Is that a lance in your pocket?
If so, the Mediaeval Baebes
will be happy to see you!
Friday, March 10, 2002
MacEwan Hall (U of C)
Former leader of the legendary goth band Miranda Sex Garden, Katharine Blake and her troupe of bewitching troubadours breathe new life into Europe’s oldest music. Borrowing in good faith from medieval literary sources, Blake arranges ancient sonnets and prose into workable 21st century melodies.
Formed in London in 1996, the Mediaeval Baebes originally consisted of a dozen women from around the globe who were drawn to each other by a shared love of art, music, theatre and drinking. Combined with their angelic voices,the group’s sensuous image, which incorporates intricately braided tresses and sinfully sheer floor-length gowns, quickly captured the interest of British record companies.
Three top-selling albums later the Mediaeval Baebes have reduced their handsome headcount to a mere nine singers: Blake, as well as fellow Miranda Sex Garden alumnus and Hamilton, Ontario native Teresa Casella, Marie Findley, Claire Ravel, Rachel Van Asch, Carmen Schneider, Ruth Galloway, Bjork’s doppelganger Audrey Evans and – who could forget? – Cylindra Sapphire. Though their numbers may have diminished, the balance and range of their vocal harmonies has not. The nine sisters recorded their latest offering and named it after the romantic symbol of perfect love, The Rose, and included a stunning booklet of gorgeous goth-nouveau artwork and intimate portraits of each Baebe in full anachronistic regalia.
"I think this is our most ambitious project to date," says Blake. "On our other albums we weren’t able to be a part of the whole process. We wanted to see this new one through from beginning to end, to really take responsibility for the final product. It was a great experience, we were able to bring in friends of ours who are musicians, and photographers, and artists."
Rounding out the wild wench entourage is accomplished musician and honorary Baebe, Dorothy Carter, who gives encore guest performances playing the hurdy-gurdy, dulcimer, zither, recorder and autoharp. Also along for the joyride is another Miranda Sex Garden refugee and longtime collaborator, percussionist Trevor Sharpe.
"We’re on a one-month tour of Canada and the U.S. where we all share one bus," says Blake. "It’s a bit of a nightmare getting everyone on the case. Every performance is incredibly live. Hundred-string instruments threatening to go out of tune. The instruments are amplified, but not electric, it’s all organic, and I think the audiences appreciate that aspect of realism. There’s no script – it’s different every time we do it, and anything can happen."
Perhaps, the most notable outside contribution to this album comes from the Mediaeval Blokes, who provide seldom-heard male vocal accompaniment to the Baebes on the bawdy song "Dringo Bell." Blake laughingly divulges that the naughty heirloom tune is about the sad dilemma of "Brewer’s Droop," – that is, when a man’s consumption of alcohol overbids his ability to perform in the bedchamber.
"It’s kind of our version of the Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck." What we did is called up a bunch of male friends of ours and got them so drunk they could hardly stand. Which was perfect, because we wanted a really deep manly kind of bass sound coming from them for this one.... They’re not on this tour with us, but when we play in London again, I think it would be excellent to go drinking and have them onstage with us."
Revelling in the social freedoms that would never have been afforded to women from the times of which they sing, the Mediaeval Baebes spice their wine with a feminist emollient. On another track from their new album, an 11th century Irish ballad entitled "I Am Eve," epithets of Christian misogyny fly like a world of woes released from Pandora’s jar. Still burning with bittersweet irony, the chenille-clad chanteuses reconstruct "The Sour Grove," a lewd 15th century erotic poem sung in medieval Welsh. Extracted from "Cywydd Y Cedor" (or "The Female Genitals") by Gwerful Mechain, this potent poem in celebration of the female body was reputedly banned from many anthologies of Welsh verse on the grounds that it is "salacious."
No strangers to controversy, the Mediaeval Baebes have had their works banned on British television, and have sent clergymen into a tizzy over their pagan sympathies and the liberal interpretation of songs usually reserved for Catholic mass. But speaking in tongues comes naturally to these scholarly-minded maidens; their previous albums have featured hymnals sung in Latin, Middle English, German, Italian and medieval French. During the process of sourcing out their latest array of material, the a cappella choir added several more languages to their dialectical palates. Blake explains that the gradual progression of translating and interpreting the original texts lays the foundations for the shape of the finished product.
"We’re up to eight different languages on the new album. We added medieval Spanish, Russian and medieval Welsh. Oh, and some ancient Irish, too. The music and phrasing arise out of the lingual melodies. It’s exciting to stylize the existing elements and let it grow from there naturally. For example, the song "The Snake" is based on an old fairy tale, and sung in Spanish. It’s sort of the Mediaeval Baebes do Ricky Martin."
By Christine Leonard