Matter of tradition as Aly and Phil hit the road

Phil Cunningham (right) and Aly Bain will be performing in Motherwell next month.
Phil Cunningham (right) and Aly Bain will be performing in Motherwell next month.

Phil Cunningham may have been a leading light of the Scottish folk scene for nearly 40 years, but part of him still wants to be a zoologist.

Phil is best known for his collaboration with Aly Bain and the duo will be in Motherwell Concert Hall on Saturday, August 15, demonstrating why they are still the best of Scotland’s traditional musicians.

Phil started as a professional musician in 1976 when he joined the established Silly Wizard as a 16-year-old, but his love affair with traditional music started long before then.

He said: “I was given a toy accordion for my third Christmas and within an hour I had gotten a tune out of it, so my parents decided to send me for lessons.

“Sometimes when I was dragging an accordion around behind me I wished there had been a penny whistle in that sock, but I continued to develop until I was hanging out with the guys from Silly Wizard as my brother Johnny was in the band.

“I agreed to join and thought I’d be in it for maybe a year ... but that’s not how things worked out.”

Silly Wizard would split up in 1988 and by then Phil had already been working with fiddler Aly having bailed him out of a musical emergency.

Phil said: “I had known Aly for a number of years, but we had never performed together until one night in London the person he was supposed to be playing with missed their flight or something.

“I said I’d play the piano for him, still not sure why I did that as I could barely play the piano, but there I was on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall playing the piano for Aly Bain.

“A short time late Aly recorded one of his television shows and invited me to be on it, such was the public’s reaction that we decided to tour together - the tour was supposed to be for six weeks and here we are nearly 30 years on still working together.”

Phil admits that he is now so linked to Aly that people seem unable to tell them apart.

He said: “When I’m walking down the street a lot of people ask me if I’m Aly Bain and he gets the same with me, I remember one time I was scratching my back on a railing and heard a voice shout “there’s that Aly Bain scratching his back like a big bear”.

“I was up at Loch Fyne recording some wildlife the other day and these two divers stuck their head out of the water, looked at me and one of them said “are you that ceilidh guy?” before disappearing, so I’m not sure if they thought is was Aly or myself.”

Away from music Phil’s passion is for wildlife and he hasn’t given up thoughts of earning an official qualification.

He said: “I now lecture at the Royal Conservatoire, aside from the fact I am amazed there is a degree course in traditional music and piping, it does make me want to step up my academic career.

“Before I joined Silly Wizard I was all set to study to be a zoologist and the interest in wildlife and landscapes has never left me.

“Seeing what these kids can do after four years of study as they set off on their own musical adventures is amazing and really does make me want to follow my own academic pursuits.”

Although still keen to one day get his zoology degree Phil says he is thrilled by the way his near 40 years in music have gone and continue to go.

He said: “Julie Fowlis asked me if I have any regrets and I really don’t, I don’t ever feel like I’ve been tied to a job and there has never been a dull moment.

“A lot of it has been ‘right place, right time’, I joined Silly Wizard at a time when traditional music was undergoing something of a revolution and the TV exposure Phil and I got was very important.

“Really I have loved every moment, of course I still have ambitions, but that is different to regrets and I still hope one day to perform in Australian and Japan which I think would be amazing.”

Phil is busy recording a new television show about the export of Celtic music, recording and producing albums, getting ready for the new term at the Royal Conservatoire and his annual Christmas show in Edinburgh as well as his tour with Aly.

He said: “I love everything I do and have been afforded so many wonderful opportunities, however my main focus remains touring with Aly and we can’t wait to get back on the road again next month.”

The show starts at 7.30pm and tickets costing £20 (£18 concession) are available by calling 01698 403120 or visiting Culture NL