Edinburgh International Festival interview: electro-folk travelers Niteworks on their culminating show Comann

Pipe tunes, Gaelic songs and other traditional music wrapped in electronic rhythms, pulsations and breathtaking cinematic soundscapes: this is the business of Niteworks, the quartet from the Isle of Skye, which will host the closing evening of the Leith of the Edinburgh International Festival. Series of theatrical concerts.

They titled the event Comann, which in Gaelic suggests community or camaraderie, and they staged it as a very contemporary showcase of Gaelic music and its connections. Joining them will be Gaelic vocal trio Sian (who made a strong impression during the 2021 Festival’s Great Disordered Heart traditional music programme), along with rising young singer-songwriter Beth Malcolm and the string instrumentalists of the nominees for the Scottish album of the year, the Kinnaris Quintet.

“Comann can be a difficult word to translate,” explains Niteworks drummer Ruairidh Graham, “but it’s about words like community, brotherhood, like An Comunn Gàidhealach, the association that puts the Mòd and things like that Community is how we like to see it – our label is called Comann Music We’ve always loved the concept of that kind of association, I think it reflects the music we make and the fact that we work with so many people in the Gaelic world, so it’s not just about us, but about us trying to showcase Gaelic music and culture, working in association – or comann – with many different singers.

Niteworks

Their current album, A’ Ghrian (“Sun”) follows this policy, featuring guest trio Sian, Hannah Rarity, Beth Malcolm and Kathleen MacInnes, as well as fellow electro-Gaelic fusion maker Alasdair Whyte.

Along with Graham on drums, the core of Niteworks are Innes Strachan on keyboards and synthesizers, Chris Nicolson on bass and Allan MacDonald on pipes, the latter two also working with synthesizers. All four hail from Gaelic musical backgrounds in Skye. “Myself and key player Innes have been friends since we were little kids, from Breakish to the south end of Skye,” says Graham. “Then the other two, Allan and Chris, are from Braes outside Portree and also grew up together and went to primary school. Then we all met in high school and in music lessons.

“We all went through the Fèisean movement and all our families have music in them. My mother is a Gaelic singing teacher and Innes’ mother is a music teacher while Chris’ father plays the accordion. Allan MacDonald’s father, on the other hand, is Dr Angus, one of Glenuig’s three famous MacDonald piper brothers.

Like so many young people on the islands, on leaving school, the four responded to Glasgow’s gravitational pull: “And in Glasgow, of course, there are clubs and dance music, so it was a bit of a voyage of discovery.”

Graham is well aware that they were not the first to experiment with the combination of traditional and electronic music, acknowledging revolutionary fusion pioneers such as Martyn Bennett and Paul Mounsey as well as acid producers the Peatbog Faeries who, being from their home island of Skye were a big influence, he adds.

“But according to the story,” he continues, “in Glasgow, we bought a synthesizer one day and started playing with it and that led to investing more money in bigger, bulkier synths, and then he just gravitated, bit by bit, to the music we’re playing now.

And this music inherently involves collaboration with other artists. “We look around because there is so much potential to be gained by crossing different musical genres. This fusion stuff also extends to a whole range of audiences, so you’ll have people who know our music anyway and you’ll have people who may not have encountered Gaelic song before.

Some of the songs they perform, Graham points out, are quite venerable, dating as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, and would be unknown to all but a small niche section of even a Gaelic audience. “It’s not that we ever sat down and said that was what we were aiming for. But it’s certainly a happy side effect of our music engaging a wider audience with Gaelic culture, which is great.

Niteworks: Comann, Leith Theatre, August 28