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Album review: Inge Thomson “Da Fishing Hands” (FRUK)

March 16, 2015

Inge Thomson - Da Fishing Hands coverDrawing its title from the maritime tradition of Fair Isle, Inge Thomson’s birthplace, Da Fishing Hands offers the listener one of those rare experiences where she immediately finds herself drawn into an almost otherworldly collection of songs and soundscapes which quietly demand your undivided attention, leaving you almost lost for words at its spellbinding beauty, heartbreaking sadness and controlled anger at a world which is prepared to stand idly by while age-old traditions and cultures are allowed to become mere footnotes in the history books as a tiny minority makes a huge profit at the expense of the rest of us.

Inge explained the genesis of the project to Folk Radio UK’s Alex Gallacher in an interview last year:

“The initial idea for the project was conceived while looking at the maps of fishing grounds (known as ‘fishing hands’) around Fair Isle, which were compiled as a resource for FIMETI (Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative). The maps themselves are things of beauty with lines denoting triangulation points connecting visible landmarks and sea stacks and the contour lines of the ocean topography. This then got me thinking about the cultural significance of this information which had previously been passed down in the oral tradition, and how the changes in our marine environment are affecting all aspects of island life. After receiving funding from Creative Scotland, FIMETI commissioned us to write a body of work which highlights the more personal effects of the degeneration of our marine resources and hopefully to give a less political voice to their cause, which is to raise awareness of the island’s plight, their bid to be granted marine protected status and ultimately re-instate a 5km commercial fishing limit.”

Map of Fair Isle fishing handsThe project’s initial inspiration came from the idea to use a map of the hands drawn up by Inge’s sister-in-law, Emma Perring, as a graphic score for melodic instruments. Inge began work on the music with her cousin Lise Sinclair – “an extraordinary wordsmith”, in Inge’s words – but almost floundered following the sad passing of Lise last summer. However, the support of family, friends and the 70-strong Fair Isle community helped Inge find the inspiration to continue the project and a live recording session at Mareel, Shetland’s state-of-the-art music venue in Lerwick in May 2014 brought the completed album safely home to land.

The album opens with ‘Here We’ve Landed’, a song about returning home from the sea; the steady drone of Inge’s accordion like the thrum of a boat’s engines as Fraser Fifield’s whistle wheels around like gulls chasing its wake. There’s a sense of tranquility here with meditative harmonies like the morning sun after a stormy night before Steven Polwart’s fast-strummed guitar locks with Graeme Smillie’s racing bass generating an excited anticipation of homecoming.

One of the album’s highlights, ‘Wind and Weather/The Fisherman and The Sea’ has two distinct parts; the first (‘Wind and Weather’) a short, largely instrumental piece, allowing Inge’s self-described “electronic ting-plonkery” free range. A shortish vocal section with some exquisite harmonies heralds a brief duet between Sarah Hayes’ flute and Fraser’s sax, together sounding like the grumbling of a departing storm, which introduces ‘The Fisherman and The Sea’. Sarah’s voice is as clear as glass, soaring high above Steven’s acoustic guitar. Inge’s harmonies are perfectly pitched while Fraser’s whistle blows like the west wind around the accordion and sonar-like electronic beeps and whooshes, the whole arrangement being anchored in Graeme’s solid bassline. The lyrical content deals with an issue fundamental to the project but which can be applied to a much broader canvas; namely the overexploitation of finite resources for material gain, and the potential that such greed has to create problems for future generations. The closing verse hits the proverbial nail on the head with pinpoint accuracy and perception:

It’s hard to understand why we need to take more
More than a living, more than can be held in store
Emptying the sea like a river of gold
Leaving nothing to the next generation at all

Inge’s looped glockenspiel flutters through the instrumental ‘Lise’s’ like butterflies in the heather as Steven’s guitar and Graeme’s bass lock together ahead of a soaring, rippling duet between Sarah’s flute and Fraser’s whistle. It’s an unusual combination of lead instruments but it works incredibly well and provides a welcome, sunny interlude after the storm of the preceding song.

Despite its title, the sparse, mournful lament that is the accordion-driven slow waltz ‘The Snowstorm’ isn’t about the cold, white stuff that falls from leaden winter clouds. Rather it refers to a story Inge was told by one of the residents of Fair Isle who, on moving there in the 1970s, was struck by the flocks of seabirds taking off en masse from their clifftop roosts and creating a visual effect “like being inside a snow-globe”. That this is no longer a common sight is due to the depletion of the fish stocks that provided these glorious birds with their main diet. Overfishing by commercial fleets has impacted more than just the human residents and it will take a long, long time for the damage to be repaired; a point made succinctly in the song’s refrain:

Something’s gone, something’s lost, something’s broken

A further, perhaps unexpected, effect of the decline in seabird numbers has been the change in appearance of the island’s cliffs (or ‘stacks’): they once used to stand out clearly when approaching by boat because they were white with guano. Even that has now disappeared, leaving in its place the ‘Dark Stacks’ of the next song’s title. A quiet, reflective instrumental which again foregrounds the interlacing duet playing of Fraser’s whistle and Sarah’s flute against Graeme’s flowing bass and Inge’s glockenspiel, it also features some lovely wordless harmony singing.

‘Paper Sea’ muses on the slow death of the spirit, drowning in a sea of paper in a world ruled by bureaucrats, a sentiment with which many will empathise. The musical arrangement reflects the annoyance generated by the tangled nature of our encounters with these faceless pen-pushers and box-tickers; propelled by Steven’s strummed acoustic guitar and Inge’s accordion with Fraser’s whistle weaving in and out, tying knots of sound tighter around our ears until the drop in the final minute when Graeme’s bass lights a fire beneath some irresistible harmonies, igniting the repeated plea to “help us to breathe”, until all that’s left is a burnt-out pile of ashes.

‘East O’Buness’ (or Bu Ness, or Bu’Ness, according to your research source) refers to “a hammer-head shaped peninsula on the east coast of Fair Isle” [source], in the shelter of which the Lerwick ferry docks and which is one of the key triangulation points for the fishing hands to its east. The lyrics afford a glimpse into the fast-disappearing fishing tradition of the island, describing a successful voyage to one of the hands. Musically, it’s a jaunty, uptempo song underpinned by Inge’s arpeggiated accordion and Steven’s measured, strummed guitar, interspersed with occasional spoken word samples from interviews conducted by Inge as part of her preparation for the project. Sarah’s voice is relaxed and confident, supported on the refrains by some fine ensemble harmonies, while the middle section is almost a tone poem of the sounds of the boat, recreated with a little help from Inge’s electronic ting-plonkery and some well-placed whistling towards the end.

Another of the album’s highlights, ‘Satellites’ describes the traditional, small wooden boats known as ‘yoals’, for so long an intrinsic part of daily life on the island and without which the entire tradition, including the fishing hands, would perhaps never have developed. Musically the song draws on established folk traditions with some nice chord changes in its structure; Sarah and Inge’s harmonies through the chorus are especially memorable but the whole arrangement strikes me as being very radio-friendly.

Dialects and, to a lesser extent, accents are another aspect of traditional lives and cultures that are under threat on Fair Isle as in many other places; as Robert Macfarlane pointed out in this article in The Guardian, much of the language we use to describe the landscapes we inhabit is being eroded: “Nuance is evaporating from everyday usage, burned off by capital and apathy”. This is most strikingly illustrated when you consider the recent announcement by the OUP regarding words culled from the Oxford Junior Dictionary and the newer introductions. So it is that ‘acorn’ has gone while ‘attachment’ has been added; ‘bluebell’ is out but ‘broadband’ is in. It’s to her credit, then, that Inge includes here a composition in which the lyrical content is founded entirely on a spoken word piece, again drawn from her interviews with members of the island community (I’m assuming that we’re hearing the voice of Kuna here). And while the exact meaning of the words of ‘Hands for Da Haff’ may be inaccesible to this Saesneg – a Welsh term which, in this context, may be taken as being analogous to the Gaelic Sassenach – it’s hard not to be affected on an emotional level by the sense of yearning for better days, long since gone, which pervades this gentle, retrospective acoustic piece with its paradoxically whirling, dancing coda.

Finally, the gorgeous ensemble harmonies of ‘Song for Sheep Rock’ (another peninsula on the island’s east coast; rocky and barren, it’s gradually eroding away, back into the sea) draw the album to a close with an optimistic reflection on the transient, conditional and increasingly impermanent relationship between the land and the sea, the islanders and their livelihood.

As long as there’s fish
In the sea, there’s a heartbeat

Da Fishing Hands is a resounding creative success on a number of levels, not least as a result of Inge’s ability to take the personal and make it political. This is something that’s always worthwhile doing, even (especially) through the medium of music; to take a highly specific theme (the loss of a natural resource of fundamental importance to a community) and in the process shine a spotlight on a much wider subject (the impact of environmental changes on humankind) is a rare and valuable skill. With Da Fishing Hands, Inge Thomson and her collaborators have painted a vivid picture of a changed and changing community. It’s as much an important historical document as it is a powerful artistic statement and, above all, a mesmerisingly beautiful record.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (16 March 2015)

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