Do you know the name?
If you know Scottish music, it’s a name you might know. If you know Scottish music, it’s name you should know.
His could have been a name that most all would have known, regardless of our fondness for music from Scotland. There are some names that deserve to be known. But life has a way of writing our scripts in surprising and sometimes cruel and tragic ways.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I tell you more about Martyn Bennett and why I’m writing about him, you need to hear him. I think we’ll start with the first track from his second album, Bothy Culture. The song is called Tongues of Kali.
Oh, and make sure you turn up the volume.
How I heard about Martyn Bennett is a bit of a story.
My wife and I were married in 1998 on New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, the day of Hogmanay (the last day of year in Scottish). It’s also the day of one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world, as Edinburgh is transformed for one night into a citywide mix of free concerts, dancing, celebratory kissing, and the kind of joyful revelry that should always happen on New Year’s Eve.
Considering we had a small wedding that included only five, we made the decision that Edinburgh’s festivities were actually our wedding reception, with thousands of guests and music and fireworks. As night fell, I put on my rented kilt, and my new bride and I headed out to see what the city had arranged to celebrate our new marriage.
Weaving our way through the festive crowds, we came upon a stage on a fairly empty city square being prepared for a concert. We had no idea who would be performing, but since few people had yet stopped at the spot, and since I saw different kinds of Scottish musical instruments being handled on the stage, we decided to park ourselves and enjoy watching people until the concert began.
A man with baggy camouflage pants and long hair in dreadlocks came out on stage and started tuning instruments, creating an immediate disconnect for me. He didn’t fit my image of a traditional Scottish musician. With the dreads, he looked more like a reggae artist. Were we really about to ring in the new year in Scotland with reggae music?
But since he was tuning pipes and the other Scottish instruments, it would had to be Scottish music, right?
The crowd had started to build, effectively trapping us at the front of the stage, and so we had no choice but to wait and see.
When the performance started, I was transfixed by what I heard coming from the musicians onstage. It was most definitely Scottish music, but it was infused with club beats and samples and sitars and syncopated rhythms and sounds like I had never heard before.
This was music.
Music full of passion.
Music full of life and energy.
It wasn’t safe music, like some other attempts at blending traditional Celtic music with modern sounds. It was raw. It was risky.
And things just got better.
My wife, who is a native of Kazakhstan, started squealing (yes, she squealed) and hopping up and down as she realized she’d seen the dreadlocked musician perform at the state opera house in her home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan just a few weeks earlier, when he and a small group of musicians had travelled there as guests of the British Consul.
It was like a special gift, to have the band at our wedding reception be so fantastic and unique, and to have them playing a return engagement especially for my wife. Well, at least to us it was especially for my wife.
The concert that night was unforgettable, especially when midnight came, and the city erupted in a massive fireworks display. Bennett led the now overcrowded square in a traditional singalong of Auld Lang Syne that segued into an audience-pleasing high energy song that would be well-met in any rave. We danced and celebrated well into the night, one of the best nights of my life, and an amazing way to start our married life.
In Edinburgh, in the days that followed, I managed to find a copy of Bennett’s Bothy Culture, which we would listen to frequently, fondly.
Soon after, my wife and I moved to Kazakhstan, where we lived for fourteen years. One day in 2005, I decided to hunt down information about the dreadlocked musician that we had enjoyed so much that New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh. I loved the CD, and wanted more. We would be returning to the U.S. for the summer, so I went searching, knowing I would stand a pretty good chance of tracking down any new music in the states.
To my heartbreak, I found that Martyn Bennett had died on January 30 of that year at the ridiculously young age of 34. He’d died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he’d been fighting since being diagnosed in November of 2000.
I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t imagine it. That energetic, creative, driving force, who I’d watched blow across Hogmanay like a hurricane – was gone?
From what I’ve read, as Martyn’s illness weakened him, he became unable to tour, and eventually had to stop playing his instruments. But this didn’t stop him from recording his final album, entitled Grit. Bennett described the idea of Grit this way:
Split between the songs of travelling people (Roma) and the Gaelteachd traditions of the Hebrides (Grit) brings together by far the strongest links to the ‘real’ folk culture in Scotland. Virtually all the songs and narrative were sampled from vinyl records or from original quarter-inch tape recordings, the sources of which were mostly recorded from 1950 onwards…
Rhythmically and sonically I have gone to great effort in this recording. In recent years so many representations of Scotland have been misty-lensed and fanciful to the point that the word ‘Celtic’ has really become a cloudy pigeon-hole. This album was a chance for me to present a truthful picture, yet face my own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures.
When I found out that Martyn Bennett had died, it’s hard to describe how devastated I felt, considering I had never met the man. I really didn’t even know much about him. And I hadn’t even taken the time to drop him a note thanking him for the important part he played in the start of my marriage.
His music had travelled the globe with my family several times, and I’d never tried to let him know.
That’s the kind of thing we think about doing, but rarely ever do. And we almost always wind up wishing that we had.
So, Martyn, this is my note. We’re coming up on ten years since you were liberated from your suffering, and this blog post is my attempt to honor you, and thank you for all the joy and pleasure you brought to so many people in the too-short time you were given to share your gift. Especially the joy and pleasure you brought to us.
And it’s also my attempt to help more people to know your name, and your music.
Because yours is a name that deserves to be remembered.
Martyn Bennett lived a full life, pursuing his dreams of preserving the musical heritage of Scotland’s past while embracing the progressive nature of Scotland’s musical future. He was a classically trained musician, a meticulous musical perfectionist with a love of sampling and house beats. He was – and continues to be – an inspiration to countless young musicians across Scotland, and beyond.
Please read more about Martyn’s life in his own words, by reading the bio he wrote on his blog.
Also, read more in depth about Bennett’s life from Herald Scotland journalist, Rob Adams.
Finally, enjoy some of the music of Martyn Bennett, then share it with others.
Extreme biker Danny Macaskill’s The Ridge, with soundtrack Martyn Bennett’s Blackbird from Grit
Hallaig, from Bothy Culture, and the award winning short film by Neil Kempsell
Swallowtail, a more traditional song by Martyn Bennett, with scenes from Man of Aran
Sky Blue by Peter Gabriel, the Martyn Bennett mix. The last recording Bennett made before his death.
And if you have the chance, try to see GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story.