sun 18/08/2019

theartsdesk Q&A: Robert MacFarlane's Spell Songs | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Robert MacFarlane's Spell Songs

theartsdesk Q&A: Robert MacFarlane's Spell Songs

The nature writer discusses a stage version of The Lost Words, featuring musicians including Julie Fowlis and Seckou Keita

THE MUSICANS
Spell Songs: the cast

Senegalese kora player SECKOU KEITA on the making of Spell Songs

What route did you take from The Lost Words to Spell Songs – from original concept to the music that came out of it?

SECKOU KEITA: I opened the book and reacted to what I read. For example, there is a poem called ‘Heron’ in the book. Herons are very common back in Senegal. We have brown and white herons who are commonly seen standing on the backs of cows as they graze. We have a saying in Mandinka which goes, ‘If you see a heron sitting on top of a donkey, then the cow is missing’. So I sang this line over the top of the melody, which was created out of the swinging motion of the cow as it walks; the rhythm mimics the action of the bird marching on top of the cow.

What is the story and the process behind the songs/tunes you created from The Lost Words?

Some songs began in the same room with all of us together, then at certain points organically we separated and concentrated on different pieces or sections of songs together. We played to each other’s strengths, shared and borrowed from each other. I found I was playing tunes in an ancient traditional style, a style of playing I haven’t used in a long time.

You need to dig to find the old words. Names for everyday objects are also getting replaced by something more generic, a bit like when the British use the word ‘thingy’

As a Senegalese artist, what are the 'lost words' from your own culture and natural worlds? Or are these things shared worldwide?

I told Julie Fowlis about a saying we have in Mandinka: “If you call yesterday today it won’t answer.” i.e. if you try to summon up the past it won’t answer. Julie responded with a Gaelic saying which was very similar: “Something your eye doesn’t see your heart won’t feel.” What we are saying is a lot of words have changed direction with the new generation. Old words get buried, or local words get replaced by new colonial or even global terms. You need to dig to find the old words. Names for everyday objects are also getting replaced by something more generic, a bit like when the British use the word ‘thingy’. In Gambian Wolof we say ‘lifin be’, in Mandinka we say ‘funco’ or ‘en daï’ in the diola language. If you use these words repeatedly in front of a child to refer to something eventually that’s what they start to use themselves. A kora becomes a ‘thingy’.

 

Gaelic singer JULIE FOWLIS on the making of Spell Songs

As a musician and singer, what route did you take from The Lost Words to Spell Songs – from original concept to the music that came out of it?

JULIE FOWLIS: The message resonates with me strongly. As a group we all ‘clicked’ and worked well together from the very start, keeping Robert and Jackie’s work at the heart of everything we were doing. Robert’s words form the backbone of the song lyrics and spoken word pieces, and it was a gift for us musicians to have Jackie working with us as the early musical ideas were being born. Her energy and talent was such an inspiration during our writing residency.

During the residency I felt like I discovered so many things in the paintings and in the poems that were new

What 'lost words' grabbed you the most, in terms of making music from them?

I was immediately drawn to Lark, Heather and one of Robert’s new poems “Grey-Seal” which is a heart-breaking selkie “summoning spell”. Robert had a few poems in mind for certain characters in the group and he asked me to consider creating something around the selkie spell, which I did. Both Robert’s words and Jackie’s images are incredible – I have read and re-read that book with my children for over a year now and I thought I really knew it, but during the residency I felt like I discovered so many things in the paintings and in the poems that were new.

As a Scots artist, what are the 'lost words' from your own culture and natural worlds? Or are these things shared worldwide?

I think the idea of losing words and language, and all the deep cultural knowledge that goes along with that, is something that feels very real for us. The constant threat from a dominant language, and the silent loss of words and knowledge which changes the very way we know and name ourselves and the landscape around us.

Spell Songs is on tour from 8 February at Snape Maltings, then Birmingham Town Hall (9 February), Royal Northern College of Music Manchester (10 February), The Southbank Centre (12 February), the Hay Festival on 29 May and at Folk by the Oak on 14 July. The album Spell Songs is released on 14 July.

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