by Lahri Bond
In the age of iPods, single-song downloads, and short attention spans, American vocalist, musician, recording artist, teacher, and ethnomusicologist Talitha MacKenzie still sees the validity of an album as a whole. “I love the idea of constructing an album, doing all the artwork and getting the order of the songs. It’s a musical experience, and I like to think of it as taking people on a journey. No two tracks are the same. Someone said it’s sort of like a selection box; you’ve got your strawberry cream, you’ve got a mint here, and you’ve got a caramel. That’s the way I like to look at music.”
MacKenzie has always listened to her muses, and therefore she has been an innovator in a wide variety of musical styles. During the 1980s she was one of the first women to be employed as a shantyman, the crew member on a sailing ship responsible for learning and leading sea chanteys and work songs for the crew. As Talitha Nelson, she recorded an album with the Boston Irish band St. James Gate as well as her first solo album of traditional and original maritime songs. Shantyman was culled from her work at the Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea. MacKenzie emigrated to Scotland and settled in Edinburgh in 1987. There she joined the Scottish folk music ensemble Drumalban.
While singing traditional Gaelic tunes in a village hall in South Uist in 1988, MacKenzie met Martin Swan, an English composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist who had an idea to fuse Celtic folk with electronic dance music found in popular clubs. They formed the duo Mouth Music, named after the English translation of “puirt a beul,” a style of unaccompanied singing. Drawing on MacKenzie’s repertoire of traditional Gaelic songs, including waulking songs, dirges, and reels, Swan backed the ancient melodies with electric and acoustic instruments and computer samples. Their debut album Mouth Music [Triple Earth/Rykodisc (1990)] was a critical and commercial success and won many awards internationally, but MacKenzie and Swan quickly fell into disharmony with each other’s ideas for the band’s future direction. Swan retained the band name, and subsequent albums featured a revolving cast of lead vocalists and an increasing move toward electronic-based world music.
“This being so close to the 20th anniversary of the release of Mouth Music, I have plans to perform some of the material with students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD), many of whom were born in the same year,” MacKenzie said with some amazement.
The spirit of Mouth Music was evident on her next two solo albums, Sòlas[Riverboat (1993)] and Spiorad [Shanachie (1996)], keeping the focus primarily on traditional Celtic music and original compositions. Her love of unaccompanied voices resulted in her composing, teaching, and directing the a cappella women’s group Sedenka, founded in 1992, which has performed at such prestigious events as the Edinburgh Peace Festival and the International Festival of the Sea. Work with the vocal ensemble led her to sing on the soundtrack of the film Troy under the direction of Dessislava Stefanova of the London Bulgarian Choir. MacKenzie invested her earnings from the movie in her own label, SONAS Multimedia, which produced her most recent solo album.
About 10 years ago, MacKenzie began to explore and revisit various aspects of her own past with renewed interest. Her most recent solo CD, Indian Summer, examines her American roots. “When I was young, I had wanted to live in Scotland for a long time; I had big plans to go back to the place of my ancestors. I also had this love for the Gaelic songs which had really struck a chord with me. It wasn’t until I was firmly established in Scotland — married, raising my family with absolutely no thought of turning back and going to America — that I found out I was part Cherokee. It turned everything on its head. I started to have more of an interest in looking back, and seeing what is the totality of where I come from, and what does having been raised in New York from parents with an Appalachian connection mean to me.”
The CD successfully explores the connection between Celtic and American cultures, as well as MacKenzie’s roots on both sides of the Atlantic. It combined her own compositions with traditional songs in English, Scottish Gaelic, and several Native-American languages. The bluegrass-flavored “Wheeling Island Girls” features Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops on vocals, fiddle, banjo and flat-footin’. “Working with Rhiannon was a blast. Talk about serendipity! I got a call from a Gaelic scholar who said he had been working with Rhiannon and she would like to meet me. He had no idea I was working on this Native American music project, and I had no idea she was Native American. So instead of talking Gaelic song, I told her all about my project, and she told me all about her project. She was performing in a drum circle, doing pow wow singing. It was like we had grown up together; it was like family.”
Yet another milestone occurred during the early summer of 2009, when MacKenzie returned to the States to participate in the 30th Annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport in New London, Connecticut. She performed as a soloist, led dance workshops, and played in a multilingual trio with folk musicians Robert and Gabrielle Bouthillier from Québec. “I worked at Mystic in 1977, and I had been to two festivals. I got the job of chantey singer because a friend of mine, Michelle Lewis, had the job the year before, but then she had this amazing offer to go to the Netherlands. She didn’t want to leave without offering a suggested person to take her place. She twisted my arm really bad,” MacKenzie said with a smile. “I was classical pianist at that point, and didn’t see myself as a chanteysinger necessarily. I wasn’t even sure I was up to it. It’s quite a different thing going out to plot of grass and just announcing that you are going to have a show and gathering people. You have to have a lot of self confidence.” Needless to say, she got the job and went on to South Street Seaport in New York City in 1978 and a sailing ship, the Unicorn.
Throughout her career, MacKenzie has embraced the healing power of music. In the course of recording the Indian Summer project, MacKenzie learned “Willow,” a Chumash Indian healing song. For some time she had also been working with healing songs drawn from the Caucasus region of Eurasia known as Georgia. “Suddenly more of these songs were coming in. I should have seen the writing on the wall,” she quipped.
In 2008 she attended the North American Folk Alliance conference and came away with a plan for marketing the album and gigs for 2008 and 2009. A week after her return, her husband, noted Scottish photographer Ian MacKenzie, fell ill. “It took him awhile to get back on his feet, but he seemed to fully recover. Then a biopsy showed that things had not healed properly and there was a danger of malignancy. So suddenly everything changed. All my ideas about promoting Indian Summer went on the back burner.”
While her husband continued to battle stomach cancer, MacKenzie aided in his recovery through the tools she knew best. “I took out those healing songs… the clàrsach [wire-strung Scottish harp] I use for its healing vibrations along with the Georgian healing songs. I have joined a Georgian singing group and have increased my repertoire of healing songs from three to about 12 and am looking for more. In Georgia they have a concept that the vibration — and the way that they sing — does have healing properties. In Georgian singing, they are using this vibration that they have to help in the healing of victims of trauma, war, or people who have been abused.”
She continues to teach at the RSAMD, and in summer 2010 she taught at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina during Celtic Week.
Ian MacKenzie passed away a few days before Christmas 2009. Talitha MacKenzie wrote on December 21, 2009, via email: “As Gaelic scholar John MacInnes says ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom.’ My life now is completely devoted to promoting positive feelings in the people around me, and despite the outcome of Ian’s physical struggle; I intend to carry on working with the healing power of music.”
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