Away this week from my usual London habitat, I have instead been (re)visiting the ‘ancestral homeland’ of the Isle of Islay in the Hebrides. To my resting urban ears, listening to the waves and the seabirds has been music enough, but still as always I am curious about what’s happening musically.
Well, yes there are bagpipes in the form of the the Islay Pipe Band, an earlier incarnation of which my father played in before he left the island. He bequeathed to me his chanter, but I have never yet learnt to play the highland bagpipes – still time, still time. By the way, does anyone remember Acid Folk by Perplexer, mid-1990s slice of bagpipe sampling techno? I remember dancing to it at a party at Taco Joe’s in Brixton. But I digress.
We went to a music session at the Lochside Hotel in Bowmore, the main village on Islay. In a bar overlooking Loch Indaal, people turned up with a banjo, accordion, guitar, fiddle and mandolin. There was a really good singer, Norma Munro, with a set including The Gypsy Rover, Yellow’s on the Broom, and inevitably on Islay, Westering Home. This oft-recorded song about returning to the island is probably the best known Islay song, not excepting Donovan’s Isle of Islay, the latter a nice enough song but committing the crime of mispronouncing the island’s name to make it rhyme with ‘play’ – it’s actually pronounced ‘Isla’.
I am always interested in a pub session, it’s a different kind of musicking from the gig format – open in the sense that the line up is fluid depending on who turns up, and the set list is usually not determined in advance. It is performative, but not necessarily dependent on an audience. Every session has its own unwritten rules, and no two sessions are therefore ever the same.
Anyway if you’re ever visit Islay – and I recommend you do – you can check out a session yourself every Wednesday night at the Lochside Hotel.
(Just to be clear though, it's not all folkiness up here - at the fairground it was strictly Euro-bounce-core, while in the swimming pool the lifeguards in control of the sounds put on the rockist breakbeats of Granite by Pendulum).