The teacher told us to shut up and listen, glaring over the top of the electric piano, harpsichord setting, his eyes alive with a total obsessiveness of a man unused to not being listened too. He’d wire into fugues by Bach or variations by Mozart, occasionally adding his own unbearable falsetto voice to the clunky, same-y melodies that we would listen to in stony silence. Then we would be lectured on how one fella in 18th century Germany influenced another in 19th century Austria or vice versa. Variation #12 Opus 32. Music by numbers.
The Gaelic part of the course was equally as tenuous, as if the SQA in all their desire to make Scottish culture as monochrome and one-dimensional as possible, sought to somehow find the relevance of the traditional Puirt à beul (mouth music), or Òrain Luaidh (Waulking Songs) in suburban Edinburgh. Though we were spared the grey days of falsetto-heavy baroque and classical, the historical and cultural significance of Gaelic culture sadly fell on deaf ears. That is until in an act of academic sabotage, our once demur teacher broke rank and put on ‘Chanter’ by Martyn Bennett, and in one moment of glory that only exposure to music can provide, the world of sampling was thrown open to me.
Now, I would be the first to admit that I learned absolutely nothing from Higher Music outside of that fateful day; the intricacies of musical expression and the various Italianate terminologies ironically went in one ear and out the other. I understood nothing with regards to written music, and indeed still don’t. Structures, influences, musical history came across like a sea of white noise. I could play an instrument and I could copy effectively, thus a pass was achieved.
What I do remember is that sample, a couple of minutes of Gaelic culture superimposed onto a dance-infused, hair-raising backing track. A techno drop and a chanter, farting out that familiar sound, but this time with a new relevance. The bagpipe, previous symbol of trad-heavy Caledonia, suddenly sounding like Jimmy Fucking Page. Forgive the hyperbole, but it was like seeing a new world and its history enfold before my eyes. And that history had something to do with me.
Since then, sampling, especially within the world of hip-hop has provided me with a far better point of reference for musical history and influence than a disillusioned teacher with a head full of Bach, clattering away on a piano.
Through sampling, barely credible stories are told, stories that connect 1970s Italian folk rock with Public Enemy. Linking the bow-ties and tailored suits of the Festival di Sanremo to Chuck D in front of the Babylon Turnpike exit on the LA Freeway would seem impossible, but here it is.
It takes Shirley Bassey to give the hippies a bit of an overhaul in order for Public Enemy to come out with ‘Harder Than You Think’, but listen carefully and it’s there.
Classical music in a modern context? Not Higher Music for sure. Look no further than The Streets. For the naysayers of hip-hop to say that modern urban music lacks finesse, grace, history, and whatever other hackneyed trope of condescension, shows a considerable ignorance on their part. This is no bastardisation of classical music, this is classical music in a modern context. If Mozart built on Bach, then why can’t Mike Skinner build on Dvorak?
So on to the tune of the week. A Bollywood sample meets lyrical truths to take urban Scottish social issues head on. Bigg Taj vs Spee Six Nine ‘If You With Me’
We need to educate the younger brain
Fire in the belly feeding on the hunger painBigg Taj vs Spee Six Nine – If You With Me
Once again, it is Scottish hip-hop that picks up the slack left by an education system designed to prioritise obeying conformity over social awareness. This is multi-cultural Scotland mixing seamlessly with the poetic, visceral bars of urban expression. Current affairs are laid bare by a pull-no-punches approach to hypocrisy and misdeeds. Lyrically, it’s beautifully brutal.
Selling weapons to fight wars when we can’t eat
Elderly dying of pneumonia, they can’t afford heatBigg Taj vs Spee Six Nine – If You With Me
However when listening to it, I did think about the Òrain Luaidh, or the Waulking Songs of Gaelic tradition. Borne out of adversity, as a moment to alleviate the boredom and hardship of hand-processing wool in a culture that has spent the last 300 years (and arguably more) at the sharp end of institutional imperialism and oppression.
Chuir iad thusa Ghleann Gèige
A bhuachailleachd sprèidhe
Agus mis’ a Dhun Èideann
A dh’ionnsachadh BeurlaThey sent you to the Glen of the Branches to herd cattle,
Agus Fraingis is Grèigis
And me to Edinburgh to learn English, French and Greek.
Gura Mis’ Tha Fo Èislean (I am full of grief), is a tune about the day to day travails of people. It’s not a Mozart variation played to pampered princes in a Viennese palace, but rather a story of love and change in a rigid society in which leaving home and learning English stands in the way of human feeling, rhythmically beaten out on hard tables by even hardier women.
Suddenly, for me, the whole progression of music, lyrics, and beats comes together to connect the voices of those women with the issues of modern Scotland in ‘If You With Me’. Both tunes get to the core of what human expression represents when faced with adversity; hard truth.
We teach our seed we get power using violence
If we speak up we’re getting bullied into silenceBig Tajj vs Spee Six Nine – If You With Me
A divided group of individuals is exactly what our society promotes for the serried ranks of individually-thinking children that grow up to become individually-thinking adults. Teaching arbitrary concepts in musical education keeps everything divided, it keeps us from seeing the full picture, the cultural richness that connects the excesses of Mozart’s audience with the spartan surroundings of the waulkers.
‘If You With Me’ builds on this; the sampling of a Tamil Bollywood throwback flying the flag for new Scottish culture, the unambiguous lyrics of Scotland’s social issues, and the irresistible beat, mashing it aw th’gither. So, like all those years ago, Scotland’s musical map unfolds. The styles are different sure, but the narrative is similar. Scottish musical culture transcends language and history, from Hebridean Gaelic to Indian rhythms, through to the frank wordsmithery of Spee Six Nine. This is, for me, a fuller picture of contemporary Scotland.
This is Scottish musical education.
Support independent music and get the music on Bandcamp here.
If you want me to write about your tune, please get in touch here.