For Baebes, pop goes medieval

July 22, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

When the Mediaeval Baebes sing oldies, they really sing oldies

A group of 12 young Englishwomen (who will be performing at Lilith Fair at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Wednesday), the Baebes are perhaps the only pop group in existence performing hits from the 12th century and before. Singing in Latin, medieval English and archaic French -- with occasional accompaniment on recorder, hurdy-gurdy and crumhorn -- Mediaeval Baebes are the perfect band for those who want to party like it's 999.

Although the group put enormous effort into finding and learning the material, there's nothing especially scholarly about the Baebes' interest in ancient music. "We don't have a particularly academic approach," says member Rachel Van Asch, over the phone from her London home. "We just think, 'Oh, that [song] sounds good. Let's do it.' "

In fact, the group pretty much started as a lark. Singer Katherine Blake (who had previously been a member of the goth-tinged group Miranda Sex Garden) had performed the medieval hymn "Salva Nos" during a cabaret appearance in Berlin a few years ago and was impressed by how well the extreme oldie went over.

So, just for fun, she decided to do more of that kind of music. "She thought it would be really nice to kind of get some of her girlfriends together and start a singing group," says Van Asch. "Kind of as a hobby, really.

"She asked all her friends if they wanted to be a part of it, and you know what girls are like. As soon as you think your mates are in on something, you want a piece of the action."

After making its public debut in an abandoned graveyard -- "really quite a frightening place," says Van Asch -- the Baebes began building a reputation around London. Since then, the group has recorded two albums, 1998's "Salva Nos" and the just-released "Worldes Blysse."

Van Asch admits that it's not easy singing in Latin. "But if you think Latin's a challenge, try singing ancient, medieval, Moorish-influenced French," she says, laughing. "Then you'll really know what a challenge is. And medieval English and medieval Scottish, as well. They're much harder."

Still, there are advantages to singing in tongues no one in the audience is likely to know. For instance, the Baebes never get complaints about the lyrical content of their material, despite the fact that some of the lyrics feature sentiments no songwriter would dare voice today.

"We sing lots of things that are dead un-P.C.," says Van Asch. "We're doing a song at the moment about how dreadful women are." She laughs. "A really, really funny song about a guy who's just whinging on about women. He's clearly been stung.

"Obviously, we're singing it in an ironic way," she adds. "But we don't sing in English, so no one's actually going to know what we're singing about.

"If you want to know what the songs are about, we always put the translations in the book for people to find out. But if you want to remain blissfully ignorant and just imagine your own kind of beautiful, magical thing, then you can do that, too."

Lilith Fair

Who: Me'shell Ndegeocello, the Pretenders, Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan on main stage; Mediaeval Baebes, Kendall Payne and Cherokee on second stage; Toni Blackman, Kashi Tara and Greta Gaines on Village Stage

When: Wednesday, 3:30p.m.

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

Tickets: $31 for lawn seating (pavilion seats sold out)

Call: 410-481-6500 for tickets, 410-730-2424 for information

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