Obituary: Martyn Bennett
Storming innovator in Scottish music
Wednesday 02 February 2005
At least two of his albums, Bothy Culture (1998) and Hardland (2000), are landmarks, transporting beautiful yet often fiery tunes from a more innocent age into the supercharged world of DJs and electronica. His real achievement was to create a buoyant, inspiring new dance hybrid that fed on the grace and richness of the original source of tunes without compromising them. Unselfconsciously, he took folk music several bounds forward, yet maintained the respect of the same traditional music lovers who had acclaimed his sensitive solo fiddle playing years earlier.
He was a visionary whose work was still evolving and one of the tragedies of his premature death at 33 - and the long years fighting cancer that preceded it - is the sense of being cheated out of what would surely have been an even more creative future. His best years still seemed ahead of him.
Bennett had a rarefied background. He was born in Newfoundland, son of Iain Knight and Margaret Bennett, and spent his early years in the Cordroy Valley absorbing the Scots Gaelic culture of the Highlands emigres in the region. The family spent a year living in Quebec before returning to Scotland to live on the Isle of Mull. They continued a nomadic existence, living in tents with travellers at one point - "My mum was a hippy," said Martyn - but, already showing prodigious musical talent, he wound up in Edinburgh studying classical violin and piano.
It was here that his musical horizons widened. He played violin in a symphony orchestra and fiddle in informal pub sessions, also taking up the bagpipes and, during the 1990 summer of love, acquired a taste for the clubbing scenes in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He also took to busking, and first hit on the idea of playing fiddle tunes over a beatbox he heard pounding in the streets.
With his flailing dreadlocks and high energy, he cut a charismatic figure as he embarked on his bold experiments, exploring his dual interest in the Scots tradition and technology. He worked with another innovator, Martin Swan, on Swan's acclaimed Mouth Music project and in 1996 released his first album, Martyn Bennett, on the small indie label Eclectic. He caused a minor sensation with his explosive live performance at the Braveheart film premiere party at Stirling Castle.
His second album, Bothy Culture, released on the Ryko label in 1998, marked him out as a leading figure in the evolution of Scottish music. Taking its name from the old Highland bothies where shepherds and travellers would meet, rest up, swap tunes and party, the album was a storming mix of Gaelic tradition, raw emotion and glorious, full-blooded dance beats. It also drew on Scandinavian and Islamic music, and sampled the Gaelic bard Sorley MacLean reading his poem "Hallaig" shortly before he died.
The album won him a lot of friends, came agonisingly close to winning a Mercury Music Prize nomination and encouraged him to form a band, Cuillin, including his wife, Kirsten, on keyboards. At one famous gig in Paris before the opening World Cup match between Scotland and Brazil, Sean Connery, Ewan MacGregor and Ally McCoist got on stage to dance with them.
Some of the momentum was lost in the business problems that followed and Bennett moved to the Isle of Mull, where he met a kindred spirit, Martin Low. The result was a fierce explosion of hardcore Scottish dance on the album Hardland, released on his own Cuillin label in 2000. An electrifying live performance topping the Saturday night bill at the 2000 Cambridge Folk Festival is regularly talked of in hushed tones as one of the most spectacular shows in the long history of the festival - reflecting in 1,000 sales of the album at the festival alone.
It was the high point of Bennett's career - less than three months later he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The next few years involved intense chemo and radiotherapy and several major operations; at one point he had all his bone marrow replaced.
Yet he still found the time and energy to produce two more albums. On Glen Lyon he recorded the natural sounds and rhythms of the Isle of Skye to accompany the singing of his mother Margaret Bennett, and in 2003 he was signed by Real World, the label founded by Peter Gabriel, to release Grit. It was perhaps the most extraordinary album of his career, sampling the great Scots travelling singers like Jeannie Robertson and Lizzie Higgins and the Gaelic-language singer Flora McNeil and setting them in challenging techno settings.
It was a painful album for him to record - literally and spiritually - and he admitted that at one point he was so frustrated and angry about his own inability to play that he smashed every instrument he had - pounds 20,000 worth - in a blinding rage.
By this time he had already taken the decision not to have any more treatment and accept whatever fate had in store for him. He seemed to have found solace, enjoying living close to the earth in Mull with his beloved wife Kirsten and communing with nature. In contrast to the wildness of his music, he had a gently spiritual demeanour and a wry, sense of humour.
Talking about how during his illness he had turned more and more to the purity of traditional music for his listening pleasure, he said, "I think it's great what you can do with electronics, but why twiddle with knobs when you could be twiddling with a fiddle peg or a woman's breast?"
Martyn Knight-Bennett, fiddler, piper and record producer: born St John's, Newfoundland 17 February 1971; married 2002 Kirsten Thomson; died Edinburgh 30 January 2005.
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