting the great Antonio Carlos Jobim, who honoured Mounsey by saying how much he'd enjoyed his music.
After six years, having uttered hardly a word of English (all his studio work is conducted in Portuguese) and having neither been back to Scotland nor listened to any Scottish music, lest it bring on home-sickness, he played some archive recordings from the School of Scottish Studies.
"It sounded completely alien and brought out no sense of belonging whatsoever," he says. "And that's when I started to experiment, to come to terms with my roots."
The Brazilian reaction to Nahoo and Nahoo Too (the name comes from his studio engineer's mispronunciation of the Gaelic mo chul) has been enthusiastic and could conceivably make a pop star out of Flora MacNeil. "They listen to her singing and hear a teenager, whereas over here people hear a mature woman because of our different culturally conditioned responses to vocal timbres."
The Brazilian musicians involved on the recordings are also enamoured of Mounsey's music and have all expressed their keenness to get out on the road and play it live. A spot during Celtic Connections 1998 was mooted, but for Mounsey to take the Nahoos on to a stage, he says, would require six months' preparation. "I'd love to do it but it would have to be done properly. The music is entirely studio based, it's not like working with a band, and to transform it from studio to live performance would take a lot of work."
Meanwhile, work has begun on a fourth Nahoo album, provisionally entitled NahooTakes. Mounsey has material which didn't make it on to the previous three albums and which he'd like to release if he can find a suitable way of presenting it. After that, he feels it may be time to move on.
"I've recently done a spot of production work for Runrig on their new album, The Stamping Ground, and producing other people is something I'd like to do more of in Scotland," he says. "I'm also doing a couple of things for the BBC while, at the same time, I'm very busy running my own music production house in São Paulo, appropriately called Junk!"
(Here’s a guy that likes to get his teeth into things and obviously enjoys his music.
One minor point, but one that confuses many – “Nahoo” was the original album title and it came about while Paul and his musicians were in the studio recording and collating a variety of Gaelic samples, one of which was a Gaelic word that phonetically sounded like ‘nahoo’; well to a Brazilian ear anyway.
It was at this point that the studio engineer, needing to properly label the tape enquired as to who the artist was. As there was no reply (the artist was only ever Paul Mounsey and his session people) he wrote “Nahoo” on the tape box. So “Nahoo” was born).
Nahoo is one of the hardest groups to describe I've ever run across. Perhaps the simplest description is Brazilian-Celtic fusion. However, elements of jazz, rap, and many other contemporary styles with a heavy reliance on electronics and sampling are also blended in.
Part of the difficulty is that the original album was not created with any intent for it to be commercially distributed. Rather, Paul Mounsey, Scottish expatriate living in Brazil, created songs for himself to alleviate his homesickness for Scotland. Only on the encouragement of friends who helped him put together the music did he try to get it distributed.
Whatever the origin of Nahoo, I've never been drawn into a CD as quickly as I was drawn into the first, eponymous CD. The opening track, "Passing Away," mixes Gaelic vocals, sampling, a heavy bass/percussion line, a melancholy tune, and a spoken commentary on the decline of Gaelic culture. It is difficult to tell how much of the vocals are sampled from traditional recordings and how many are recorded for this tune -- though I'm fairly sure that the repeated "Come on, baby" towards the end was not sampled from a traditional recording. The multilayered result is one of the most beautiful, haunting compositions I've heard -- a danceable dirge to traditional Scots culture, starting and ending with the spoken, "It makes a person sad to see it all passing away."
"Alba" is a significant reworking of the song performed by Runrig on their The Cutter and the Claw (and collected on their Gaelic Collection). It opens with a possibly sped-up sample of the waulking song "He, Mannd' Thu," a whispered, "Listen," and, again, strong electronic bass/percussion line. With its various samples, shouted phrases, chorus of "Alba!" and electronic music, this track is evocative of an incredible series of images. Somehow, though, the story seems not to be about Scotland anymore, but the decline of a much more far-reaching empire.
"Robert Campbell's Lament" is an eerie tune with some industrial sounds (either sampled or generated), several repeated muttered phrases, and slowed down sampling, all blended together. "Journeyman" combines several traditional songs ("Journeyman," which has the tune better known as "The Little Beggarman," and "The Wild Rover") with the heavy bass and sound effects.
"Dalmore" is a much quieter piece, relying on a beautiful harp tune and soaring violin/electronic back-up. Towards the end, the tune builds to a march. "Stranger in a Strange Land" is Mounsey's most direct comment on his time away from Scotland. The first half deals with his time in the Americas, where "Things didn't work out the way I planned." In the second half, as he remembers the island of Skye, the song blossoms into its full beauty.
"As Terras Baixas Da Hollanda" is the Portuguese for "The Lowlands of Holland." Indeed, this is the fusion of that Celtic tune with Brazilian instrumentation. The hybrid is, at times, funny, as it shifts between gears. "From Ebb to Flood" is a tradition Gaelic folk charm, set to music. Ana Ameilia Guimaraes provides some outstanding vocals in this incredibly moving piece. "I Will Go" has a techno/dance feel to the opening but becomes an excellent rendition of the traditional Scots song with some added lyrics referring to the Desert Storm war against Iraq. It's a very strong presentation of the homesickness of a soldier awaiting the start of battle.
With the last two tracks, Nahoo starts to run out of steam, although it's still quite solid. "Faithful Fond One" is a lush love song that just doesn't reach the jaw-dropping level of the previous tracks. Still, on almost any other CD, it would be a standout track. "Illusion" is just a bit too pat. It feels more like it was composed to conclude the CD, rather than created for its own sake. Nevertheless, with its simultaneous English and Portuguese versions of a lovely poem (recited by Mounsey and his Brazilian wife), as well as regular-speed to slightly slowed-down reuse of the "He, Mannd‚Äô Thu" sample, it is a strong conclusion.
After that incredible debut album, it was almost too much to expect that Nahoo be able to match it on their second. Sure enough, NahooToo doesn't quite measure up to the debut album, but it's still a superb effort with some tracks matching the excellence of the first. Where the thematic focus of Nahoo was Scotland, NahooToo turns more to Native Americans of both North and South America for inspiration.
Like Nahoo, NahooToo starts out with a mixture of music, singing, and spoken words. "Remembrance" combines Gaelic, Portuguese, Xavante, and Yanomami (the last two are the languages of several indigenous Indian tribes in Brazil). The music is less Celtic and more South American, creating a satisfying and often soaring combination. "Wherever You Go" is less obviously connected to the Native American theme, being an underplayed salute to a hero who "would not be undone." The question in the lyrics is if the hero is really a hero: "And the final twist,/ Betraying your own kind./ But history is told by those who've won." But the song ends with the chorus promising, "I'll be there to see you through,/ Wherever you go,/ Whatever you do."
"North" is a beautifully sad piece with the repeated, spoken, "Our spirit has never been broken" sampled in. As indicated by the title, the subject is more northern native tribes with samples from a newscast mentioning "Mohawks" of the "Kahnawake reservation." (There was a conflict between Canadian authorities and members of the Mohawk tribe around 1990; I assume this is what's being referred to.) This song nicely builds through a hard-driving middle section, before falling back into the more lamenting passages. Much angrier is "Infinite Contempt," which starts calm and laidback, with space- noise and fiddle back-up, then builds in intensity along with the lyrics: "Let me hear you scream just a little louder." Such in-your-face political anger marks a break from Nahoo, where the political content was less aggressively presented.
The instrumental (plus sampled vocals), "Another Clearance," unites English clearances of the Scots with similar European actions against American aboriginal tribes. It's a mostly quiet mixture of a Celtic tune and vocal samples. "Kaiwa Farewell" is a sad song of resignation in the face of approaching European encroachment.
"Psalm" creates a transition from the Native American section to the rest of the CD with a peaceful blend of electronic guitars and harmonium. Definitely not peaceful is the hard-rocking "Turned on the Dog," which has a very funny false start, before getting down to a raucous dance beat. There may be a message in the words hidden in the beat, but since I can't make them out, I'm not making any guarantees.
The name, Nahoo, originated as a Brazilian's mispronunciation of a Gaelic phrase. When Mounsey met with Flora MacNeil in preparation for NahooToo, she told him that there was an obscure Gaelic song that was actually named "Nahoo." With Mounsey's additional lyrics, this becomes a lovely air on lost love and dreams. "The Fields of Robert John" combines native Brazilian flutes and a lovely classical-style violin playing to good effect. The only problem here is that the percussion back-up in the middle of the tune doesn't mesh well with the rest of the instruments. The end result is still satisfactory.
"Fall" is a quietly evocative piece with keyboards and a lovely, wordless vocal. But there is something just too polished about it. The next two tracks are two versions of the traditional Celtic "A Mhairead Og" ("Young Margaret"). The first is a brief, straightforward version, sung by Flora MacNeil. This smoothly transforms into a more upbeat version with a solid, rock guitar solo by Lollo Andersson. MacNeil's traditional voice blends unexpectedly well with the rock backing and sampled voices.
Then the CD almost falls apart. "Red River" is clearly a musical take on the Old West of the U.S. with its bottleneck guitar and cowboy-style tune. However, it is too forced, coming off as cowboy kitsch, rather than western. "Hope You're Not Guilty" is various recorded samples (including Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, as well as several other American political and media figures whose voices I recognized but couldn't put names to) over a percussive background. It's interesting, but the result is forced and overly cute.
Back to the good stuff, the next track is a primarily instrumental reprise of "Nahoo," with excellent folk-jazz flute playing by Teco Cardosa in the lead. The most obvious mark of the quality of this tune is that I frequently find myself whistling it, even when I haven't listened to it for a long time -- and it is not a tune that sticks in my mind because it's annoying. NahooToo ends on a beautifully sad note with "Lullaby" for children living in the streets.
The problem with NahooToo -- at least in comparison with Nahoo -- is that it too often feels overly thought-out and polished. The result is a CD that seems less heartfelt and more calculated -- which considering the spontaneous origin of the first CD, isn't surprising. At 17 tracks and over 70 minutes, I doubt anyone would have been disappointed if a few tracks of NahooToo had been cut. Certainly "Red River" and "Hope You're Not Guilty" would scarcely have been missed; their absence would have made this a tighter album.
Nahoo3: Notes from the Republic returns the political themes of the previous album to Scotland, celebrating its recent gaining of partial sovereignty.
Like NahooToo, Nahoo3 is a more polished, studio-based album than the original. Unlike the first two CDs, it relies much less on samples -- and when it does sample, it often uses long sections of song or speech, rather than snippets.
The CD opens with "Nahoo Nation," an extended piece that goes through quiet New Age and folk sections before driving into a high-powered techno-beat. While it's a solid enough production, the track needs tightening, as the techno section drags a bit before coming full circle to the calmer feel of the opening.
"Independence Blues" is an interesting track, starting off with half a minute of a lush arrangement of a traditional tune, before suddenly cutting into a sarcastic, rock-blues song about the misfortunes of a Scotsman who keeps choosing the wrong sides of wars. Complete with a hot brass jazz-combo, this is quintessential American music -- except for a quick "ain countrie" in the middle of lyrics that are otherwise Southern U.S. dialect. Then, in a beautiful touch, the raucous jazz playing calms down, and traditional tune of the opening is sung in an extended, muffled sample, combined with a quiet, blues piano backing. The effect is amazing.
"The Keening" starts off with a calm, sad instrumental with a background of sounds evocative of horror. Slowly the background grows until the feel has changed from calm mourning to horror-filled bereavement. "Notes From the Republic" starts with a similar feel as "Hope You're Not Guilty" on NahooToo, with snippets of spoken word (in fact, at least one of the speakers -- an American newscaster, I'm sure, though I can't figure out who -- is used in both) and a techno-beat put together. But here, the spoken samples are not overused, and a wild fiddle solo makes this a successful track.
"Unfinished Business" is a quiet song about the "sense of wonder" coming from newfound freedom. It's as close as any Nahoo track comes to being standard issue and just doesn't match the usual level of inventiveness. "Don Roberto's Sabbath" opens as a calm, lush tune, before adding layers, including some wilder fiddling and interesting sound effects. The total effect is quite satisfying.
"Night Falls" opens with a quiet setting, evoking the feel of night in the country, with occasional noises from civilization in the background. This perhaps stretches a little too long. However, the payoff is fascinating with a mixture of radio snippets and other related noise. I was raised out in the country and can remember discovering what radio stations I could get late at night. A mile in one direction was a state highway; a mile in the other was a lakeside bar that sometimes blasted its music at odd hours. I don't know if this was the sort of image Mounsey intended, but "Night Falls" musically recreated my memories of growing up with remarkable intensity. Bravo, Paul Mounsey!
"Mad Litany" combines a medieval religious chant with an electronic beat for a solid track. "Carver Angus with Bites," on the other hand, is a senseless mishmash of sound. However, clocking in at only one minute, it's no great difficulty to get through. Mounsey then does a solid take on Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," giving it a velvet-soft jazz backing that perfectly suits the lyrics.
"Reel Slow" takes a traditional Celtic reel and slows it down. However, with the electronic backing, the drive of the reel is actually well preserved. "Taking Leave (Beir Soraidh Bhaum)" starts off rather straightforward with a sampled traditional Gaelic song, combined with a gradually growing electronic rhythm. About two minutes in, it transforms into a melancholy New Age instrumental. At the end, the traditional song rejoins the tune, winding it down to a satisfactory conclusion.
"Fiunary" follows the model of starting out with a quiet tune and adding backing to build the tune. But this one, while pleasant enough, never really goes anywhere. Nahoo3 concludes with "Last Thoughts," a short piano ballad that doesn't fit the style of the rest of the CD. However, it's a well done coda with Mounsey having a nice touch when, on the phrase, "How it's hard to sing this song..." he breaks off the last word and goes into a piano solo.
Like NahooToo, Nahoo3 suffers from sometimes feeling too carefully planned. But tracks like "Independence Blues" and "Night Falls" are remarkable pieces, and Nahoo3 is an excellent CD.
Paul Mounsey stumbled into Nahoo, never intending to be producing music for anyone but himself and a few friends. But the result of that effort, Nahoo, ranks both as my second favorite CD and as my most frequently listened to CD. Mounsey's follow-up efforts have suffered, if only in comparison, from the lack of spontaneity that the original CD had. All three, though, are masterful performances and I eagerly await the next Nahoo CD (which, it is rumored, may be a live performance CD -- though I'm not sure how Mounsey and company will pull that off).
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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