Albannach: Ear to the Past, Eye to the Future

When compared to modern genres, folk music traditions around the globe are sometimes thought of as more quietly understated. But there’s nothing at all restrained in the music of Albannach. Founded in Glasgow in 2005, the five-person band plays traditional, primarily instrumental music celebrating the culture and lore of its native Scotland. But Albannach’s sound is passionate, visceral and primal. Rooted in the Scottish Gaelic traditions of bagpipes and percussive instruments, Albannach plays music that bridges the gap between music written hundreds of years ago and a modern sensibility.

Albannach’s music – showcased on several studio albums but best experienced live onstage – builds on cultural tradition. “It’s based on the music that predates the traditional pipes and drums that we know,” says Jacqueline Holland, one of three drummers in the band. She notes that percussion is at the center of many folk music traditions. “The tribal music of many cultures – Native American, Maori, African – all goes back to drums,” she explains. “They were used for war, for communication, in celebration.” Albannach makes music that preserves and carries those traditions into the 21st century.

Holland plays “rhythm drums” in Albannach. Bandmates Nick Watson and Jamesie Johnston play lead and bass drums, respectively. The band shares a global tribal folk tradition of using drums as a foundation, and then – as in many cultures – adding wind instruments. “For us, it’s the bagpipes,” Holland says. Albannach’s bagpiper is Donnie MacNeil; he’s the only band member with a traditional folk background. The other group members – Holland, Watson, Johnston and didgeridoo player Drew Reid – come from more contemporary musical backgrounds, united by their shared passion for the music of their Scottish ancestors.

Even with its deep immersion into ancient Scottish culture, Albannach has a characteristic in common with modern rock bands: they’re anything but quiet. “Yes, we can be loud,” says Holland with a laugh. Onstage, the group bolsters its acoustic sound with amplification. “Years and years ago when we first started, we never used amplification,” she says. The band’s thunderous sound comes across well, especially in outdoor setting like the many festivals Albannach plays.

But as the group’s popularity has grown, so have the size of those audiences. And as powerful a bagpiper as MacNeil is, “he’s but one,” laughs Holland. “He’s kind of outnumbered by the drums.” And as for the band member they’ve dubbed DigiDrew? “You wouldn’t even hear him” without amplification, Holland admits. “So we do that to bring the music to life and reach the people.”

The intent behind Albannach’s music reaches people, too, even though nearly all of the band’s repertoire is instrumental (Holland does sing on some tunes live onstage). The group’s bagpipe-led tunes are written by MacNeil, who draws from personal experience when composing. By way of example, Holland mentions “Heart in the Holy Lands (Lost in Turkey),” a song found on Albannach’s third studio album, 2011’s Bareknuckle Pipes & Drums.

“We travel internationally, and we were in Turkey,” Holland recalls. “Donnie ended up having to stay behind and take care of some business, and he disappeared for a week into the wild! He had an amazing time with lots of stories, and he incorporated his experiences into the song.” Holland says that because the music of each culture has its own unique character, the Turkish flavor found its way into that tune. And then the other members of the group gave the song an Albannach spin. “How we play the drums is slightly different from traditional Scottish or Celtic music,” Holland says.

The group is very popular at home in Scotland, playing concerts often across the country. But in recent years, Albannach’s popularity in North America has led to a busy concert schedule in the U.S. and Canada. “There’s a huge demand,” Holland says. She attributes at least some of the group’s Stateside success to cultural connections. “There are so many people in America and Canada that have the [Scottish/Gaelic] heritage. People want to know where they came from, and that they belong to something. That’s why we do what we do; it’s to keep the culture alive, to keep people interested in Scotland.” Because at its core, Albannach has an ear to the past, and an eye to the future.