When one night in 1996 some friends broke into a cemetery in North London and sang together, bedecked in flowing white gowns, it signalled the start of a musical adventure that 17 years later is still going strong.
Mediæval Bæbes are an all-female vocal ensemble who create English folk music using lyrics from medieval and romantic texts set to unique scores.
The six-strong group, many of whom either live or have lived in Hackney, are known to perform 13th century devotional songs and poems in Latin. Among more conservative church goers, the group’s sex appeal has caused consternation, with one member of the Ely Cathedral congregation recently resigning in protest against a performance by the Baebes.
Their latest album Of Kings and Angels is somewhat less controversial, however. It’s a collection of distinctive Christmas carols they describe as “the traditional, the romantic and the unconventional”. It’s their second seasonal album after 2003’s Mistletoe and Wine.
Katharine Blake, a classically trained musician who has sang backing vocals for Nick Cave and fronted cult group Miranda Sex Garden, is the founding member, singer and musical director of the Bæbes.
Her history lies in Hackney Wick and Stoke Newington, where she used to live and record with the rest of the band.
She remembers one aspect of Hackney very well – her house, which was “a live in work space with a recording studio. I used to love singing while listening to my latest recordings,” she says.
“We had a roof garden where Mediaeval Baebes rehearsals and drinking games would take place.”
She explains that Of Kings and Angels was made purely to satisfy the band’s very ‘English’ demand for a real Christmas record.
“This one is a collection of famous Christmas carols, whereas our previous seasonal CD only had a couple,” she says.
Included here are majestically arranged nativity staples such as ‘Away In A Manger’, and an upbeat version of ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ that will have you raising an old fashioned glass of mead in festive cheer.
Harmonies are allowed to roam free throughout while on ‘There Is No Rose of Swych Vertu’ the singers flex their rhythmical muscles. There’s also a highly individualistic take on the classic number ‘I Saw Three Ships’.
With Of Kings and Angels, Mediæval Bæbes reflect on history and tradition in an uplifting and original way. Be sure to bring a copy along to your family get together or office party this year.