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Whisky Trail

There is a story behind Whisky Trail which helps to explain its birth.. It goes back more than forty years ago when Giulia Lorimer, coming from the United States to Italy went on a particular trip to Ireland with her husband. He was a young writer who had been sent by a daily Italian newspaper to write some articles on the Land Reform and the daily customs of the island. On foot, with a tent and a typewriter in their knapsacks, they toured the whole country.
They came back with records that are out of print now, recorded in a very primitive way, with solo voices and perhaps a whistle or a banjo in the background. They met poets, musicians, tinkers...together they lived the beginning of a new season of Irish culture (it was the end of the fifties). But best of all, in their house in the Florentine hills many young Irish singers, writers and poets soon came to stay, live or simply pass through. The house at Poggio all'Arrigo lived the beginning of an era soon to be called ‘68.

The family grew ( 11 sons and daughters) and became an open community where hundreds of people passed through: from the problematic boy coming from a poor section of town or the artist looking for an experience that went beyond normal schemes, to the intellectual who wanted to question bourgeois values or the revolutionary priest questioning the Church's authority. So with Ivan Illich, Ignazio Silone, Don Rosadoni and Ned O'Gorman also came John Montague and Desmond O'Grady. In this period the events that were troubling Italy in 1968 were primary, so those poor, simple records of Irish music, were buried under the ashes of the living room fire, together with the songs and the clapping of hands and feet. They were resumed in the seventies and played a leading role in the birth of Whisky Trail.

The attention that ethnic music had in that period (just think of the Inti Illimani) gave birth around Giulia's house to a group called Gruppo Folk Internazionale; the idea belonged to Antonio Breschi, an eclectic piano player who spaced in many directions, experimenting with sound. In 1975 the group took the name of Whisky Trail. The original group was made up of Breschi, Giulia, myself, Daniele Craighead, who later went on to play with Ritmia, and Pietro Crivelli. The use of the name is important because we wanted to follow a hypothetical whisky trail that led to the United States coming from Ireland: with the immigrants desperately seeking freedom from starvation came their music which , mixed to black music, was later greatly to influence American early jazz . Our theory was supported by some musicologists and though far fetched was interesting enough to give us the possibility of playing Irish, Blues and Spiritual up to jazz in our early concerts.

The Editoriale Sciascia in 1975 gave us the possibility to do our first recording. Their role was decisive in directing us to play exclusively Irish music. In that first record Rebecca Miller, Antonio Breschi's American wife and Piero Bubbico, a well known percussion player in Florence, were among the performers. The repertory of that rare vinyl record (we recently saw a highly priced copy in a collectors'shop) exuded a pub feeling mixed with a political vein: from the anarchic distiller in “ Moonshine” to the fascinating revolutionary character in “ Patriot Game”. Two years after the Editoriale Sciascia offered to do a second album for the same collection “I dischi dello zodiaco”. Meanwhile Pietro Crivelli had left for America while in '76 Pietro Sabatini had joined the group. When Rebecca Miller with her typical American voice left the group, Whisky Trail took on a completely different aspect giving room for Pietro Sabatini who, coming from a rock experience, with his electric bass, gave a highly professional feeling , becoming in a short time a very good acoustic guitar player. So the second record saw a definite swing in a different direction with a number of instruments that ranged from piano, drums, electric bass, guitar and accordion, to tin whistle, mandola, 12 string guitar, violin and voice. The record could be called folk rock but it was basically different from what was being played at that time: The bass and the drums did not just reproduce rock stylistic features, but modeled themselves on traditional music, a real meeting of different sounds. We did not like to call it experimental music like many did. To us it was just languages and styles born in different situations. That second record, unobtainable like the first, had a limit: we prepared it in three days. If we ever reprint it we shall have to re-master it as we must change few technical things. Those records had a satisfactory distribution and got us even on some radio and television shows. Listening to them today it is surprising to note, at least in the second record, a certain musical resonance that seem to follow the Pogues, though born 15 years before. In a recent review of White Goddess, Umberto Tonello, talking of those first two productions says: ”many of us were influenced by those first two records”. I don't know if the words correspond to reality, but we certainly were heard by a large public.

It would be too long to enumerate the steps leading us to publish all the other records, but an important step occurred when Velemir Dugina joined the group. He was of Slavic extraction, a great and eclectic violinist and with him we produced Miriana in '79. The group changed face with Velemir: new sounds were added to the tried and proved ones. His Balkanic exploits introduced a very exciting and unusual sound.

If I had to express a judgement on these first records I should say that it was an international experience the one we lived in Giulia Lorimer's house. Irish music was hovering on the outside of a circle and seemed to look for the center but hesitated, taken up by the fascination of all the different musicians that passed through.

The musical production that can be defined as a more mature phase in our group starts with Dies Irae a record that was recently re-published as a CD. by Avvenimenti, Dies Irae was produced in 1982. It is the record that marks our turnover. Not so much for its artistic value as for our effort to develop a language that was truly Irish. Miriana signed an end of an era for our group. In '82 there was only Giulia , Pietro and I left of the original musicians and we were joined by the talented Lorenzo Greppi who had been playing with Veronique Chalot, a Norman folk singer. He had already played with us in the memorable season in '81, substituting Antonio Breschi. The Cardinale Records, a Florentine publisher distributed by Ricordi, gave us the possibility of making a new record. We had already made Dies Irae with them. We worked hard, the four of us, trying to dig deeply into the Celtic language and using the important experience we had lived from '79 to '81 when we called many Irish musicians to Italy to play in concerts organized by the City Hall of Florence and the Flog, a center for popular traditions. We had with us Andy Irvine, Jerry O'Beirne, Dolores Keane and John Faulkner, Martin O'Connor and Johnny Mc Carthy, The Milladoiro and Carlos Nu ñ ez and many others.

We also had a very important musical partnership with Chris Humblin, an English violinist who also played in Miriana. We had a splendid time with these friends and many pleasant evenings and we still keep up our friendship. Speaking about Dies Irae I must mention that the definite characteristic of the group starts here: translating into music the rich feeling of the poetry, myth, fable, and language of the Celtic culture. Beside the dulcimer, Lorenzo introduced the uillean-pipes, the Scottish bag-pipe and the bodhran into the group. Pietro the bouzouki and I the harmonium. All this was to widen the out-look we had on Irish music giving it an original touch that would make Ireland into a dwelling for the soul (a spiritual cross-roads) for European peoples who try to be united into a common musical background while searching for their original roots. So here we presented the Dies Irae of the Church transformed into a wild dance by the Breton witches to counteract the demand for sacrifice and mortification, imposed in the 15 th century by the existing power.

Our musical ability and the many instruments played by the group improved more and more until in '86 we published Pooka, the first concept album that presented a season in an Irish forest from May 1 to November 1.All the characters were fairies, witches, leprechauns, banshees.... Above everyone there was Pooka a goat figure with hairy skin and hooves which we interpreted as Pan the Greek god to whom he is very alike . On this tradition we went on to invent. Meanwhile I had started to play the Celtic harp and Lorenzo the uilleann-pipes. That record was very well received and our work recognized even in the English magazine Folk Roots that described it as one of the six most interesting records of the year.

When we finished Pooka we were ready for an experiment that somehow closed the cycle for us. We wanted to push the language belonging to tradition to the highest point of expression with our instruments. Dies Irae, our new publisher gave us the chance to make a record and we took the subject in an Irish middle-age legend in prose and verse. The Frenzy of Suibhne seemed the proper story for us. A king was obliged by his madness, to fly through Ireland in the shape of a bird pushed on by the curse of a monk. That was our theme, the struggle of two cultures: the Druidic and the Christian. Two completely different worlds and two different languages. The different languages was what most interested us, we wanted to express the spiritual vision of a Celtic king concerning nature, and compare it with the one of a monk who placed all that was sacred within the walls of a church. When Ronan the monk cursed the king, he proceeded to reduce nature, and all that was outside, into evil. We felt that our instruments had to show the coming clash and the musical language had to be archaic but nevertheless had to show that our sounds could be modernized and elaborated in such a way that new sounds would be created. The listener is not able to understand where the acoustic instrument is and where the new sampled sound comes in. One of the most beautiful examples is Labyrinth. Lorenzo's bag-pipe during a pibroc is accompanied by Pietro's electric guitar with a distorter. The Frenzy of Suibhne has been described by Folk Roots as contemporary art music. It is difficult to place it as it is an effort to give life to a Celtic imaginary world.

Our most recent production, White Goddess is different from the other works in many ways. Lorenzo Greppi is not with us anymore and this has meant a change. Gianni Cunich in the last review has emphasized the fact that each record is different...”not one has repeated itself and no clichés have occurred...” Lorenzo's exit with his reed instruments has meant that I took up the harmonica as a steady addition ( I used to play it occasionally). The harmonica has substituted the bag-pipe somewhat, but also Giulia's fiddle competence has improved. Pietro plays the bodhran and has added some other string instruments like the ten string Scottish cittern. We also succeed in using more than one instrument at the time in concert, so the sound comes from several sources and the use of a bass pedal, harmonium, several guitars and a bouzouki which we did not use so heavily in the other records, makes a great difference. This is not the only reason. In the precedent albums we had sound tracks that were not tied to each other with logic. Here we represented the 13 months and one day of the lunar year dear to the goddess. There are 14 tracks and they accompany the year in the seasons' turnover . Dana, the mythical goddess of the Thuata de Danaan reveals to the first bard, Amergin, the lunar calendar that is also an alphabeth made up of a tree-list of the names of trees of the forest, from the birch tree to the yew tree. We followed Robert Graves's thesis; he thinks that Dana is really the great Danae, mother of life who was brought by Argo to Ireland by the matriarchal peoples who preceded the Achei. We take special care to single out the Mediterranean origins of the ancient Irish culture, the feminine poetic musical inspiration. We feel it is her, with her sweet smile and strange glance, the inspiration for those who still follow her fascination. The patriarchal Celts got from her their love of nature that gave birth to their music; it is not casual that their rites were conducted in the open air.

In the CD. we give great importance to dance patterns as we believe the Goddess is characterized not only by her sounds but also by the steps she uses to accompany her message that invites all to dance. Jigs and reels mingle in several patterns but they always show a moment in the narration of the lunar year. An example: the sweetness of a reel that expresses the soft steps Linda, goddess with a child's smile, takes at sunset making a long line in the red and gold of the first sun in the third month of the year, is different than the frenzied rhythm of a jig that takes over when the old Bera riding on a knotty elder stick tumbles down from high above, raising a cloud of dust on the last month of the year.

To really give birth to our project we had to be particularly careful about the pronunciation of contemporary Gaelic. It is clear that we used any knowledgeable person we could ask for help, for example our dear friend Melita Cataldi, a major expert of Irish culture in Italy whom we publicly thanked in our CD. We are not trying to defend a language that is not ours but to show that possessing certain sounds produces music and therefore culture. The ancient rites were spoken with a particular voice as all the teaching of oral tradition. Through the centuries the voice has been the main means to teach the arias and the ornaments while learning an instrument. The Gaelic sounds give a particular meaning to the singing of ancient sagas and legends.

I believe that if we did not have a running trace everything would be flatter and would fall into the groove of things already done by us or by others. This is why any reference to Irish poets has always been a main asset in our group.

To our mind the most important writer has been William Butler Yeats of whom we have put into music a fairy lullaby in Pooka, “ Fairy Nurse,” one of the favorite pieces of our fans, and “Leda and the Swan” in White Goddess. This last text talks about the rape of the beautiful Leda by Jupiter who changed himself into a swan:” How can those terrified, vague fingers push the feathered glory from her loosening thighs ?...”

I don't think anyone has used such apt words to ask himself questions that are still tormenting us. The other author that is very important for us is Seamus Heaney whose verses we used in The Frenzy of Suibhne and in White Goddess. Heaney has re-written The Frenzy of Suibhne in modern verse.

One of the most interesting experiences of these last years has been a trip to Portugal in 1997, a beautiful trip. We got to know and breathe the very subtle attraction of a wonderful country where every night we met and got to know a different public that gave us often different and surprising responses. White Goddess was very much liked and we sold many records. Now we are under contract with Harmony Music which is a different thing from other publishers. We are at a very exciting moment in our career. All seven records are being re-published and re-mastered. We have not only re-touched the old records, but we have polished also White Goddess. Anyone liking his product cannot be satisfied by the results and will use any occasion to retouch his work. We were particularly happy to re-adjust our second record that was made in too short a time. Harmony decided to re-publish the first six records with a new typographical dress that we think is very handsome, taking advantage of our 25 th anniversary. We think the new series will prove successful.

The most stimulating thing that has happened to us is the fiddler Vieri Bugli joining the group this year. He is our pupil as far as Irish music goes. His talent is certain and he has already played with us to our complete satisfaction. In the future maybe we will be able to use him also in our recordings. At the moment we have a piece appearing with Amiata Records in an international compilation with the Chieftains, Sinead O'Connor, Liam O'Flynn, MouthMusic and others...

The most agreeable testimonial for us has come from the Irish magazine Irish Music which defined White Goddess as a record ”...definitely one for the treasured collection. The blending of bouzouki, uilleann pipes, tin whistle and bodhràn is unique and magical and could be a significant influence of the further development of the music....”

Stefano

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