Testimonial: The Sunday Herald

Testimonial: The Sunday Herald

A celebration of his new tradition : Roots By Sue Wilson
He was the once-dreadlocked "techno piper" who also composed for string quartet and symphony orchestra; the champion of Scottish tradition who spliced it with pounding dance music; a visionary who could whip thousands into a frenzy. Multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Martyn Bennett, who died in January, aged 33, after a five-year battle with cancer, was a man of many talents and dimensions, something reflected in the diverse array of performers who'll assemble for a celebration of his life and work in Edinburgh this week.

They range from the traditional singer Sheila Stewart, whose voice was sampled on Bennett's last album, GRIT, through classical and jazz ensembles, to DJ Dolphin Boy and folk-fusion firebrands Croft No Five. Also in attendance will be a delegation from Peter Gabriel's Real World label, on which GRIT appeared in 2003. Gabriel last week said Bennett was an artist who "managed to straddle the roots of Scottish music with contemporary grooves, without losing any soul or passion. He was a wonderful person to work with, whose quiet determination led him on a totally original path."

Proceeds from the concert will be shared between Marie Curie Cancer Care, the Bethesda Hospice on Lewis, and the newly-established Martyn Bennett Trust, which aims to support young musicians like Bennett.

Bennett's signature sound was his cross-fertilisation of Scottish folk traditions with the rhythms and technology of club culture, but his creative arena extended wider and deeper, from classical to world music, found sounds to free jazz. His earliest years provided the seed-bed for this diversity, spent as they were in various parts of Canada's cultural melting-pot, including the Highland-descended, Gaelic-speaking rural communities of Newfoundland's Codroy Valley. Accompanying his mother, the singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett, on her researches the young Martyn would fall asleep to the sound of Scottish songs, Irish tunes, Inuit throat-singing and Indian drumming.

After relocation to Scotland when he was six – first Skye, then Kingussie – Bennett took up the bagpipes aged 10; within a couple of years he was winning junior piping competitions . From the outset, though, he favoured the pub session over the strictures of the piping world, and was soon sneaking into bars to join in.

After moving to Edinburgh in 1986, Bennett won a scholarship to the City of Edinburgh Music School, the first traditionally-schooled musician to be accepted on to its pre-conservatoire programme . After three years there, he went on to the RSAMD in Glasgow, specialising in the violin. Tipped for a classical career, Bennett found himself chafing within the narrow disciplines of the genre. "It became more and more apparent that freedom in this environment was a rare thing," he wrote – a feeling catalysed by the advent of rave culture on the popular music scene, even as he was still sneaking off to play his pipes in folk sessions.

Upon graduating in 1994, Bennett bought his first keyboards, sequencer, sampler and mixing desk, and meanwhile set about "relearning" the violin to play traditional-style fiddle. With all these ingredients in his crucible, he embarked on his career of creating some of the most radically inventive and far-sighted music Scotland has ever produced.

"When I first heard his stuff, I just couldn't believe anyone could be that audacious," remembers Donald Shaw of Capercaillie, who'll be performing with singer Karen Matheson at Friday's concert. "I still had the idea back then that there was such a thing as going too far with traditional music – and Martyn was certainly doing that. I almost liked his music in spite of myself."
"Martyn never planned to get up anyone's nose," adds the piper Fred Morrison, another of Friday's performers, referring to the appalled reactions of many folk purists upon hearing Bennett's music. "He was full of integrity, as a person and as an artist, and he had enormous regard for traditional music – he respected traditional musicians far above anything he ever did himself. He was never radical just for the sake of it – it was always in pursuit of what he wanted to do artistically."

Bennett himself often described his objectives in terms of "cultural equity", a phrase coined by the celebrated US musicologist Alan Lomax. In forging connections between centuries-old traditions and cutting-edge club sounds, Bennett sought both to reveal and rejuvenate the former's timeless potency for new audiences, and enrich the often fleeting appeal of the latter.

At a more visceral level, though, Bennett was famed for his incendiary live performances, which included Edinburgh's millennial Hogmanay celebrations, and a legendary set at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2000, after which his Hardland album went on to sell a record-breaking 1000 copies over the weekend. Other career highlights included playing for the Braveheart premiere at Stirling Castle, and at chic Paris nightspot the Buddha Bar, the night before Scotland played Brazil to open the 1998 World Cup .

"There were so many layers to Martyn's music," says Fred Morrison. "So many ideas, so much thought, so much feeling and such amazing musicianship. I really think he was ahead of his time; still is, in many ways – and yet everything he did had so much soul, it just reached people immediately. He was a very special guy."

10 April 2005