Paul Mounsey, City of Walls (Iona Records, 2003)
I lack the depth of exposure needed to truly appreciate the variety of musical genres and styles Paul Mounsey draws on, but I definitely know City of Walls is a great album. It's Mounsey's fourth. You may know his work from the three Nahoo albums, Nahoo, NahooToo, and Nahoo3: Notes from the Republic, all previously reviewed at Green Man Review [...nahoo.html] . In the past, critics have used terms like "techno," and "ethnic groove" to describe Mounsey's work. In City of Walls, Mounsey draws, very definitely and obviously on his Celtic roots as a native of Ayrshire, but he also draws on the music traditions of Brazil, his current home.
The first track, "City of Walls" is an instrumental that opens with a short trumpet phrase from Daniel Alcantara that, until I checked the liner booklet, I thought was a carnyx (a long Celtic trumpet made of beaten bronze, held vertically so the sound travelsfrom more than 3 metres above the ground). The initial phrase is followed by a more traditional, mellow jazz style trumpet, then joined by Moxe Ribeiro on shakers, and Teco Cardoso on soprano sax. The effect is pleasant, and the interweaving of the instruments is interesting. The next track, "Since..." is the one that first made me sit up and take notice. Mounsey has sampled well-known traditional Gaelic singer Flora MacNeil singing a fragment of a Gaelic waulking song. Around and behind the song he uses wooden flutes played by Carodoso, and Mounsey's own keyboard and programming, adding what I hesitate to call synthesized sounds and instrument loops, though they are definitely digital. The percussive, rhythmic instrumentation fits well with MacNeil's Gaelic, creating a new, and enjoyable, take on a very traditional form.
"Dunfermline" has a lovely melodic line derived from "Dunfermline" in the Scottish Psalter of 1615, a tune that is the basis for a number of hymns. Here it is carried by the violas and violins of Marcello Jaffe and Betina Stegmann, who then pass the melody on to Teco Cardoso's flutes. Cardoso plays Norwegian wooden flutes, and an indigenous flute of Brazil. The percussion supports the melodic line, and the track concludes with a sample of a Brazilian conga line. There's a particularly Scottish quality to the percussion, though I can't precisely put my finger on it.
"Heaven's Full," is inspired by the pleni sunt caeli segment of the "Sanctus" from Robert Carver's Mass for 6 Voices. Mounsey has converted this fragment from a sixteenth century piece for six voices, to a polyphony using violins, sax, and electric guitar. Mounsey has so successfully made this fragment a new piece that it took me three or four hearings to figure out exactly why "Heaven's Full" was so evocative and familiar, though the title translation of pleni sunt caeli should have provided a hint.
"Work Song" uses the voices of Mary Jane Lamond, Janet Buchanan, Michelle Smith, Bonnie Thompson, though it's based on a sampled and manipulated fragment of another Gaelic waulking song "Domhnaill Antaidh" from the album Bho Thir Nan Craobh, sung by Mary Jane Lamond. Again, Mounsey has created a complex sound tapestry, using violins in a descant of sort around the base melody, and percussion that emphasizes the repetitive work rhythms that typify waulking songs.
"Billy's Birl"is built on the tune of "The Rakes of Kildare." "Birl" is eighteenth century Scots for "To revolve or rotate rapidly and with characteristic noise," likely, etymologically speaking, a blend of "birr" and "whirl." Once the violins enter, you can spot the "Rakes of Kildare," though with a very different rhythm than usual; birl is the perfect word for this skirling, swirling ensemble of shakers, soprano sax, violins and flute, backed by the insistently percussive keyboards. Even I, who could make a fortune by threatening to dance unless paid, want to dance to this.
Perhaps my favorite of the fourteen tracks is "Gad Ionndrainn." Mounsey uses his sample of the marvelous voice of Gaelic singer Anna Murray from her album Into Indigo, singing a fragment of Willie Campbell's "Gad Ionndrainn." This time, in addition to the melodic violins of Stegmann and Jaffe; and what I think is a delicately sampled flute, Mounsey draws on the talents of Moxe Ribeiro (who uses the shakers and a variety of exotic percussion), guitarist Lollo Andersson, and the work of Gota Yashiki on something called a "groove activator." I can't be sure but I think it's a digitally sampled drum loop. It definitely sounds way cool. The instrumentation weaving around the sampled voice; sampled in such a way that it creates a different and striking instrument, very effectively makes a familiar song in an ancient language sound completely new.
Mounsey also uses sampled songs, and fragments of tunes, to good effect in "A Ferro e Fogo" (which he describes as being "littered with traditional Portuguese tunes"). Cardoso's flute is particularly effective in its conversation with Alexandre Mihanovich's acoustic guitar. I also like the inclusion of the Galician "Xota de Pontevedra" fragment, a traditional bagpipe tune from another group of Celtic descendants. "Nothing to lose" is built around a core sample of puirt-a-beul by Mairi MacInnes, from "Puirt-a-beul" on her album Causeway. "Nothing to Lose" is the most "techno" of the tracks, to my mind; it includes samples of dogs barking, spoken voice, and a gorgeous violin solo from Betina Stegmann playing a tune that I'm convinced I know, but can't place, perhaps inspired by the sample from The Best of Ossian that Mounsey cites in his credits. "A Child" is another masterpiece, built around a core sample, this time of a song in Arabic. It opens with Oumayma El-Khalil singing a solo in Arabic, accompanied by what I thought was flute, though the credits list Teco Cardoso on soprano saxaphone, and Marcelo Jaffe on viola. The instruments make El-Khalil 's lovely voice even more evocative as they echo some of her tonal qualities. "Taking Back the Land" begins with a riff off of the familiar John MacLean march with completely different instrumentation, a different rhythm, and with musicians who are clearly thoroughly enjoying themselves. The final tune, "Annie" (by Ronnie Lane) is the slowest paced track on the disc, but even it suggests dance, though it's not the same instrumentation as Lane & Pete Townshend's Rough Mix version.
Often, when people learn that I like traditional Celtic music, they think I mean Enya, or recent Clannad, or similar New Age Celtic inspired music. I used to try to explain that these were the modern descendents, but after hearing City of Walls, I think rather that Mounsey has truly created new wine in old bottles.
[Lisa L. Sapngenberg]