After almost 50 years in the business, acclaimed folk musician Brian McNeill thought he had worked with some talented artistes.
But during a recent trip to Malawi he admits the singing from a group of schoolgirls was some of the best natural voices he had ever heard.
“Music and singing is part of their culture,” he said. “But I was amazed at their ability. Harmony is second nature to them. It was an amazing experience to hear them.”
His visit to the Bandawe Girls Secondary School was part of a year-long project which started thousands of miles from Africa in Falkirk.
Earlier this year Falkirk Community Trust received a Creative Places Award which gave them £150,000 to look at this area and its culture.
The Falkirk Music Pot project takes its name from the iron cooking pots produced by the Carron and Falkirk foundries in the 19th century and exported, particularly to Africa.
The idea came from Gayle Martin, who is in charge of traditional music at Falkirk Council, and is based on the concept that no matter how many times the iron for the pots is melted down and used for something else, it still comes back to it’s origins in Falkirk.
As one of the district’s most talented musicians. Brian was invited to come on board and since the start of this year he has been working with youngsters to encourage them to become involved in music. He has also been composing songs and instrumental pieces, part of which is the Kelpies’ Suite, featuring the area’s iconic landmarks.
It will eventually be showcased at two concerts in Falkirk Town Hall next March, as well as being recorded on CD.
Brian is working with young people and a variety of local groups to write and perform the music with the aim of leaving a lasting legacy.
The trip to Malawi allowed Brian and his wife Jacqueline to spend eight days with the 320 pupils of Bandawe Girls’ Secondary School as part of the project.
Brian’s former school, Falkirk High, has an ongoing partnership with the school which is a mission school in Livingstonia, established in 1997 and supported by the Mamie Martin Fund.
Mariot Dallas, the Falkirk school’s head of music, is Mamie Martin’s granddaughter.
During their trip in September, the pair were fascinated to discover the pupils’ thirst for education and how they would study from 7 a.m. till 2.30 p.m. before beginning chores, including washing their clothes by hand outdoors.
Brian said: “Despite the school lacking many basic resources, all of the pupils wanted to be there and learning. There are so many of them that they have to sleep two to a bunk and they told us of getting up at 1.30 a.m. to ensure they managed to have a shower, which was cold water, before school started at seven.”
The couple also delivered textbooks, stationery and gifts from Falkirk High School and Falkirk Community Trust, as well as their own contributions.
Brian recorded the girls singing and they were fascinated by the musical instruments he had with him, including his well-travelled fiddle.
But as well as working on music, Brian and Jacqueline became involved in teaching classes in English literature and grammar. The national language is Chichewa, but all classes are taught in English.
This impromptu return to the classroom – Brian was a teacher over 30 years ago – highlighted the scarce resources: Jacqueline taught the 87 fourth year pupils ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with only 10 textbooks.
“There was no complaint when I asked the girls to share books,” said Jacqueline. “They are so hungry for education that resources are used to best effect and it was a huge pleasure working with such intelligent and enthusiastic pupils.”
The trip also produced a momentous and exciting find with the discovery of a traditional Falkirk Pot.
When the headmaster Benford Mwakayuni heard of the search, he asked among his staff and within 24 hours, not one but three had been discovered.
One is still being used by the home economics and English teacher, Rachael Msumba. She lives in at the school and her nephew, Danson (18), travelled about 200 miles in the 29 degrees heat to bring the pot from home to school.
Rachael prizes the pot which is used for cooking all kinds of food, n sima, the staple maize flour dish, meat, fish – and porridge.
“Finding the pots, and especially one still being used, was a real bonus,” said Brian. “Jacqueline and I hoped we might be lucky enough to see one, but to find three was amazing. We were asked if it was possible to get more, as they’re so highly prized.”
The couple were so impressed by the pupils’ dedication, despite the basic resources, that they are aiming to raise money to provide the school with 100 purpose-built desks and chairs for the classroom.
The target is £2500 and Brian is producing a recording of the girls’ singing to sell.
The school has no dedicated music department or instruments and the musician has also pledged to provide several guitars.
Asked what he hoped the trip would bring to the music project, Brian said: “It would be great if we could bring some of the girls over to sing in the town hall next March, but if not then we will show some of the film we made while we were working and recording with them.
“Falkirk Community Trust and Falkirk Council’s wish for a lasting legacy is that the music work I began with the pupils will be continued in future visits by Falkirk High School.”