From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music

Kerry Dexter's picture

By ones and twos, the pipers of Tryst stepped out as they played their pipes, walking up an almost deserted Buchanan Street in Glasgow city centre to enter the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

They  were playing In Praise of the Pioneers, a well-chosen selection.

Theirs were the first notes to be heard as Celtic Connections became, for this year of unusual circumstances, a digital first festival. As you are reading this, you will want to know that the festival continues through early February, and that tickets are still available. There's more about this at the end of this story, and you can check the Celtic Connections website also.

Awaiting Tryst in the concert hall were members of the Celtic Connections 2021 Big Band, a specially assembled group of Scotland's top players. They'd reappear through the concert. They greeted the pipers with a three tune set comprising Beck's Verandah, Mackerel & Tatties, and Roddy MacDonald's Fancy.

The riches of Scotland's singer songwriter community came up next, along with a nod to Robert Burns. Karine Polwart explained that her song of welcome and hospitality, Come Away In, was inspired by a Burns song. As she sang, Aaron Jones, Eddi Reader, Siobhan Miller, Rab Noakes, Findlay Napier, and Dave Milligan sat in the round and joined in with voice and instruments, from Glasgow's City Chambers.

Karine Polwart. Photo: Reid Ingram Weir. From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music
Karine Polwart. Photo: Reid Ingram Weir

The Big Band, whose members include fiddlers Patsy Reid, Graham Mackenzie, Laura Wilkie, and Hannah Fisher, along with Anna Massie and Sorren MacLean on guitar, were back with the tune Hope, which was written by band member and bassist Duncan Lyall.


That was a theme which ran through that opening concert, and at this writing, is proving one of the unifying threads through the concerts and workshops as the festival's first week has unfolded.

One that first night, fiddle player and composer Duncan Chisholm, who also played at the first Celtic Connections in 1994, offered the tune A Precious Place from Kelvingrove Art Gallery as part of the opening concert.

As international artists have always been part of Celtic Connections, so too they are present in this online edition. That presence was well represented on opening night as well: Xabier Diaz with Adufeiras De Salitre offered a fast-paced set from northern Spain. Festival favourites Le Vent du Nord sent in greetings in French and English from Quebec, along with the song Adieu du Village, while Sona Jobarteh from Gambia added her intense vocals and creative work on the kora to the evening.

The range of music that fits into the traditions of Scotland filled out the opening concert, with Scots song from Fiona Hunter, high energy takes on trad from Elephant Sessions, and Imar,  a choir of Gaelic singers including Ceitlin Smith, Calum Alex Macmillan, James Graham, Eilidh Cormack, Mairi MacLennan, Mischa MacPherson on the song Faili Faili, and creative chamber folk from the five women who comprise the Kinnaris Quintet.

The Celtic Connections Big Band returned as well, with the Armenian piece Shaloka.

Karen Matheson stood (properly distanced) in the midst of the band to offer the Gaelic song O Nach Eiśdeadh. In a nod to the late Martyn Bennett, the groundbreaking fusion composer whose music inspired the the first Celtic Connections Big Band project several years ago, the band played Bennett's tune Karabach to bring the opening concert to a close.

Karen Matheson and the Celtic Connections Big Band. Photo: Gaelle Beri. From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music
Karen Matheson and her band. Photo: Gaelle Beri

The festival has continued in fine fashion, and there is more to come.

Several highlights of what else has occurred thus far in the first days of Celtic Connections 2021:

Duncan Chisholm, along with musical friends Innes Watson, Hamish Napier, Jarlath Henderson, and the string players of The Scottish Ensemble, offered music that was by turns reflective and fast-paced. In a conversation with musician and broadcaster Joy Dunlop, Chisholm also offered thoughtful perspectives on creativity, tradition, and innovation.

Chris Stout and Catriona McKay shared new music for fiddle and harp with a dramatic backdrop of seascape images filmed by Sorley MacDonald.

Chris Stout and Catriona McKay. Photo: Gaelle Beri. From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music
Chris Stout and Catriona McKay. Photo: Gaelle Beri

Image came into the mix as part the set by Breabach, too. In their set, the band shared favourites from their creative uniting of Highland and Island traditions along with music from Dùsgadh, a newly commissioned film with original score in collaboration with animator Cat Bruce.

In the round, singers and songwriters Karine Polwart,  Eddi Reader, Siobhan Miller, Rab Noakes, and Findlay Napier, with Aaron Jones and Dave Milligan, offered songs and stories.

Josie Duncan, known for music in Gaelic, used her New Voices commission to explore creating original songs in English. Paul McKenna shared passionate songs of social justice, as well as songs from Irish tradition. Bassekou Kouyate and his wife Amy shared a set shared a set of music and song filmed on the roof of their home in Mali, featuring Amy's powerful voice and Bassekou's intricate playing on the ngoni, a stringed instrurment he calls the father of the banjo. 

Paul McKenna Band. Photo: Gaelle Beri. From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music
Paul McKenna Band. Photo: Gaelle Beri

Karen Matheson, known for her work as the lead voice of the band Capercaillie, brought Gaelic and English song back to the mix with songs from her forthcoming solo album Still Time.

Karen Matheson. Photo: Gaelle Beri. From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music
Karen Matheson. Photo: Gaelle Beri

Quite a bit more has taken place (though, you can still get tickets; see above) and there's more to come.

There are also ways you can get a taste of Celtic Connections on the radio, as Celtic Music Radio is broadcasting the popular-in-real-llfe Danny Kyle Open Stage, where rising stars of tradition and innovation appear. BBC Radio Scotland will be offering a Burns Day Program from Celtic Connections featuring the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with songs from Karen Matheson, Robyn Stapleton, and Eddi Reader. There's no cost for these; Celtic Connections also offers programs for children and several other concerts at no cost: check their website for details on this.

Karen Matheson. Photo: Kerry Dexter. From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music
Karen Matheson. Photo: Kerry Dexter

Tickets are still available, both all access passes and tickets to individual concerts. There are individually ticketed workshops as well, and there are a several no charge events, including ones for small children. Celtic Connections runs through 2 February, with each concert available for viewing for seven days after first broadcast.

Celtic Connections is delivered by the charity Glasgow Life and is funded by Glasgow City Council, Creative Scotland, and The Scottish Government Festivals EXPO Fund.

"The resounding feeling that has come out of the recording days is a space for musicians to come back, to play again, to feel part of the community that they helped to create," says festival creative producer Donald Shaw. "We feel incredibly proud that as a festival, along with our funding partners, we have allowed for this safe space for them to play again, embrace their creativity and ultimately give them hope that there is a future for them within this industry."

Donald Shaw. Photo: Kerry Dexter. From Glasgow, Virtually: Celtic Connections Celebrates Hope and Music
Donald Shaw. Photo: Kerry Dexter

It comes back to hope, shared in music.




Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site, Music Road.