After a long night at a Celtic Connections concert in Glasgow, Chris Barrter introduces us to Burns the internationalist.
Robert Burns’ birthday (25 January) always falls during the period of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections (CC) Festival. As the major Scottish folk song festival, it is really incumbent on them to mark that event. However, rather than taking the easy route, and simply organising yet another Burns Supper, Artistic Director Donald Shaw has always gone the extra mile.
In particular Burns’ internationalist credentials form the main feature of the events CC like to promote. I recall an earlier festival featuring the Bard celebrated by the heavy rhythms of Sly and Robbie – Reggae’s go-to guys for their bass dub beats! This year, the idea of having the umbrella organisation for Scotland’s ethnic and minority communities (BEMIS) arrange the concert along with CC allowed an even wider cultural mix – ranging from the Punjab to Palestine, via Syria and Glasgow’s own Roma community.
BEMIS works very closely with (and is majorly funded by) the Scottish Government, so it was perhaps inevitable that we had a standard politician’s welcome from Minister of Culture, Fiona Hyslop MSP. But we soon moved into areas that were far from standard!
First up was a local band E Karika Djal – made up of some of Scotland’s Roma community from many countries of Eastern Europe with musicians from further afield – originally created as a community project to break down barriers. They kicked off the evening with Djellem Djellem, known as the ‘Romani anthem’, immediately enthusing their audience. They also started the evening’s homage to Burns, with their rendition of Tibbie Dunbar!
Undoubtedly the most warmly received guest, yet probably the least known musically, was Syrian kanun player, Maya Youssef. The kanun is like a very large zither, and Maya held the audience rapt with The Sea Inside - I swear you could hear the sea!, her own composition as a plea for peace in Syria – Syrian Dreams, and of course the obligatory Burns. Auld Lang Syne sounds particularly fine on the kanun, and Maya claimed to have heard it as a child, and loved it before she knew what it was!
The break for food, although welcome – and of course an integral part of the Burns Supper experience – did have the problem of extending the – already late running – evening, and unfortunately meant that headline act – Reem Kelani ended up playing to a half-empty hall. Before her, however, we heard from another joint project between Sarah Hayes (of Admiral Fallow) and Pakistani Poet, Sara Kazmi. Here, however, the music from the Scottish and Punjabi cultures were actually fused together in performance, with poems about rain mixing with pipe tunes, and remarkably complementary lyrics of two bird poems/songs. Burn’s Westling Winds, was the homage here.
Finally the exceptional talent that is Manchester-born Palestinian singer, Reem Kelani, and her band took the stage. She has an impressive multi-cultural background, and that is clear in the approach to songs. While she uses traditional song from Palestine, (and Egypt, Turkey, Spain) and sings mostly in Arabic, she often updates them either lyrically or in their musical treatment – her father’s enthusiasm for early Fred Asataire films have led to a major jazz influence in her own work – and she is also happy to introduce western standards. A Palestinian wedding song, and a lullaby from Nazareth, were followed by a song about the 1919 Egyptian revolution – that she paralleled with Tahrir Square.
‘Long live Palestine! Long Live Scotland!’ she signed off, after probably the most appropriate Burns song for this internationalist night – The Slave’s Lament driving right to the heart of colonial culpability.
Celtic Connections is on in Glasgow until 31 January.
Chris Bartter is a Glasgow-based writer and cultural activist, blogging at captaingrumping.blogspot.co.uk. Chris was the Communications Officer at UNISON Scotland for 20 years.