Monday, October 15, 2018

Margaret Mead ’18: The Groove is Not Trivial

There is more to traditional Scottish music than the bagpipes (but don’t get us wrong, the pipes are cool). The fiddle was a big part of it, but that old school Gaelic music had fallen out of favor for years. Alasdair Fraser helped reassert Scottish fiddle playing (and cello playing along with it). His role in the Scottish cultural reawakening is documented in Tommie Dell Smith’s The Groove is Not Trivial (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

If ever there was a title that deserved an “amen,” this would be it. Although trained as an engineer, Fraser was always a keen musician. He played staid classical in school, but his heart yearned to cut loose, like his wild highland ancestors. Ironically, he really started his deep dive into the traditional Scottish repertoire when British Petroleum transferred him to San Francisco. There he found fellow musicians willing to research and experiment, as well as audiences that were eager to listen.

For a while, Fraser was a one-man evangelist, but he started releasing recordings just as Scottish cultural pride and political nationalism starting to swell up again. Soon, he was spreading the music through camps and workshops. He also reached whole new audiences through his collaborations with cellist Natalie Haas.

It is blatantly obvious both Smith and Fraser hoped the film would end with the crescendo of a Yes victory on the Scottish independence referendum. Instead, they work their way through the “No” hangover. At least, they got a little bit of independence from the Brexit victory. Hey, if they don’t want Westminster making decisions for Scotland, it must be even worse to be bossed around by Brussels, right? Right?

Regardless, the music is pretty cool, even if you are not well versed in Gaelic/Celtic forms, or even general string band traditions. There is indeed a strong groove to it, so most music fans will feel sound as a pound (rather than a Euro) when immersed in it. Sometimes Fraser’s ensembles also use their fiddles to create drones, which also hits you someplace deep in the ear and the stomach.

There is some stirring music in Groove, but also some rather silly politics that most viewers will have the good sense to tune out. It runs just over an hour, but could still be trimmed by five to ten minutes (which would make it more programmable later for PBS outlets). Regardless, it is a pleasantly upbeat documentary. Recommended for fans of Scottish music and string bands, The Groove is Not Trivial screens this Friday (10/19) as part of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, at the American Museum of Natural History.