Andrew Robson’s The Child Ballads

The Sound Lounge, December 10


Robson res
Andrew Robson. Photo supplied.

Had Lady Macbeth penned ballads rather than sleepwalking she may have bequeathed us some bonny wee ditties of daggers, ghosts and bloody hands. Happily others filled that particular need across the centuries, and these traditional English and Scottish ballads were collected in their hundreds by the nineteenth-century American academic FJ Child. The original tunes for some were traced, but not all.

Enter Andrew Robson, who has taken eight ballads that were musical orphans and turned them into striking songs, cushioning or heightening their Gothic horror with his own alto and baritone saxophones, Llew Kiek’s acoustic guitar and bouzouki, Steve Elphick’s double bass and Mara Kiek’s tapan drum. Above it all coursed the latter’s voice. Kiek hurled herself into the gore and grotesqueness with such theatrical relish that there was more than a hint of Lady Macbeth about her, anyway. Often the Scots patois and wealth of unfamiliar words conspired against our total comprehension, but enough of the bloody deeds and jealous rages emerged to chill the blood and trigger the peculiar fascination that horror (and Scandinavian crime drama) seems to hold for our species.

Robson’s music was of at least equal interest. The bass and tapan often carried such primal force as to scythe their own way through the assorted obstacles to love and honour. Then saxophone solos would blaze up like a warrior’s fury, or cry laments for one cut down, poisoned, drowned or dismembered. Erlington had Llew Kiek’s acoustic guitar glinting like sun on the armour of the 15 knights the hero dispatches to save his lady love. The darkest of all, Child Owlet (whose fate, despite his innocence, is to be torn limb from limb by four horses), began with skin-crawling arco bass and was capped by volcanic baritone.

Before The Child Ballads (now available as an album) vibraphonist Bree van Reyk and violinist Veronique Serret enchanted us with extraordinarily diaphanous improvisations on pieces penned by van Reyk or a certain JS Bach. Little did we know of the horror to follow.