Griogair Labhruidh’s ambition is to make an album of Gaelic rap that will resonate with hip-hop fans and reconnect people to the culture of the Gael.
Recording a new album is, for most artists, a labour of love. There may be times when the tunes aren’t flowing and an exhaustive digging into the soul is required, but as a process it is generally a musical one.
For Griogair Labhruidh, however, making an album is becoming more like doing a PhD.
Labhruidh, who first came to notice as a Gaelic singer with Daimh and then latterly as a member of Afro Celt Soundsystem, has been working on a hip-hop album of Gaelic rap which has become far more than a musical journey. He has the beats ready but the words are harder to come by.
“I had hoped to release the album on September 18 of this year but it’s going to take longer than that,” Labhruidh explains. “I have some really dope beats made, that are to my taste. I’m learning a lot about production all the time and I’m starting to lay down beats that sound like the producers I admire. But as far as the words go that’s going to take time.
“I’m not just putting together raps – not that raps aren’t complex – but essentially what I’m writing is a book of Gaelic poetry. I’m trying to put across my whole philosophy and life and my whole way of seeing the world in 80 minutes of music and the things I’m alluding to are likely to be only wholly accessed by Gaelic scholars and academics or those who have been born and raised in the culture.
“If I was just making and producing an album of music I would have had it done by now. You can’t rush poetry, it has to mature. Poems have to sit with me a while before I decide they’re good enough for people to hear.”
Labhruidh’s ambition is clear. He would in no way be content with releasing an album of Gaelic rap and allowing it to ride a wave of novelty. He is a deeply serious and cerebral individual who has turned to hip-hop not because he thinks it will get him noticed but because he believes it is the best vehicle for what he has to say.
“Gaelic poetry is very rhythmic, very musical and flowing and it has so much in it, with weird counter rhythms and the stretching out of words but that is being lost,” Labhruidh explains. “Most of the modern-day Gaelic speakers, especially those of my generation, don’t really appreciate that.
“A lot of people are now speaking Gaelic with a normal Scottish accent and they’re losing the musicality and the rhythms of the language. All this beautiful stuff that’s been handed down over generations is being lost. And it’s these elements that are really visible in Gaelic poetry, in the older Gaelic poetry in particular.
“For me, just reciting that poetry in the setting of hip-hop is to show people that it’s a really musical language. To say: ‘This is my dialect’; ‘This is how we should be speaking our language as opposed to the BBC, Sabhal Mor official generic way of speaking that’s so prevalent just now’.
“These beautiful sounds are being lost.”
However, for Labhruidh, the musical elements of hip-hop are a chance for him to explore his love for funk and soul and to then place Gaelic in that musical landscape.
“I’ve always been in to other types of music, like jazz, funk, soul – Afro-American music and hip-hop has all these elements in it. And producing hip-hop beats gives me the opportunity to take all the stuff I love about those musical styles and put it all together in my own manner.
“Then there’s the disillusionment of the disenfranchised that is at the heart of hip-hop. That’s something that resonates with me as a Gael.”
For Labhruidh, however, hip-hop will remain simply his chosen vehicle. For him, Gaelic is much more than a language and the desire to open up people’s minds to the entire culture behind that language is what drives him. But this search for the heart of Gaeldom has taken him to study the teachings of other indigenous peoples.
“I’ve been getting really into Native American culture and there’s a Native American writer called John Trudell who I’ve been reading. He talks about the ‘great sickness’ that came upon the world which he believes was born out of mass organized religion which focused on one male god. From that came the idea that the feminine, the earth and the land was no longer revered and therefore everything became something that could be utilized. People no longer saw themselves as part of that whole.
“And essentially the Gaels are among the last people in Europe who still have their indigenous practices that are completely of the land that they’re in.”
This connection to the land, and to the past – to those ancestors who have gone before – is at the heart of Labhruidh’s message, and one of the reasons his album remains unfinished.
“What you’re doing with music essentially is taking your spirit and putting it into words and into music and expressing everything you feel in one little package. It’s a way of trying to get to people.
“Some people will just get the beats. Others will get illusions and imitations of 16th century Gaelic poetry that I’m flinging in, others the allusions to 20th-century Gaelic storytellers. Most people won’t understand the words at all.
“My raps are personalisations of the whole Gaelic oral tradition. And it’s cathartic.”
It’s clear that for Labhruidh, this is going to be a work far beyond the norm. The need to immerse himself in hip-hop culture was in itself something that left him feeling somewhat disconnected from his Ballachullish home.
“I found I was concentrating so much on studying hip-hop that I started to lose focus on my roots. What it’s all about for me is Gaelic and promoting Gaelic culture and showing people that Gaelic poetry and music in its purest form can sit in a modern situation such as hip-hop.
“So I’m now going back into the depths of the tradition now. Spending time on the croft and reconnecting.
“I’ve felt trapped between two worlds most of my adult life. Caught between the two worlds – the outside, English-speaking all-encompassing global more-of-everything world and the more rooted Gaelic world with its connection to the land and to ancestors and to history.
“People in my position will always struggle to fill that gap – be they Gaels, Sami or Native Americans. “Bridging that gap is a difficult thing to do. When I’m in Gaelic I’m not in a language, I’m in a whole culture, a whole way of thinking. But that’s home for me. So stepping out of that culture is something I had to do but it’s never easy.
“But it’s what I have to do if I’m going to be able to convey what the essence of it is, if I’m going to be able to show people the depths of the culture.”
Source: The National.Scot / Story: Jonny Jobson