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Puirt à beul

Puirt à beul (, literally "tunes from a mouth") is a traditional form of song native to Scotland, Ireland, and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Name

The Scottish Gaelic term port à beul refers to "a tune from a mouth—specifically a cheerful tune—which in the plural becomes puirt à beul". In Great Britain, they are usually referred to as puirt à beul but a variety of other spellings and misspellings also exist, for example port-a-beul, puirt a bheul, puirt a' bhéil, etc. These are mostly because a number of grammatical particles in Gaelic are very similar in nature, such as the definite article a, the prepositions "of" and "to" which can both be a and the preposition á "from" which can appear without the acute accent.

Modern Irish dictionaries give port (aireacht) béil, translated as "mouth music" also referred to as lilting. Older dictionaries, such as Dinneen, only give portaiḋeaċt, portaireaċt, or portonaċt.

Origin

Puirt à beul has sometimes been used for dancing when no instruments were available. Although some people believe that puirt à beul derives from a time when musical instruments, particularly bagpipes, were unavailable because they were banned, there is no evidence that musical instruments were banned by the Disarming Acts or the Act of Proscription 1746. In his book Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping 1745-1945, John Gibson reprints the entire Disarming Act of 1746, which is usually blamed for the proscription of bagpipes, and shows that bagpipes were not banned.

Characteristics

Usually, the genre involves a single performer singing lighthearted, often bawdy lyrics, although these are sometimes replaced with meaningless vocables.

In puirt à beul, the rhythm and sound of the song often have more importance than the depth or even sense of the lyrics. Puirt à beul in this way resembles other song forms like scat singing. Normally, puirt are sung to a (Hornpipe) or (Jig) beat. Performances today may highlight the vocal dexterity by one or two singers, although four-person performances are sometimes made at mods.

Some elements of puirt à beul may have originated as memory aids or as alternatives to instrumental forms such as bagpipe music.A well-known example of puirt à beul is "Brochan Lom", which is sung in the film Whisky Galore!, and occurs as background music in the film The Bridal Path. A third example, sung by Kitty MacLeod and her sister, occurs in Walt Disney’s Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue, during the wedding celebration.

The rock band Cocteau Twins were noted for their use of puirt à beul in their songs in the eighties and nineties.

Quadriga Consort has been the first ensemble to bring puirt à beul into early music revival.

Mouth music in the Americas

Mouth music was probably once common in areas of North America where Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlanders predominated, in particular the Cape Fear area of North Carolina and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Nowadays it is largely restricted to the latter, as it was a more homogeneous society with less access to other cultural areas.