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Mary Jane Lamond - Cape Breton's Reluctant Gaelic Diva
By Christina Roden (1998)

Mary Jane Lamond has attracted a lot of attention for a self-effacing, somewhat austere young woman who sings in self-taught Scots Gaelic. Her first album, "Bho Thir Nan Craobh (From The Land Of The Trees)" featured an unknown young Cape Breton fiddler named Ashley MacIsaac. Her vocals on his frenetic, cutting-edge version of "Sleepy Maggie" caught the attention of Paddy Moloney, bandleader of The Chieftains. Lamond's new album is Suas E! (Wicklow Records), pronounced 'su-ess-ay' which means roughly "Go For It!." Americans who previously had only the foggiest notion about music trends in Canada are mightily intrigued by Lamond's fresh and womanly voice, and her authentic yet contemporary rendering of the tradition she represents.

Lamond is descended from a wave of Scottish settlers that immigrated to Canada during the early 1800s. Speaking by phone from her home on the island of Cape Breton, she recalls, "I'm a fifth generation Canadian. Tens of thousands of Scots came to this part of the world in a very short period of time. That's why we still have Gaelic speakers." She found the linguistic inspiration for her music during summer visits to her Gaelic-speaking grandparents on Cape Breton, which was her spiritual home long before she moved there as an adult. "That was my exposure to the language and culture. The music happened much later." She doesn't think that race memory was much of a factor. "You feel a certain attachment to your ancestors." she muses, "Roots and ethnic music come from cultures that aren't necessarily materially rich. It's the most basic response to our environment and to our lives, but people are attracted to all kinds of music."

Despite her early exposure to the language, it was not easy learning to speak Gaelic. She taught herself at first but eventually earned a degree in Celtic Studies. "I knew a few phrases. I learned a couple of Gaelic songs phonetically. The grammar is completely different than English. I wouldn't say that I've learned the language completely, though, that's a life-long project." She chose to dedicate herself to the Scottish tradition of Cape Breton. "There were some Irish immigrants as well, but it's not a big part of the culture here." she comments, "I'm specifically interested in the music of this area, Cape Breton Scottish-Gaelic tradition. I love this singing, how it sounds at traditional gatherings, the power of the music!"

Lamond's deep love of Cape Breton seems to stem partly from a desire for solitude and study and partly from a distaste for the music business. "I thought a long time about whether I was even going to make this record", she begins hesitantly, "I toured with Ashley MacIsaac - that was an experience - but I was unsure about if I wanted it as my lifestyle. I enjoyed my academic foray, doing the degree, the work-out it gave my brain. The music business tends not to be very intellectually stimulating!" Once she began to think about the record the ideas gradually began to flow. However, she is fiercely protective of her heritage and is worried that her championing of it may ultimately dilute and weaken it for future generations. "I had the advantage of learning from a real tradition . I struggled with whether I should make a record because I feel that people are often, probably unintentionally, quite exploitive of traditional cultures. I had to find a way to give credit to the tradition yet to move ahead in a modern way."

Her formula for choosing and arranging her material is simple, painstaking and often torturously slow. "First of all, the songs have to rule." Lamond says firmly, "They have a life of their own, they are a hundred to several hundred years old. It's not my place to manipulate them. I let them have their own voice. What I tried to achieve was to accompany these songs so that, if you took away all of the accompaniment, you'd still have a good rendition of a traditional Gaelic song. Dynamics don't play a part in traditional Gaelic singing at all, but I use dynamics because, as a modern person who grew up listening to all kind all kinds of music, that's what I bring to it. I try to avoid harmonies except in "puirt-á-beul (mouth music - unaccompanied acoustic vocal dance music)" songs. I have fun with those, but Cape Breton music is almost all unison. I try to sing the songs as traditionally as possible and still create an interesting soundscape behind them. I don't know how successful I am, either." She sighs. "I hate to listen to myself!"

Lamond has performed in Scotland and is intrigued by the stylistic differences she encountered. Referring to native-born Scottish singers, Lamond says, " There are a lot of fine Scottish Gaelic singers. I would describe Cape Breton singers as being closer to the floor, earthier and not so ethereal. In our style, the rhythm is in everything, even the slower songs." To make her point, she sings two treatments of the same tune. The Scots Gaelic version is airy and winding, and had something in common with Irish Sean Nos; while the Cape Breton style indeed features an intensely marked rhythm and a more direct presentation. There are noticeable differences in pitch as well. "I find that many Scottish Gaelic singers - not all of them - tend to sing higher," she says. In any case, the current crop of over-produced, wispy and effete "Celtic" releases are not to her taste. "It's very romantic, but that kind of romanticism isn't really reflected in the music," she comments dryly.

While she is pleased that far-flung Celtic civilizations, including those of Galicia, Brittany and Cape Breton, are finally receiving their due, Lamond remains wary. "Hopefully, their due won't be their death! We have to move into the twentieth century, but we have to be careful how we do it. These cultures are not a limitless resource. If you do forestry, you wouldn't cut down every tree and not replant a single one. With our cultures, we have to be careful that we don't exploit them endlessly without putting anything back in. Meaning that, in order for this or any tradition to continue, young people have to be learning it. So many of the people I learned songs from for the first album have passed away. There's a great deal of attrition."

Her tour of America was an eye-opener. "The US was very interesting," she says. "I was doing more concerts in smaller communities. So many people thanked me for coming! The audience at the Bottom Line in New York was a real listening audience! I had no idea about National Public Radio. I felt really proud that people were choosing to play my record. We Canadians in Nova Scotia take our culture for granted. We have such a lot of Celtic music that you feel like the audiences are saying 'show me!'."

Lamond's next project is slowly materializing. "I'm at the very beginning, making baby steps toward a new record. This whole career just happened to me, it wasn't one that I chose. In some ways, it's kind of a sin, because there's lots of people out there who would love to be doing what I'm doing, full time. I have days where I feel like I haven't got a single idea in my head! I have some songs, though, we'll see what comes out of it."
- Christina Roden

This interview was originally written in 1998.

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