Thursday, July 30, 2009
If the cheering seems a little louder, the music rings more clearly, and the athletes throw further this weekend at the 42nd Annual Monterey Scottish Games and Celtic Festival, it may be a case of trans-Atlantic pride.
After nearly three centuries subsumed as part of Great Britain, Scotland elected its own parliament in 1998, regaining some of the independence lost in 1707. While only about 1 percent of Scotland’s population is fluent in Scottish Gaelic (also known as Highland Scots to distinguish it from the lost language Lowland Scots), a cultural resurgence has rippled across the Scottish diaspora.
“People are starting to stand tall, not nationalist in the negative sense, but for the culture and what they believe in,” says Julie Fowlis, a vocalist from the Hebrides who sings in Scottish Gaelic. “We’re still battling away. Our language wasn’t recognized by our own government and Westminster until 2005. So it’s a really positive time. The decline has been halted, the numbers are going up.”
The Scottish Games and Celtic Festival in Toro Park in Salinas this weekend embodies the strong sense of identity that has endured over the generations. With musical and athletic competitions (including the deceptively tricky caber toss), sheepdog demonstrations, historical recreations, food and Highland dancing, the event offers numerous forms of expression. And throughout the weekend, some of the world’s finest Celtic musicians will be on hand providing traditional Scottish and Irish music.
Among the musical acts are Ken O’Malley and the Twilight Lords Band, Molly’s Revenge, and the powerhouse Scottish duo of fiddler John Taylor with Ed Miller on vocals and guitar.
“Performing at the Games is a lot different than playing a concert,” says Molly’s bouzouki player and lead vocalist Pete Haworth. “There are a lot of other things going on, athletics and clan activities. People are drifting in and out all the time, but we enjoy it all. Our piper David Brewer is in heaven. There are some of the better pipe bands in the States.”
The Santa Cruz-based band initially built up a following outside the area by playing Highland games events up and down the West Coast, a circuit that nurtures talented traditional bands. With its blend of Irish and Scottish influences, Molly’s Revenge has become one of the region’s great Celtic music success stories.
Last year the group made a major artistic leap with The Western Shore, a superb album produced by the great Irish guitarist John Doyle. With international exposure on European dates, Molly’s Revenge has gained respect at the top echelon of Celtic music.
“They’ve really blossomed of late,” says Shay Black, a member of Ireland’s most prominent musical family. “They’re really a Celtic band with a fusion of Irish and Scottish. David Brewer is a first class piper, and he runs a weekly workshop near Aptos.”
Cultural activists like Brewer have helped fuel the Scottish resurgence, even at a distance. While the Aptos sessions center on learning tunes, he makes sure Scottish history and culture are part of the mix. He’s not only keeping the flame alive here, he’s making sure Molly’s Revenge adds fuel to the cultural fire in Scotland, performing in Glasgow last January as part of the huge Celtic Connections festival.
“David likens us to the Jamaican bobsled team,” Haworth says. “People can’t believe musicians from California are coming over and playing bagpipe music.”
THE SCOTTISH GAMES AND CELTIC FESTIVAL takes place 9am-6:30pm Saturday and 9am-4:30pm Sunday, Aug. 1-2, in Toro Park, 501 Highway 68, Salinas. $10-$20/one day; $15-$30/two. 333-9423.