Another in a series of features about BCMFest 2016 that will be appearing in this blog right up until the festival (January 8 and 9), so as to better acquaint you with the events, activities and personalities that make up BCMFest. In this installment, Neil Pearlman talks about the Saturday evening Nightcap concert, “Changing Currents: The New Wave of Celtic Music in Boston,” that will be led by his band Alba’s Edge and features a host of special guests including Ed Pearlman, Laura Scott, Elias Alexander, Bridget Fitzgerald, Joey Abarta, Kevin Doyle, Matt Heaton, Shannon Heaton, Gordon Aucoin, Terry Traub and Katie McNally, with host WGBH-FM’s Brian O’Donovan.
Q: The Nightcap concert theme has to do with Celtic music’s journey to America, and Boston in particular. We know about Boston’s reputation as a hotbed for Irish tradition, but it’s also been quite the hub for Scottish and Cape Breton music and dance, right?
Neil: That’s right — Boston is one of the closest major cities to Cape Breton Island, so there has long been a strong connection between the two. People have moved back and forth quite a bit, coming here for jobs or moving back to Cape Breton to reconnect to their family roots. There is a strong Cape Breton community in Boston and many of Cape Breton’s most famous fiddlers have strong connections to Boston — Jerry Holland was born in Boston and fiddlers like Joe Cormier and Bill Lamey have lived here for large parts of their lives.
There’s also quite a strong community of Scottish traditional musicians and dancers in Boston, which is where my family ties are strongest. The Boston Scottish Fiddle Club was started by my father, Ed Pearlman, and it has been integral in fostering a community interest in Scottish traditions for many years. Boston also has one of the strongest and most active branches of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. In addition to these older organizations there is a vibrant community of young musicians who are eager to put their own personal stamp on the Scottish tradition. This coexistence of the older traditions with a vibrant younger generation is a big part of what this year’s Nightcap concert is about.
Q: Is there an example or two of how a tune or song from Scotland traveled to Boston or the US and, over time, took on a character all its own?
Neil: You can find examples of this kind of thing all the time, and not only with tunes making the journey but also with songs and tunes being born from the journey itself. There is an entire repertoire of Gaelic songs that deal with the experience of displacement and immigration. But in terms of a tune originating in Scotland, traveling and changing, one of my favorite examples is “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay.” It’s a classic old Scottish tune and a different version of the same tune is also played in the Irish repertoire with the key changed and the parts in a different order. It came to the US and made its way into the Appalachian fiddling repertoire in a form that mixes the Scottish and Irish versions and in fact it also went to Quebec where they have their own completely distinct version.
It’s amazing what happens as music travels with people and changes as they change, bringing their own experiences and personalities to it. And at the Nightcap concert you’ll have a chance to hear some great examples of Celtic tradition being re-imagined in America by musicians and dancers who are active right now.
Q: Your band Alba’s Edge incorporates some elements of jazz. Do you see some common threads between jazz and Celtic music, or are they really radically different?
Neil: For me it’s not really a question of what comparing distinct genres. I consider myself to be a Scottish and Cape Breton musician but jazz was an important part of my musical upbringing, so when I’m playing honestly and from the heart that sound is also present. Since it comes directly out of my own musical development it feels very organic. Traditional music from around the world has always adapted and incorporated sounds from the current cultural environment and the musicians who were playing it at the time. The Scottish fiddle music from the 19th century has a lot more flowery and classically influenced edges to it than the tunes of the early 18th century. The Cape Breton piano tradition started picking up boogie-woogie bass lines in the 1950s. In my view, the music Alba’s Edge is making is just another example of this. My sister Lilly and I grew up in a family steeped in Scottish and Cape Breton traditions so when we write or play music it comes from that place. But we also grew up surrounded by the cultural melting pot here in the US so our music inevitably comes from that as well.
Q: You grew up in a household of music and dance. In what ways do you think your family has influenced your musical development?
Neil: My family has always been and continues to be central in my musical development. In fact, I could probably trace nearly every aspect of my musical development back to my family in some way. Seeing my parents provide for our family while staying true to their art was huge for me because it showed me from a young age that being a professional musician is a valid career path that’s actually practical and attainable. They were very hands-on without being pressuring, so I always wanted to be involved in music and dance because it was so much fun and because I would be missing out otherwise — never because my parents were forcing me. Along with my siblings we started performing as a family band when I was about 13, so I grew up very comfortable being on stage, and mom and dad were always supportive of all our ideas and creative endeavors. They worked hard to foster our natural curiosity and that has affected my development in so many ways. Musically, it has resulted in my continuing interest in discovering new kinds of music and new sounds, which is really what Alba’s Edge comes out of. Many aspiring musicians don’t have the opportunity to grow up in that kind of environment and I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for that.