A Wee Dram And Toast To The Soul
Through the vagabond circumstance that life actually is and not the rooted construct that we believe it is, the documentary ‘Where You’re Meant To Be’ (2016) directed by Paul Fegan arrives on our screens a few days before the UK votes in a referendum whilst in the midst of an apparent crisis of identity. Said insecurity/neurosis having been wholly stoked and fuelled by politicians to serve their own political agenda.
It may seem a random connection, but throughout all the ‘Leave’ propaganda there echoed the shrill and wail of the apparent loss of national identity and the mournful loss of a time and world that never actually existed. In complete contrast in the documentary we have musician and lead singer of the Scottish indie rock band Arab Strap Aidan Moffat traversing Scotland reconnecting with and absorbing the traditional folk songs that once floated gently across peat fires and communities in the hills, hillocks, barrows and glens of the highlands for generations.
Far from the cliché driven tourist perception of the northern nation (as wonderfully skinned and shredded by renowned traditional folk singer Sheila Stewart MBE), these songs were aurally taught down the lineage of various families regaling the adventures/misadventures, loves and losses of generations. They were dutifully learned verbatim with no opportunity for adaptation or modernisation which was considered disrespectful. Aidan with a genuine sense of love, appreciation and respect for the art form wanted to garner an understanding of it’s vital place in his culture, and with a wee cheeky whisky/cider soaked glint in his eye enthusiastically started off his adventure singing on a boat heading down the Clyde. Except the boat was trapped a few metres later as the walk bridge didn’t have an operator around to open it and let the boat pass on. There’s a song in there in itself.
Aidan believes he has an understanding of the emotion and content of the songs, which are effectively societal poems beguiling messages to all, that is until he sings his modernised version to the traditionalist Sheila (and pensioner sadly now deceased) who has been singing them all her life. She is not impressed. So Aidan has to reassess his views, and the journey presses on. And what a journey.
Heading out on what is effectively a research expedition of the Scottish Isles, the tour poster promises ‘Aidan Moffat, FREE ENTRY! FREE WHISKEY!’. It’s an experimental time, and not always successful as he tries his lovingly comedic variants laced with contemporary vernacular of traditional songs. As one bemused audience member shouts out his concise and precise one word review after a short set in a local bar ‘SHITE!’. But Aidan lovingly prevails with his incredibly funny irreverent verse.
Along the journey we meet various locals who release their life stories with such heartfelt poignancy that is immediately absorbed into the movie and the timbre of the songs. The story of how the widowed man met his wife of 58 years has such a gorgeous simplicity to it that it seems from another world. It also adds a beautiful gravatus to the subsequent small performance in his kitchen as the songs clearly bring back years of loving memories, and a comfort too. I’m sure the copious amount of whiskey being drunk added to the warmth of the moment too.
The doc is incredibly funny too. Sheila advised that he should know his history before commencing his apprenticeship, but being that he was never into history ‘because his teacher was a prick’ puts a slight glitch in the learning curve. And as he also comments ‘these fuckin’ songs go on and on and on’.
There is tremendous heart behind all this. What may have started as a whimsical idea quickly becomes much more, and the wonderful response to the songs gather momentum very quickly, bringing a huge amount of laughter, joy and as might be the tradition, social and political commentary as in the song about opposition to gay marriage from gay cardinals. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
As with any genuine discovery or unearthing of a newly discovered song or genre, it opens up previously hidden doors to new worlds, times, histories and cultures maybe long forgotten that we now eagerly want to investigate. Aidan set out on his own journey, but in the genius of recording it all we have a beautiful wee movie that carries us on the very same journey, and we change as everybody in it changes. But we all change for the better warmed from within by our interaction and sharing of woes, tales and drinks. And we can all move forward together without living in the past.
‘Where You’re Meant To Be’ is out now.