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Musical pairs

For the young Scottish folk band Breabach - whose career began on the Open Stage at Celtic Connections 2005 - the start of 2014 must seriously have felt like living the dream.

Many of the performers pictured here as part of the Boomerang Project will headline a concert in Glasgow in July
Many of the performers pictured here as part of the Boomerang Project will headline a concert in Glasgow in July

After bringing in the New Year at Australia's massive Woodford Folk Festival, near Brisbane, the Glasgow-based five-piece then flew another 1400-odd miles to settle in for a week's residence at the Muriwai Surf Club in New Zealand, amid the black volcanic beaches of Auckland's dramatic west coast - all of this taking place, of course, at the height of Antipodean summer.

Not that Breabach, together with 11 fellow musicians from Australia's Aboriginal and New Zealand's Maori communities, weren't singing for their supper (or their surf). Drawing on each group's parallel experiences as champions of embattled minority traditions, both musical and linguistic (Gaelic, in Breabach's case), the week's objective was nothing less than the creation of a brand-new collaborative concert programme, simultaneously celebrating each culture's distinctive language, music and dance, while charting fresh common ground between them.

Produced by way of a groundbreaking international partnership, and named to reflect its globe-­spanning trajectory, The Boomerang Project premières at Womad New Zealand in Taranaki a week today, followed by a performance at Sydney Opera House as part of next month's Homeground festival. Its northern hemisphere leg starts off at July's Hebridean Celtic Festival, in the Gaelic heartland of Lewis, and culminates with a major show in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games.

In the beginning… back in Auckland at the start of January, there were just 16 musicians in a room, many of them meeting for the first time, all facing a substantially blank canvas - though acquaintance had been made, music shared and outline ideas discussed via electronic means. And despite their dauntingly disparate backgrounds, the performers' key point of connection - and thus the show's unifying theme - emerged both swiftly and organically.

"We basically spent the first day getting to know each other, talking about what we do and where we come from," says Breabach's piper and whistle player, Calum MacCrimmon, who was designated musical director. "And the common link that came through very quickly was that our cultures have all had to fight for survival, in both fairly recent and very recent history."

A good deal of discussion, for instance, centred on the fact that within all three communities' living memory, their native languages have been officially and systematically discouraged, if not actively suppressed.

"But they have survived," MacCrimmon continues. "And that was the other key common thread: all the artists involved are really strongly grounded in their traditions, but equally focused on looking forward, finding ways for those traditions to keep evolving in the present - and bringing different cultures' shared experiences together like this is a very powerful way of doing that."

While projects such as Boomerang, with such limited time to put together a stage-ready product (barring one day's final rehearsal before the New Zealand show), carry an inherent risk of contrivance or enforced artistic compromise, in this case the musical connections became just as readily apparent.

"I'd been listening to everybody's stuff beforehand," MacCrimmon says, "looking for points of contact in the melodies and scales and so on, and I found a bit of a piobaireachd that's on our last album where the core rhythms seemed to tie in with the haka, which is what two of the New Zealand guys specialise in. And once we were in Auckland, as soon as they heard me play it, one of them started writing a new haka to go over that section.

"Then we found that the didgeridoo sits really naturally with the pipes as well - it's like another big drone. So through that one tune we were able to explore Maori, Aboriginal and Gaelic art forms. It was quite an amazing thing how it all came together; everyone was really quite moved - and it kind of set the tone for the rest of the week, gave us confidence that the whole thing really could work at a musical level."

Even the piobaireachd's title and origins added to the serendipity: "It's called 'roud To Play The Pipes," says MacCrimmon, "and it was written in the 18th century when playing the bagpipes was effectively forbidden, so in itself it's a real message of strength and defiance."

For New Zealand's Horomona Horo, a leading exponent and revivalist of the Maori instrumental traditions known as taonga puoro, the sense of underlying kinship extends beyond the music itself to the social and cultural fabric within which it was traditionally woven.

"Our instruments weren't used just for entertainment," he explains. "They were an integral part of village life, with each one having its own particular meaning or purpose, whether it was sacred, celebratory or simply functional, and there seems to be a similar integration among Gaelic music and the people and places it came from."

With other featured artists including the Maori group Moana And The Tribe, Aboriginal singer-songwriters Shellie Morris and Casey Donovan, and traditional dancers Djakapurra Munyarryun, Tim Bishop and Peta Strachan, all of them contributing newly-created as well as traditional material, The Boomerang Project has been a full two years in the making. Its primary impetus has come from the evidently unstoppable triumvirate of Scotland's Lisa Whytock, director of the Active Events agency; Womad New Zealand's associate director Emere Wano; and Rhoda Roberts, head of indigenous programming at Sydney Opera House.

"It's a lot of flights," notes Whytock darkly, highlighting just one of the myriad formidable logistical challenges involved in an international co-production of this scale and prestige, over these distances. But with funding successfully jigsawed together from high-level bodies including Creative Scotland, Glasgow Life, Creative New Zealand and the Australia Council, as well as other partners, it's all systems go - a fact that Horo attributes to another aspect of traditional commonality.

"Strong women have always been the backbone of all our cultures, and the vision, courage and perseverance that have brought this project about are a prime example. More broadly, too, strong women means strong families, which means survival."

Another kindred dimension is that some of the Maori and Aboriginal participants can trace familial connections to Scotland. Horo's great-great grandfather, a seafarer on whaling ships, was a MacGregor, while Shellie Morris's maternal and paternal great-grandparents were a Muir and a Campbell respectively.

"A good many east coast Aboriginal people have Scottish ancestry," says Rhoda Roberts. "A lot of Scots settled along the north coast of New South Wales, where the country reminded them of home.

"Back in the old days, Celtic and Aboriginal families both lived under segregation, and shared a common enemy. The Gaelic clan system also operated on a similar kinship structure to the Aboriginal peoples', so there was a certain understanding that the English often didn't recognise."

In this connection, Horo is particularly excited about the project's visit to Lewis, where the musicians will be staying in the island's blackhouse village, and he plans to play some of his sacred instruments within the iconic stone circle at Callanish. "And only after that will I buy my MacGregor kilt," he declares. "I can't wait for it to meet my ancestral tattoos - to rejoin the bloodlines of two warrior tribes!"

While the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow are of course fundamental to the project, it might be thought that for some Boomerang participants this context might be a faintly jarring one, given the Commonwealth concept's lingering imperial echoes. Roberts, however, prefers to view the occasion within a wider, or deeper perspective.

"When you're able to consider a future of unity, recognise the mistakes of past histories and talk together in the circle, a new tomorrow begins - one that has learnt from the past so you can walk towards the future," she says. "In Aboriginal culture, our Dreaming connections are about the past, present and future: we create new song lines so the coming children of the next seven generations can continue the same journey."

The project culminates with Boomerang headlining a major Festival 2014 concert in Glasgow on July 24, as part of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games celebrations

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