Mediaeval Baebes
at the Pagan Federation
Conference in Croydon
(21 November 1998)
and at the Hexagon in Reading
(1 December 1998)

What to make of the Mediaeval Baebes? They are somewhat of a baffling phenomenon. Twelve women from as far apart as New Zealand, the Americas, Europe and England. Founded by Katharine Blake from Miranda Sex Garden, the Baebes have taken the classical charts by storm, been banned from the regular Sunday Evening TV god slot "Songs of Praise" for being far too pagan sympathetic, managed to reduce a Sun* reporter to tears (Yay!) and have probably further alienated Songs of Praise by being star guests at the recent Pagan Federation conference in London.

Reading the mini-bios in their programme/brochure could leave you with the expectation of something bizarrely gothic or strange and experimental rock (well, at least some of the members seem to do so when they are not being Mediaeval), yet the lyrics include 14th century lullabies, songs from Dante's Inferno and old favourites like "Gaudete" and the "Coventry Carol." So it was slightly confused expectations that I took my seat.

A semi-circle of microphone stands, draped in ivy, a rather random-looking heap of drums on one side, a table bearing a number of interesting looking instruments -- hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer and a zither being the only ones I could identify -- on the other. As the audience stilled, a line of figures filed out from the wings, taking up positions behind the mics, one of them raises a recorder and plays a single note, echoed briefly by a few voices before they launch into song -- twelve attractive women in twelve variations on a theme of mediaeval style dress in red, twelve voices raised in harmonious unison.

While they may not quite have the technical perfection of, say, Emma Kirkby, they are pretty damn close and they do it with an enthusiasm and joy that leaves you breathless. They smile, they dance -- not in some choreographed pattern, but just enjoying the music (though occasionally, I did find myself looking for the pile of handbags), they giggle disarmingly at the occasional interruption to the smooth running of the event, but their commitment to the music is total. Whether it is the solemn restraint on such songs as the "Coventry Carol" or "An Adult Lullaby" or the infectious energy of "Salva Nos" or "Ah Si Mon Moine," they put their all into each number. The arrangements are sometimes ethereal, sometimes almost wreathed in incense and the echoes of a church hall, some, such as the marvelous "How Death Comes" make your hair stand on end. Many of the songs are sung unaccompanied or with percussion, but lurking at the back is the endearing figure of Dorothy Carter, who wields the assorted strange and wonderful devices with complete confidence and the expertise of years of practice. For a couple of numbers, she also provides the vocals, and gives you a sense that behind the image of your beloved, but somewhat eccentric aunt, is somebody with wicked sense of fun, somebody you can imagine singing rumbustious songs while tankards are banged on the table. Some of the Baebes join in with assorted recorders, tambourine like objects and the occasional bell to add the musical montage.

Overall, a very satisfying and enjoyable evening, certainly good enough to entice me out to see them again soon after in Reading. It might not satisfy the purists, but then, what does? If I had a criticism, it would be that they don't do enough with multi-part harmonies -- too many of the arrangements are 12 voices singing the same thing. They can be more adventurous, as the arrangement of "How Death Comes" shows, and for myself, I would like to hear more in this vein. I would certainly recommend checking out the albums Salva Nos (Virgin Records, 1997) and the new one Worldes Blysse (Virgin Records, 1998) as soon as you are able. Those readers in Canada may well be able to catch them during the first two weeks of December as they embark on a whirlwind tour. For further information, check out their web site.

If you get the chance, go see them, if not, buy the album and have fun.

[ by Ian Walden ]

* The Sun, a terribly tacky tabloid whose journalistic focus begins and ends somewhere between the shoulders and midriff of any women it comes into contact with. Famed for such headlines as "Gotch" (after the sinking of the Belgrano), "Up yours, Delors" (referring to a disagreement over European policy) and "Pulpit Pooves Can Stay" (after the Church of England General Synod decided not to expel homosexual priests). Oh yes, and it is owned by Rupert Murdoch.