Folk Radio

A tip for parents with aspirations for their offspring to become leading exponents of the harp – call them Rachel.  Evidence? Both Rachel Newton and Rachel Hair have carved out niches for themselves in this field having been thus-named.

Following very successful studies in Glasgow, the latter is hailed as a specialist in the Celtic Harp, both as a composer and teacher. This is in addition to being a much sought after performer, with touring and appearances throughout the USA, Europe and beyond.  Having released 4 critically acclaimed albums, Sparks sees her record with current musical partner Ron Jappy.

Ron, originally, and still, a fiddle player, and himself a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire, (formally the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama), has toured with the likes of Jamie Smith’s Mabon, Skerryvore, and the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musicians of the Year, Hannah Rarity and Clare Hastings, and is also in great demand, not only as a fiddler, but also as an accomplished guitarist and pianist.

Initially coming together for a two and half week tour of Europe, in September 2017, it is the pairing of Rachel’s clarsach with Ron’s acoustic guitar which delineates the music on this release which features two superb instrumentalists who share a passion for traditional tunes.

Recorded over the winter in Scott Wood’s Oak Ridge Studios in Glasgow, the ten tracks are all instrumental, and also feature Adam Brown’s bodhran playing on three cuts, whilst the aforementioned Scott Wood contributes whistle on one.

Given that both Rachel and Ron both originate from fishing villages rich in musical tradition, Ullapool and Findochty respectively, the emphasis on the traditional, be it Scottish or the wider Celtic diaspora, is unsurprising, and the CD benefits from presenting both traditional tunes and interpretations of the work of others, together with a healthy number of self-penned tracks.

Indeed, there is an obvious return to roots, with both the sound and repertoire presented here being much more traditional than on her most recent releases.  Whilst this might be interpreted as a “back to basics” there is certainly nothing basic about the quality of musicianship on offer.

The cascading notes of the delightfully jaunty opening set of jigs, Mera’s, comprising  Grainne Brady’s by the late Frazer Shaw, with Rachel’s own The Namesake, a tune for Jennifer Aniston, no less, and Mera’s Delight, a celebration of her harp student Mera  Royale winning the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2018,  provide for a very strong opening to the collection.

Further Traditional Scottish tunes are presented by way of the Redford Cottage set, in which Pipe Major William Sinclair Senior’s rousing 6/8 pipe march is followed by two strathspeys in the puirt à beul (tunes from the mouth) style, Dhannsadh Gun Dannsadh & ‘S Toigh Fhin Buntata ‘S Im, together with the Black Hair’d Lad set of reels, the latter also benefiting from Adam’s rhythmic bodhran.

A pair of self-penned tunes, The Proofreader and Carole & Colin’s showcase perfectly not only Rachel’s technical mastery of the harp, but also the elegance, beauty and variety inherent in her compositional skills.  The former tune, a hornpipe, is nothing short of two minutes thirty-nine seconds of pure magic, the dextrous fingering casting trails of notes as an aural rainbow, guaranteed to bring a smile to the face and a tap to the foot, the latter demonstrating Rachel’s ability to extract both expansive vitality and delicate sensitivity from the clarsach.

With the reflective calm of their version of award-winning virtuoso Uillean piper Calum Stewart‘s Looking at a Rainbow Through a Dirty Window and the Lochinver set which incorporates a Cape Breton strathspey Maybelle’s Compliments to her Brother Cameron, and the highly infectious spin that is Lady Baird‘s which features Scott’s whistle, the synergy between harp and guitar is, once more, apparent as the two instruments blend seamlessly together in harmony.

Rachel’s Irish heritage is represented with three Traditional Irish Polkas, the Polkas set (Dan Sullivan’s, Scartaglen Polka and The Munster Bank, in which Rachel’s sparkling, skittish playing is akin to the musical equivalent of an Olympian hop, step and jump gold medal winner, such is its evocation of silky movements.

Frequently visiting the Isle of Man, Rachel is recognised as the world’s leading expert in Manx Harp music.  On this CD, homage to the smallest of the Celtic nations is paid via two tracks.  Firstly, Jurby Jigs, with an interpretation of guitarist Matt Kelly’s gentle, lilting The Road To Jurby jig which is followed by Rachel’s Sunset Squatters, an absorbing piece dedicated to the island’s exiled population of wallabies.  Then, closing the album is Glenbervie which comprises the beautiful Trad. Manx lullaby Arrane Y Chlean and Glenbervie itself, a tune written by Rachel to celebrate the marriage of her brother.

In times of yore, harpists were required to ‘master’ three musical genres – ‘Goltraidhe’, playing such that no one could listen without melting into tears,  ‘Geantraidehe’, playing such that no one could listen without bursting out laughing and ‘Suantraidhe’, playing such that no one could listen without falling into a delicious sleep.  The playing on Sparks fulfils all three requirements with ease, (the final attribute being a positive one!), providing, as it does, a perfect balance between pathos, energy and calm.

Sparks is an alluring, accessible and thoroughly enjoyable album which holds the listener’s attention throughout and fully reflects the passion that the duo have for their heritage and tradition.

Relax at the end of the day, pour out a glass of the finest malt, if so inclined,  and lose yourself in this treat of an album.


David Pratt