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James Duncan Mackenzie: A Northern Light, Shining Bright.
The Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, is something you see once and remember for a lifetime. Some music is like that; the ‘hook’ of a melody, the drive of the beat or the signature of a tune seems to grab you, make you sit up and stays with you for a long time.
I experienced that after getting a hold of a copy of James Duncan Mackenzies self-titled album. I was stopped in my tracks, literally. I stopped my car, replayed track one and realised that here was something special, something that will stay with me for a long time. It was a CD of brilliant music, not just piping gymnastics. No backing tracks for a piper, but a complete ensemble performance. No gimmicks: Classic, individual and strongly melodic music with a real signature. The music was all about where he was from and what he wanted to say.
Familiar to many for his brilliance on the pipes and flute with the globe trotting folk phenomenon Breabach, James’ background is rooted deeply in the musical traditions of the Outer Hebrides. James is a Lewis-man, as proud of the distinctive music that emanates from the Outer-Hebrides as he is sure that it is part of his musical DNA.
Brought up in Back, on the east side of the Isle of Lewis into a musical family, James began as a solo piper in the competition style. Taking lessons initially from Nick Gordon and Iain Morrison, both ex-Pipe Majors of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, his early instruction on chanter was along the formal lines of traditional Army piping.
The Outer Hebrides is rich in solo pipers of great skill, however James also had the opportunity from an early age to listen to some of the world’s top pipers. “During the winter months, the Lewis and Harris Piping Society would fly different pipers up from the mainland to give recitals. At these nights you would get a junior player opening up the evening with a few tunes, followed by a Gaelic singer with a few songs before the piping recital would begin. Over the years I remember playing at a few different recitals before Duncan MacGillivray, Willie MacCallum, Alasdair Gillies and Chris Armstrong. It was great to hear these types of pipers playing and certainly inspired me to practice hard!
The Pipe Major Donald Macleod memorial competition, held in Stornoway every year, provided yet another opportunity to hear the top pipers play.
“I think the first time I went along to hear that competition would have been one of my earliest introductions to Donald Macleod’s compositions as all the pipers are required to play some of his own tunes. James’ lessons with Iain Morrison were also influenced by Donald Macleod’s style of teaching as Iain; and during these lessons he would often refer to the way ‘Wee Donald’ would have played it.
“I remember taking a particular liking to a lot of Donald Macleod’s compositions. They featured heavily in my repertoire then, as they still do today.
The tunes of Donald MacLeod were not just a favourite of pipers.
“They were the tunes you would hear played by box players and pipers and other musicians at ceilidhs, or on the radio. When I was young, I must have played ‘The Knightswood Ceilidh’ more than a thousand times!
Successful in a number of junior competitions throughout Scotland including the Northern Meeting, the Scottish Junior Solo Bagpipe Championships and the Young Piper of the Year competition, it wasn’t really until James attended the college in Benbecula that he spread his musical wings.
“After completing my 5th year at school in Stornoway at the Nicolson Institute, I got the exam grades I was after, and decided rather than returning to school for 6th year, I would go to study at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Benbecula College. From an advert in the Stornoway Gazette I noticed that the college was recruiting students for its HNC course in Traditional Music. I was instantly intrigued and applied for the course. Before I knew it was off to be a student for the first time. I remember being slightly worried about missing the induction day to the college. I was away on the mainland competing at a piping competition in Carnoustie!
It was my first year away from home, and Benbecula is only a few islands away from Lewis, so I was able to get home fairly often during the first few months, traveling over the causeways to Berneray (often in the post bus) where you cross the ‘Sound of Harris’ on the short ferry journey to Leverburgh before making your way up through Harris to Lewis.
Like starting anything new, the first steps can be daunting, and for James, Benbecula was a big first step.
“My first week at Benbecula I didn’t know what to expect, it was quite an ‘unknown’ for me. I was a solo highland piper, first and foremost, and instantly I could see that most of the other students were able to pick up more than one instrument, a couple of the students were at home on several instruments. A lot of the emphasis of the course was centred around performance. It wasn’t really until college that I started to branch out with my music and started to look a bit more seriously at playing instruments other than the pipes.
Everyone was playing and jamming together all the time. It’s quite difficult to jam along with other instruments in an acoustic setting when you’re on the Highland bagpipes and this really motivated me to take up the Border pipes. I had also bought a Low D whistle a few weeks before the course started and as it was the only instrument I had suitable for joining in on the tune sessions at the time. I had to learn to play it pretty quickly! I ordered a set of Border pipes and in the interim I was loaned a lovely set of border pipes from Ivan Macdonald. (Ivan, a young Uist piper and crofter, tragically passed away last year.)
Although James played the silver flute in school, the wooden flute always seemed to speak to him more. Iain Macdonald was a great influence on James’ starting on the wooden version of the instrument, and his skill with it is evident both in Breabach and on his own album.
“I’d always been interested in the wooden flute. It was the sound of the instrument and the total sense of freedom that appealed to me. It opened up a whole new repertoire of music that was unavailable to me on the pipes. I started to listen to some of Mike McGoldrick’s albums and was astounded by his abilities on the instrument. Getting lessons from Iain Macdonald at the College in Benbecula was brilliant. I remember during my first lesson being very inspired simply just listening to Iain play the flute. It was the first time I’d heard wooden flute actually being played in the same room as me and not just on a CD, the sound and sheer tone was powerful and really drew me in even more. Anna-Wendy Stevenson and Will Lamb were also tutors on the course. I learned loads from both of them.
It wasn’t just the students and tutors who came down. Musicians from all over the island would come down and play and sing. If the life of a music student on Benbecula could be encapsulated in one phrase, it would be: Immerse yourself in music.
“We all boarded at houses around the local area, but there were a few places where everyone got together for a session. There was a big old farmhouse down at Stilligarry in South Uist where a few of the student from the course lived. The tunes would get going around tea-time on a Friday night, after the course had finished for the week; and would continue all the way through to Sunday. Somhairle Smith, a Gaelic singer, and I stayed at Caranish in North Uist, at the croft of singer, clarsach player and Bard, Flora Macdonald. She’d cook for us, look after us after we’d go down to the college during the week. The house was quite old style with a very traditional crofting style kitchen. Walking into the kitchen was a bit like going back in time, I loved to play my pipes in there next to the stove.
Many great musicians and singers would gather for these informal house ceilidhs at the weekends. Calum Antony Beaton and Ivan Macdonald two great local pipers would come over for tunes. Griogair Labruidh would also come down from time to time. The first time I heard Griogair sing was incredible. Angus Nicolson a piper from Skye would also regularly visit for tunes.
“The standard of the musicians around me in Benbecula both staff, students and other musicians was just incredible. I was inspired by them, and really enjoyed playing with them; I still do today. Matheu Watson, another multi-instrumentalist, was in my year. He could pick up any instrument and play it to a very high standard. Since college, I’ve played with Matheu a lot over the years, at a couple of festivals in Scotland and also further afield in Europe. He actually played guitar on my solo album.
It must have been a fantastic way to learn; far removed from the sterile halls of academe you might expect in a ‘big city university’. The freedom to experiment with music, to see how other musicians learn and work together; together with the experience of remote island life, surrounded, infused with it: History, culture, people. Ceilidhs, sessions, craic – all of it an intrinsic part of the living music that makes up the Outer Hebrides.
That spark, the joy of finding your tribe, finding your place in the world, had a strong influence on James Duncan Mackenzie. It must have put the fire in his belly, for after a year in Benbecula, James was off to Glasgow and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
“I moved to Glasgow and it was a bit of a shock to the system at first to be honest. Adjusting to city life took a wee while to get used to. It was great to meet all the other students and to be opened up again to making music with a completely new group of people. I was one of five studying for a Piping Degree and there were another fifteen or so people in my year on the Scottish Music course. We had many of our classes together with the other Scottish Music students however the Piping degree students attended the National Piping Centre for some of their classes and lessons. In my first year my piping tutors were Allan Macdonald (brother of Iain who had taught me in Benbecula) and Gavin Stoddart. It was amazing how different both their approaches to the lessons were but I think that was the idea to give you as broad a scope as possible. For my second instrument I studied flute for a few years with Claire Mann before taking up guitar lessons with Jack Evans for my final year.
James would later get lessons from Stuart Samson and Finlay Macdonald, again quite a different approach, but equally rewarding.
“During my time at University I was very fortunate to be a part of a couple of great projects and overseas trips. The Winter Storm event in Kansas City where you both compete and perform at the final concert was a brilliant experience. I was also part of a collaboration called Atlantic Seaway. Students from the RSAMD and Strathclyde University collaborate with a group from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The students would travel to Boston to work on a cross-cultural project, performing it at the New Hampshire Highland Games, which according to James is probably the biggest highland games he’s ever seen.
Glasgow was important for many reasons for James Duncan Mackenzie, none of which was more important than becoming a part of Breabach. He didn’t, however, restrict himself to college studies and sessions with his fellow students of the RSAMD. James started playing with a pipe band in his spare time.
Says James, “Around the same time I started at the RSAMD, I joined Scottish Power Pipe Band under Chris Armstrong. It was the first pipe band I ever played with. Lewis has a pipe band, but at the time I was growing up it was primarily a parade and street band and I never played with them as I was so focused on my solo piping. My first time attending band practice with Scottish Power pipe band was a bit nerve wracking to be honest. Everyone was really welcoming however. It was a completely new experience for me and to be part of such a unified pipe corps was very exciting. The enveloping drone sound of 25 pipers sent chills up my spine. I played for two years with Scottish Power and really enjoyed the circuit of playing at the major championships including the World Championships and the Cowal games. The band played at the Scottish Cup final at Hampden stadium one year; the experience was fantastic.
James commitment to pipe band and solo competition did tail off around the time he began to play the occasional gig with Breabach. Coinciding with being named a finalist in the Young Traditional Musician of the Year, it was a sign of things to come.
“In my first couple of years at University I was still competing in the A grade light music and silver medal Piobaireachd competitions at the Argyllshire gathering and Northern Meeting. I won the occasional prize but my interest in solo piping competitions did diminish slightly. I entered the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and reached the final, playing pipes and wooden flute. The five finalists toured as a band around the UK for two weeks, which was a great experience. Around that time I had been asked to step in for Donal Brown to play pipes and flute on a European tour with Breabach. It kind of started there.
“Donal Brown couldn’t tour as he had a young family and his commitment was to them, so I was fortunate to get called in to go on the month long tour around Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Slovenia with the band. The ‘Young Trad Tour’ and the Breabach European tour actually took place one after the other which meant my first ever experience of touring consisted of 6 weeks on the road! I loved every minute of it. It showed me that a life, a career, was possible in music. It was fantastic. I was still studying at the RSAMD at that stage, and it was a bit tough to keep up with the studies, but I managed to catch up when I got back to Glasgow. The benefit from performance, the experience, was invaluable.
Calum Maccrimmon, musical chameleon and founding member of Breabach holds James in very high esteem. Their relationship goes further than just band members. The music they love and their understanding of each other brings a greatness to the piping and wind element of Breabach.
“It was in 2008 that James first stood in for Donal Brown. We went on a 4 week tour of Austria - which is a pretty 'in at the deep end' way for someone to be introduced to a band but James was already such an accomplished young player at that time it was no bother at all. It was so easy to incorporate James in Breabach. His charming highland character, as well as his outstanding musicianship, and very ‘highland style’ of instrumental playing made it seem easy.
Much in the success of life can be seen as being in the right place at the right time. The adage that ‘the more you prepare, the luckier you seem to be’ applies equally. James Duncan Mackenzie is all of this: Talent, hard work and years of dedication to his art.
“At that time we couldn't have known that James would eventually take over from Donal as a permanent band member but ultimately it was the case and it was actually a very gradual and organic changeover that occurred over the 3 years that followed. All of the performances Donal couldn't make were covered by James. The new sets were arranged with James' input throughout this period, and as a result, James has had an important influence on the band's sound. His playing alone reinforces the band's highland edge but he is also a great composer of contemporary Scottish tunes, which we have played and recorded over the last two albums.
As a musician, Calum Maccrimmon is renowned for taking his, and Breabach’s music right to the edge. Pushing boundaries seems to be a pre-requisite for any member of the band, and James is no different.
“Speaking as the other piper of the group, it is an amazing opportunity for me to play alongside James. We both play a few different instruments and are able to work outwith the prescribed pipe scale, as well as thinking chordally when arranging music. This ability to 'think outside the pipe box' really helps us explore exciting new harmonies and arrangements and push the bagpipes into new harmonic and rhythmical areas. We are both keen improvisers, which I think must be one of the most identifiable aspects of our performances on double pipes with Breabach - we respond to each others phrasing and strive to create new parts in each live show. I'm not sure if there are many other pipers that have fully experimented with that side of things but it really seems to get the crowds pumped up, as well as keeping us right on the edge as performers. There is no room for slacking when that kind of thing kicks off in a gig.
No slacking off - I doubt you could accuse any member of the Breabach of that. One of the best-travelled bands in Scotland these days, all of the members work very hard. For James, add into that guest spots with Mánran, The Paul McKenna Band and Seudan, his work ethic is more than solid, it rivals his travel schedule.
“My travels with Breabach are great, they’re fantastic fun and I feel very fortunate to have visited some of the countries I have over the last few years. There are probably too many highlights to mention. There are a few surreal experiences: Playing on an open air stage in Aqaba at the tip of the Red sea (the back of the stage was actually on the waters edge!) and bringing in the New Year at the Woodford Folk festival this year in Australia, stand out. To meet and make friendships with people from other cultures all around the world is a real treat.
This brings us back to his album.
“I was probably about 15 when I first began messing about with a few tune ideas. At Benbecula, everyone was writing tunes and it just kind of grew from there. Some tunes you write hang around a bit and develop, others come to life when you’re with other musicians. For me, I find that if I write a tune worth keeping it will usually keep coming back to me at random moments. If I have to continually refer to recordings or notations of it then that isn’t a good sign.
Musicians, authors and artists alike take inspiration from their travels. The influence of another cultures’ music can work its charm on the auteur. So much of the greatest music in history has come from this cross-pollination; and while James loves the experience of travel, and the excitement it brings, he is quite adept at compartmenting his music.
“I don’t think I consciously set out to be influenced by music from other cultures however. I do however take great inspiration from people and landscapes from places all around the world and this does influence composition. I always try and write in a style that feels natural to the way I play and in that sense do feel rooted to my Highland musical culture. My flute playing, though, is slightly different. I do try and maintain a highland style on the flute, however I do listen to and pay close attention to what a lot of the Irish and Breton flute players are doing with their music. There are more and more fantastic Irish and Breton flute players appearing all the time and it’s a true pleasure listening to some of the top players. Listening to them is a good reminder that I have a lot to learn.
James’ self-titled solo album was met with wholesome praise, some reviewers expressing surprise that he is not better known. Although quietly spoken and modest, his musical confidence shines brightly and illuminates what the album was always going to be.
“When I put the album together, I really wanted a sense of Highland and Island style to come through. Some of the tunes I did try to write in that style, others came to the album and were molded to fit into that vein whether it was the playing style or the way the tunes were arranged. Smelling Fresh, the first track on the album, starts with one of my tunes Back to Glasgow and back to Back again. Some people have called it a march, others a hornpipe, some even a Strathspey – and to be totally honest, I’m not even sure what it is, or what it’s supposed to be. Alasdair White, who plays with The Battlefield Band, plays fiddle on the album. Alasdair’s fiddle really works well with the pipes on that track. Maybe because we both come from Lewis and have similar stylistic influences... Who knows?
When we looked more closely at that opening tune, we realised it could be written out in five bars per part. It might be considered unusual, but it seems to work.
As an album opener and as a statement, it gives something back both to Lewis and the musical clan that James Duncan Mackenzie grew from. It also sets up the listener for a cracking album full of both style and substance.
“I wanted the album to have the theme of Lewis piping running through it. While tunes from renowned Lewis composers Donald Macleod and Peter R. Macleod feature, I also wanted to include some tunes by other Lewis composers such as Donald Maclean, Calum Campbell and Anna Murray. I composed just over half the music on the album so I suppose that fits in with the Lewis theme too.
James and his band have a strong musical ethic. They were after a live feel to the album.
“We recorded the album pretty much ‘live’. Having the eye contact with each other in the studio was important, not just overdubbing the tune. We played so much as pals, that we needed that connection together to have the music work the way I wanted. It has that slight roughness that you get in a live performance.
A lot of what influences James is the integrity of the music of Lewis, whether it is the strength of tune writing of Donald MacLeod or the Ceilidh playing so strong in the Outer Hebrides. For such a young man, James Duncan Mackenzie is very well travelled. From the Outer Hebrides to Australia, South America to South Korea; James has a much-stamped passport and a well-worn pipe case.
The music of the Outer Hebrides has taken James Duncan Mackenzie to the far reaches of the globe. With this music at his core, whether he’s playing flute, bagpipe or whistle; the boy from Back goes from strength to strength. Whether the audience is Highland, Korean, Norwegian or Italian - they get to bask in the glow of a great musician whose work has only just begun.