Puirt a beulÂ (Scottish Gaelic:Â puirt Ã beul,Â pronouncedÂ [pÊ°urË ÊƒtÊ² a pialË Ìª], literally “tunes from a mouth”) is a traditional form of song native toÂ Scotland,Â Ireland, andÂ Cape Breton Island,Â Nova Scotia.
TheÂ Scottish GaelicÂ for such a tune isÂ port Ã beul: “a tune from a mouthâ€”specifically aÂ cheerfulÂ tuneâ€”which in theÂ pluralÂ becomesÂ puirt Ã beul.Â InÂ mainland BritainÂ they are usually referred to asÂ puirt a beulÂ but a variety of other spellings and mis-spellings also exist, for exampleÂ port-a-beul,puirt a bheul,Â puirt a’ bhÃ©ilÂ etc. These are mostly due to the fact that a number of grammatical particles in Gaelic are very similar in nature, such as theÂ definite articleÂ a’, theÂ prepositionsÂ “of” and to” which can both beÂ aÂ and the prepositionÂ Ã¡Â “from” which can appear without theÂ acute accent.
ModernÂ IrishÂ dictionaries giveÂ port(aireacht) bÃ©il,Â translated as “mouth music” also referred to asÂ lilting. Older dictionaries, such as Dinneen, only giveÂ portaiá¸‹eaÄ‹t,Â portaireaÄ‹tÂ orÂ portonaÄ‹t.
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Puirt a beul originates in Scotland and Northern Ireland where, the traditional cultures of the countries were repressed. All musical instruments were banned. Puirt a beul was invented as a substitute for instruments when music was required for entertainment – and especially for dancing.
Once this prohibition was lifted, and instruments were legalised, Puirt a beul still remained as a musical from in the Celtic regions and remains so until this day.
In puirt a beul, the rhythm and sound of the song often have more importance than the depth or even sense of the lyrics. Puirt Ã beul in this way resembles other song forms likeÂ scat singing. Normally, puirt are sung to a 4/4 or 6/8 beat. Performances today may highlight the vocal dexterity by one or two singers, although four-person performances are sometimes made atÂ mods.
- We also have puirt a beul or mouth music – songs in which the rhythm of the words is meant to replicate the rhythm of certain dance tunes. Some of these songs may have been composed to assist fiddlers, and occasionally pipers, in learning a tune. Others may have been composed as a means of remembering tunes when the playing of the bagpipes or fiddle were proscribed or frowned upon.
Quadriga ConsortÂ has been the first ensemble to bring puirt a beul into the Early Music Movement.
Mouth music in the Americas
When they came across the ocean the ancestors of modern Scottish Americans brought their music with them, including mouth music, which was often incorporated into the lyrics of songs. It became an integral part ofÂ AppalachianÂ music,Â roots music, andÂ bluegrass, from where it spread into many forms of American music.
â€œGaelic Mouth Musicâ€.
Here in Cape Breton, we are not afforded the luxury of hearing a lot of this type of musical expression in the Gaelic language. It is yet another dimension of song and dance that demonstrates a very fun, lively expression of a very real Gaelic culture.
When you hear puirt a beul, I think it becomes obvious quite quickly that the emphasis is on the rhythm for the dance. The words involved with the song are at times simply vocables. Vocables are just combinations of sounds that actually donâ€™t mean anything at all; they are used to keep the timing and rhythm of the tune. These so-called lyrics are put together to allow a step-dancer an opportunity to dance a â€œclippyâ€ strathspeys and reel in good time, much like if they were dancing to a fiddler. It is really grounding to see. If you can imagine, over in the corner sits this young woman who is singing, yes singing, a strathspey. The dancer is on the floor with feet lightly touching and tapping as she makes her way through at least two rounds of a strathspeys and then on to the reel. The reel likely poses the greater challenge to the singer due to its speed and â€œbusynessâ€ of sounds. You would want to have a good, healthy set of lungs before attempting such as task! I think it is fair to say that in places particularly like Scotland, and perhaps Ireland too, Puirt a Beul is a more common occurrence on the Gaelic and Music â€œsceneâ€. However, in-roads are being made here in Cape Breton as well where singers young and old are putting together the odd medley of mouth music, much to the delight of friends and visitors.