Obituary: Martyn Bennett

Star of the Celtic music scene with a unique pipes and beats sound

Martyn Bennett, who has died of cancer aged 33, was one of Scotland's most feted young musicians. He caused a sensation - and much controversy - in British folk music over the last eight years, as he mixed Scottish bagpipe and fiddle music with techno beats.

Bennett struggled with cancer throughout his adult life and recorded his final, and most remarkable work, Grit, in 2003. Here he sampled the voices of Scottish travellers from the 1950s, building a sound collage around them to extraordinary effect. "I don't really know how Grit happened," Bennett said, "it just did. I was trying to keep myself alive and survive something really horrible, and writing music was quite a good way of focusing on it.

"Cancer is a piece of grit inside your soul which you can't get out, so you have to try and make something of it. But grit is also rock salt, an old medicine. I also see it as representative of cultures trying to survive."

Bennett was born into a Gaelic-speaking family in Newfoundland, Canada. His earliest musical memories were of hearing traditional Celtic music played in the farming communities of Codroy Valley in Western Newfoundland. His family moved to Quebec when he was five, but a year later his parents separated and Bennett returned with his mother, Margaret, to Scotland, initially living on the Isle of Mull before settling in Kingussie, Speyside.

Bennett was introduced to the bagpipe by his history teacher, David Taylor, at school. At the age of 12, he began winning prizes in junior piping competitions. Being a young prodigy meant Bennett attracted attention at folk festivals: he recalled being smuggled into the pubs under someone's coat and getting the pipes out before anyone had noticed the under-age drinker.

In 1986 the family moved to Edinburgh, where he won a scholarship at the City of Edinburgh Music School. Bennett was the first traditional musician enrolled into this classical conservatoire; he noted that the next three years, studying composition, violin and piano, learning to read and write music, were the most important of his life.

In 1990 he gained a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD), Glasgow, to study performance on the violin and piano. There he met his future wife, Kirsten.

Just before graduating in 1993 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. This and his distaste for what he described as the suffocating environment surrounding the UK's classical music industry led him to look for new forms of musical expression. Surviving medical treatment, Bennett bought a keyboard, sampler and mixing desk, and began recording his first album.

Inspired by the rave scene, he played fiddle and bagpipes over programmed dance beats. His self-titled album was released on a small label in 1996, and immediately received attention from the Scottish media. Deals with Rykodisc in the US and Real World in the UK brought Bennett to the forefront of the Celtic music scene, his pipes and beats style winning over young listeners, while alienating many traditionalists.

In 1998, he released Bothy Culture, a pioneering album of Celtic dance mixed with hard electronic beats. Bothy Culture launched Bennett internationally, topping the US college radio charts, and he was invited to perform for the Scottish football team in Paris on the day before they played Brazil in the 1998 World Cup.

In 2000, Bennett released Hardland, another album exploring connections between traditional Scottish dance and techno. His headlining performance at that year's Cambridge Folk Festival was, for many, the weekend's highlight, and suggested he would develop into a major attraction. That October, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and had to pull out of all future engagements.

He started a course of chemo- and radiotherapy that lasted eight months. During this time, Bennett, who had relocated to Mull, set up a home studio to write his next album.

Further hospitalisation and major surgery followed in 2001. Somehow Bennett managed to record Glen Lyon, a traditional folk album featuring the voice of his mother, herself a noted folk singer.

In early 2003 Bennett destroyed his collection of instruments: "It was the worst day of my entire life. Every day for about three years I'd been trying to play my instruments and I couldn't. Well, I could play them, but the music wasn't coming out of me, it was like I was a ghost, there was no heart and soul in me. And I just suddenly went into this blind rage and destroyed every single instrument I owned, just smashed it all to pieces. It was incredible. I got so angry I murdered my little family of instruments."

Bennett used this period of illness and destruction to create Grit, which won him the best reviews of his career. Yet he confessed that his illness had so scarred him he was unsure if he wished to continue making music.

He is survived by his wife, mother and father.

· Martyn Bennett, musician, born February 17 1971; died January 30 2005


Garth Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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