UW News

April 10, 2008

Get your Gaelic on with Oran nan Car

Around a university campus, it’s not unusual to have an esoteric interest, but not all such interests are entertaining to other people. Two UW staffers will be bringing their esoteric interest to the Ethnic Cultural Theater stage on April 19. The interest is Scottish Gaelic, and the two are members of a musical group that performs mostly in that language.

Kent Jewell sings tenor in the group, called Oran nan Car, and Corby Ingold sings bass and plays the bodhran (drum) and concertina. By day, Jewell is the area secretary supervisor in Educational Psychology, while Ingold is a program assistant in Anatomic Pathology, but every Friday night they join their fellow group members to sing songs from Scotland.

Why Scottish Gaelic? Jewell, who used to be part owner of Left Bank Books in the Pike Place Market, said he’s always had a number of intellectual interests, including endangered languages, and at one point was considering a doctoral program called Recovering Indigenous Mind. Given his ancestry and interests, he sought out a place to learn Gaelic. Fortunately for him, Seattle has an independent teacher of Gaelic, Rich Hill, and Hill had in 1996 helped start a choir, Seirm, that sings in Gaelic. Jewell took lessons in the language for a while, and then became one of the founding members of the choir, the only active Scottish Gaelic choir in the country.

Ingold said he’s been a “folkie” all his life, and he spent some time living in a Gaelic-speaking region of Ireland and traveling in Scotland’s Hebrides Islands back in the 1970s, when there was a revival of traditional music. He too was drawn to Hill’s Gaelic classes and the beginnings of the choir.

“Four of us were carpooling to choir rehearsals, and we noticed we had a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass, so we decided we should start a quartet,” Ingold said. That was 11 years ago. The name, Oran nan Car, means cantata — which is particularly apt, because a cantata, like most folk songs, is a musical composition used as a setting for a story to be sung.

“The name is also a play on words,” Ingold said. “We used to rehearse our group’s repertoire while we were in the car on the way to choir rehearsals. Oran means songs, so it was songs of the car.”

Jewell was not an orginal member of the group. He joined five and a half years ago, when one of the founders left. Three other musicians and singers have also been added over the years, so the group’s musical accompaniment now includes fiddle, viola, guitar, mandola, bagpipes and whistle.

Oran nan Car performs five to seven times a year, Jewell said. They generally do Folklife in Seattle, as well as the Celtic holiday concert each December at Bastyr University. They also do several Highland Games around Washington and western Canada, where there is a strong Scottish Gaelic culture. And then there are the competitions.

“One of the traditions within Scottish Gaelic culture is competitions that are interested in both language revival and cultural issues, and music is very central to Gaelic culture,” Jewell said. “So one of the things our group has done is prepare pieces for a competition that happens every two years in Vancouver, BC.”

There’s also a Seattle Gaelic language and cultural society, Slighe nan Gaidheal (Pathway of the Gael), that hosts workshops and celebrations.

The April 19 concert is a special one, aimed at showcasing the group’s first CD, which includes 14 tracks ranging from familiar folk songs like Green Grow the Rashes, O to more obscure tunes not widely known outside Scottish Gaelic circles. Though the group sings in Gaelic most of the time, they also do tunes in English and in Scots, the language of poet Robert Burns.

And yes, they do dress in tartans, including kilts for the men. Jewell said he’s even worn his kilt to work at the UW on occasion. “It’s fine once you get here,” he said with a laugh. “You can get some interesting comments from high school kids on the bus, though.”

Although one might expect that Jewell and Ingold pursued this particular interest because of having Scottish heritage, they both say that isn’t the primary motivation. Although both claim some Scottish background, they are, like most Americans, a mix of many different ancestries.

“Music is a carrier of tradition, a pure stream through time,” Ingold said. “Traditional culture is threatened. I want to carry it, to pass it on.”

Jewel’s thoughts are similar: “When you learn these songs that may well go extinct in the next few decades, and you perform them, you really develop an attachment to this culture,” he said. “So it’s part of us now, and I can’t imagine living my life without that attachment.”

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19, in the Ethnic Cultural Theater, and will include special guests the Karen Shelton Highland Dancers. Tickets are $5 and are available at the door. The CD will be sold at the concert at a one-time-only price of $10; thereafter it will be $15. Jewell said it will be available at specialty stores such as Galway Traders in Ballard and through the band’s Web site, www.oran-nan-car.com.