The Isle is full of noises...
Music and creativity on the Isles of Scilly
10 years ago… I am at a gig that will turn out to be one of the most important of my life, sitting, spellbound, in the audience at Old Town Inn on St Mary’s. I have only just learnt to call them ‘gigs’ rather than ‘concerts’ having grown up on a geeky playing and listening diet of almost exclusively classical repertoire.
I had barely picked up an instrument since leaving college: the intense effort in attempting to master the demands of those classical pieces as a young musician had left me more than a little disillusioned. The beautiful, if temperamental, oboe which I had done battle with over the years had been passed on to a younger player. Instead I had moved to Scilly with my wife and was slowly becoming a different person - one who went out in the dark to catch Conger Eels with a long line and a torch; one who was obsessed with the weekly ritual of gig rowing; and one who was struggling to master the portfolio of skills required to qualify as an ‘island man’ - emergency-plumbing/tractor-driving/shed-filling/etc.
But it was as if I had forgotten to pack a bit of myself when we filled that big blue Pickford’s container and set off for island life. I wasn’t becoming an ‘island man’ as fast as I wanted. (I have still never learnt how to drive a tractor - though my shed is pretty full now, and I have a beard). The growing realisation of this 'shortcoming' was tough to take at times. At low ebb, on a whim, I had recently ordered an alto saxophone and a penny whistle - my subconscious seemed to have worked out exactly what had been missing in my island world, even if I was oblivious. So Dalla arrived into my life on that evening in the Old Town Inn at the perfect moment.
The music I hear that night blows me away. Something in it shouts to me of Cornwall - of cliffs and granite and rock and sea and gorse and wind. Something in the powerful rhythms and (to me) exotic modes; something in the instrumentation; and of course the sound of the Cornish language. I learn a new word: ‘Macaronic’ - where two languages are employed simultaneously, the original and the translation co-existing in the same lyrics. The two female vocalists, Bec and Hilary, intertwine in music like the old friends they are, harmonising the stories of their home: knowingly coy love stories from Redruth of all places, work songs of the Bal Maidens (female mine workers) and homesick laments for the Cornish diaspora. There is the sense in which the band have been willing to roll up their sleeves in the search for fragments of Cornishness - creating rich musical narratives from carefully researched snippets of local material. They have believed in, and insisted upon, the authenticity of every morsel they have mined from the cultural archives of a Celtic nation. When they've needed the sound of rocks to punctuate the Bal Maidens' Chant, they've recorded themselves throwing beach granite around; a tune called King Harry’s Ferry absolutely demanded a trip to the Truro river to record the clanking sound of the actual ferry. I find the uncompromising nature of this quest to set Cornwall to music completely compelling.
The instrumental playing is genuinely world class - Neil Davey - one of four brothers who did so much to revive and rescue the traditional Celtic music of Cornwall - is breathtaking on mandolin, bouzouki and fiddle, driving the dance tunes with relentless spinning energy and bullet accuracy. Stephen Hunt, a man so steeped in music that he laughs in semiquavers, holds everything together, like dark energy, on guitar. (Over the years, the personnel changes: Steve leaves; Jen Dyer and Kyt le Nen Davey - Neil’s brother - join, but the passion for Cornish music remains.) At the end of the gig, I walk out into the night sky in old Town with my brain and feet reeling and a quest of my own forming…
As I look back, I am aware that the gig can’t have been THAT great. Knowing what I know now, the PA the band were having to use was decidedly cheap and cheerful. There was no sound engineer, if I remember rightly, and the venue is not exactly the easiest to perform in. Nonetheless, an impression was made in my identity-hungry psyche and Dalla became my role model for the art of distilling the essence of place in music. I came away from that gig with the strongly-felt need to investigate and create a music of Scilly.
A few weeks later, still, inspired by that gig, I write the first of what became a whole set of Conger Reels (when you’ve stumbled upon such a profoundly witty name for a tune, you need to fill your boots...).
Wind forward five years or so and music is once again a central part of my life. Writing, recording and playing music have helped me to become the ‘island man’ I always was on some level, contributing to life on Scilly in a way that suits me. Strangely, I am at yet another Dalla gig: this time they are launching their new album at the extraordinary Minack theatre, high on the cliff, where the spray is being blown off the sea by a gale as the dark drops and the audience shelters under oilskins. Nothing could be more Cornish. And yet, at the very core of this album, is the unmistakable presence of Scilly. Over the years, Dalla’s regular visits to the islands as artists-in-residence at the Scilly Folk Festival have led to a deep love and understanding for the place. The album they are launching tonight - K5 - is their tribute to Scilly and their lasting contribution to the quest for a Scillonian music. (As for the name: it is their fifth album and features a decent percentage of tunes in 5/4 - a rhythm that can be traced back to some very early Cornish tunes, and one which has a distinct springy dynamism to it. Is there also a sly reference to the five islands of Scilly?)
Many of the original tunes on K5 have a Scillonian origin. Old Town Inn is a fitting reference to the place where it all began for me, part of a set of 5/4 dance tunes (Kabm Pymps - K5 - in Cornish) named after the legend of Lyonnesse, when the sea is supposed to have swallowed up the land between Cornwall and Scilly. Bryony’s Breakfast - a polka - is a joyous celebration of the cooked breakfasts at Mincarlo on St Mary’s, where the band stays when on the islands. This is more than a musical tribute to a great guest house (though it is that of course) - it seems to stand for and encapsulate that sense of belonging and welcome which anyone who visits Scilly repeatedly will recognise. The centrepiece of the album is a song - Granite is the Hardest Stone - an absolutely chilling re-telling of the night in 1707 when HMS Association was wrecked, along with three other ships, on the Western Rocks with the loss of nearly 2000 lives. The track was written on Scilly by Chris Lethbridge (more on him in a future blog) and clearly demonstrates his knack of writing contemporary timeless Scillonian ballads.
The final track on the album is called Rowing Out - a wistful little tune in 5/4, inspired by the rhythms of gig rowing on Scilly. It’s one of my tunes - growing out of my years rowing stroke (now retired) in the St Agnes gig Shah where, bizarrely, that sense of five beats in a bar always seemed to mirror most accurately the rhythm of rowing. Perhaps the whole of life southwest of the Tamar is in 5/4...
So here I am, on stage, playing my tune, with Dalla, at the Minack. It’s as if a young star-struck guitarist, keen to emulate his heroes, has been invited up to jam with Hendrix and Clapton at the Isle of Wight Festival. Only much cooler... It feels somehow that the music of Scilly has taken a step forward with the release of K5 - as if the place itself, its people, and its power to inspire have been given an important endorsement.
There is a slightly nostalgic end to this story: in 2017, Dalla played their last gig together, having raised considerably the international profile of Cornish music and having given us an important legacy of recorded music, including those precious tracks inspired by Scilly. As individual musicians, and in different combinations, they are still urgently researching and making the music of Cornwall, but I can’t quite believe they won’t be playing together on Scilly again…
K5 CD is available from Trevada Music
Download from Kesson
The incredible K5 album cover sand art is by Tony Plant. Photo by Mike Newman.
Author - Piers Lewin
I am a musician and writer living on the Isles of Scilly. These articles and posts explore music, poetry and creativity inspired by the landscape and culture of the islands.