Puirt a beul (Gaelic for "mouth music" and pronounced phonetically as "poorssht ah buhl", slurring the s sound and rhyming beul with "gull", not "tool") is a Scotch-Irish singing form in which the singer sings a cappella in a style reminiscent of scat, though with a folkier, slightly less punchy approach. A lot of scholars believe that the instrumental versions of these songs existed first, and the puirt a beul evolved as a kind of mnemonic for musicians to remember and pass on to other musicians.

The music itself is more interested in its syncopation and rhythm of the tune than in creating melodies, and almost no harmonies exist as most puirt a beul is the work of a solo vocalist (although there a number of accompaniments which use 2, 3, and 4 vocalists.)

Generally the puirt follow traditional dance tunes, featuring a slower and more descriptive verse with a lively, easy to follow chorus. The lyrics are almost always bawdy, often using the syncopation and rhythms of the music to sell a pun or linger on a dirty rhyme. (Of course, they're all sung in Gaelic, so good luck trying to figure out the puns in that language.)

It was probably made most famous by the Scottish band Mouth Music, which combined puirt a beul with the more contemporary sounds of world music to record a number of albums in the 1990s. You can of course hear it today at Scottish and Gaelic festivals, and apparently it's big in Nova Scotia.

Puirt-a-beul (plural of port-a-beul, Scottish Gaelic for "mouth music" or literally "mouth tune") are Gaelic songs that were originally sung as an accompaniment to dances when there weren't any instruments available. Thus, many puirt started off as tunes to which words were added later. However, it was always the tune that remained the most important while the words were usually very simple and repetitive. But don't be fooled. Puirt may seem easy but they are in fact a very demanding style of singing.

They tend to be sung quite fast and are usually put into sets of at least two or three so correct breathing is the biggest challenge. I don't think anyone has ever died of asphyxiation after performing a particularly gruelling puirt set (what a cracking story that would be!) but if you're not careful you'll end up feeling slightly faint or dizzy and definitely in a need of a dram or two. Obviously, different singers will use different breathing techniques. The one I've been taught involves dropping a word here and there (usually at the beginning of a line) and using the gap to take a breath. After all, it doesn't matter if you miss a word or two as long as you get the tune right, and live to tell the tale. Of course things are easier when you sing in a group although then perfect timing becomes absolutely crucial. Harmonies aren't terribly popular with this form of singing but they can sound really effective as long as they're not too elaborate.

Most Gaelic singers include puirt in their repertoire but these days they're very often sung with instrumental accompaniment, which seems to contradict their original purpose. Just like so many other types of Gaelic song, especially work songs such as waulking songs, they have lost their original context. But it doesn't mean that they can't be enjoyed.

Below you'll find one of my favourite puirt-a-beul (followed by a translation). The "O's" at the beginning of the first three lines are perfect candidates for being dropped. Note also that each verse is sung twice and the whole port-a-beul is also repeated, just the way you'd normally play a tune. By the way, I don't smoke. I need all of my lung capacity for puirt-a-beul.

O tha 'n tombaca daor,
O tha 'n tombaca gini,
O tha 'n tombaca daor,
B' fhearr leam gun robh e tuilleadh. (x 2)

Gini air a h-uile punnd,
Punnd air a h-uile gini,
Tha e gini air a' phunnd,
Agus punnd air a' ghini. (x 2)

(Oh the tobacco is expensive,
Oh the tobacco is a guinea,
Oh the tobacco is expensive,
I wish you could get more.

A guinea for every pound,
A pound for every guinea,
It's a guinea for a pound,
And a pound for a guinea.)

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