Please welcome Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach into this very modest hall of fame
Streaming apps purport to offer the music world at your fingertips, but the globalisation of streaming in its current form often leaves behind the specificities of local cultures. To my mind, Scottish folk and traditional music has long stood as an example of this.
Speaking as someone who’s been immersed in traditional music culture since school, I know that it’s a living, self-sustained ecosystem. But it’s one that only exists as such to those who’ve seen it, lived it and grown up with it. Sure, there are small-scale trad radio stations and magazines, but these most often cater to existing listeners rather than new ones.
Those new listeners are missing out on a lot of essential, heartfelt music. This month, I’m going to be recommending the trad fiddle and piano duo Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach. But first, I’d like to talk about St Kilda.
“To behold a boundless ocean in all the wildness of its grandeur, and to stand at the same time on the brink of an immense precipice, against which mountain-like billows exert their whole strength and fury, must strike any new observer with admiration, astonishment and some kind of solicitous awe.” So said the Reverend Kenneth Macaulay of St Kilda, the secluded Outer Hebridean archipelago to the north-west of North Uist, back in 1764. His words carry with them the ideas of isolation and terrifying beauty that were central to the romanticising of St Kilda during the Victorian era. It was the island at the edge of the world, and remains much the same to this day. Now looked after by the National Trust, St Kilda has stayed remote since being abandoned by the 1930s, visited by bold travellers and those who come to look after the sheep during eccentric working holidays.
We speak about St Kilda a lot in our house at the minute. My partner is planning one of those working holidays, after a five-year obsession that started on a literature course about technology and the sublime. The obsession only grew more severe over the pandemic. She’s aware that the St Kilda in her mind is likely a communal fantasy she’s bought into, passed down through the mythic writing of early Highland literature. But there are ways in which that fantasy is no less meaningful than the island itself. And the sheep do need tending to.
The sublime remoteness of St Kilda also inspired Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach on their 2018 release Air Lomall. The pair travelled to the island having been fascinated by the legendary stories of St Kilda for what seemed like all their lives. The record ends with a live set from the church on the island. The pair are instinctive, expressive players. The slow airs and strathspeys (traditional forms of Irish and Scottish music respectively) that they write are often informed by modern jazz-flecked improvisation. Charlie Grey’s gutsy, resonant fiddle playing takes familiar melodies from this shared cultural lineage and makes them contemporary rather than nostalgic.
That you can hear this performance from the edge of the world anywhere you are, at the click of a button, captures what the sublime means to me. I also studied the literature course from which my partner derives her St Kilda obsession, but it was the material on early computers and Charles Babbage’s logarithms that got me, which is probably why I write a column on streaming.
Without that insider knowledge, though, you’re not likely to know much about this album or its subject matter. Like St Kilda, traditional music is often romanticised for its fringe status and ageless grandeur. It’s culturally important enough to be protected. To those in the know, it’s a mythic beast, but you can’t help but feel that everyone should be able to visit.
That’s not to say that traditional music isn’t hardy or forward-thinking. January’s Celtic Connections was an enormous success in its pivot to a fully-online festival, opting for a crowd-funded investment that gave its performers a much better deal than Spotify or Apple Music. Many traditional musicians have had to rely on teaching, bar work and other ventures to support themselves during the downtime from gigging, and it’s the community-focused approach of Bandcamp that’s been the most supportive when compared to other streaming avenues.
Traditional music has survived in harsher conditions, and the community around it will survive this moment too. But it’s easy to wish for a more localised and community-focused model for Spotify that promotes these distinct shared cultures for a new generation. At the moment, that world is only readily accessible to those who are brought up around it.
Air Lomall has had a bit of a boost thanks to a documentary from BBC Alba on the duo’s trips, but I’d especially like to highlight ‘Gathan Grèin’, their first single from their upcoming album Spiorachas. There’s an ineffable beauty to it, one that perhaps has a deeper pull for those who feel far from home at the moment.
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