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40th Folk Festival Offers Sparkling Programme

by Alastair Hamilton -

The Shetland Folk Festival always leaves its mark on the memory. Over the years, it has presented a large proportion of the world’s leading roots musicians and part of its appeal is that it has kept its musical boundaries loose, embracing many genres and welcoming musicians from every corner of the world. The archive on the festival website underlines that, listing all the visiting performers who’ve ever appeared.

This year’s event kicks off on Thursday 30 April, though - if you happen to be on the Aberdeen-Lerwick ferry on the evening of the 29th, you’ll have an informal preview!

We always suspected that the Shetland Folk Festival’s committee would come up with something a bit special for the 40th anniversary, but the volunteers who put together this annual miracle have baked an irresistible musical birthday cake. The programme is a delight.

an irresistible musical birthday cake

So, what’s the recipe? Well, there’s plenty to satisfy the large Shetland appetite for North American, Scandinavian and Celtic sounds, with a remarkable sprinkling of folk superstars ranging from J P Cormier and the Poozies to Dougie MacLean and Julie Fowlis.

But there are, as always, some less conventional ingredients, taking us into funk, soul, ska, hip-hop and African a cappella.

It hardly needs saying, though, that the enduring success of the festival has as much to do with Shetland’s own musical strengths, which will feature heavily, as with the eclectic mix of visiting performers. The islands have a particularly strong fiddle tradition that takes its place alongside, but is distinct from, those from Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia and North America.

However, there are musicians in or from Shetland whose repertoires range from African drumming through blues, classical, country, jazz, rock and swing. The interest in music is both diverse and intense and that’s a strong foundation for any musical enterprise. Instrumental playing is fostered among young people and new performers and bands emerge every year.

To the programme, which features a well-judged and enticing mix of returning favourites and newcomers. The Poozies are back, and that’s particularly welcome for those of us who saw them in 1991 and in the BBC television Shetland Sessions. Their life-affirming and entertaining Soaking in the bathtub video gives a clue to their spirit.

Others in a strong transatlantic field need no introduction to folk fans. From Quebec, we’ll be pleased to hear again the foot-tapping, richly-textured sound of Le Vent Du Nord, which has won them a string of awards. Then there’s J.P Cormier, with Bill Elliot, a magical partnership. For J.P., this will be the fifth trip to the festival and we’ll be impressed all over again with his astonishing playing.

But there are Folk Festival newcomers from that part of the world, too. The festival committee have at last managed to track down Nashville-based Della Mae, featuring some of the finest bluegrass and Americana to be heard anywhere.

Also new to the festival – and to the UK – are Emily Mann and Wilhemina Frankzerda, otherwise known as Paper Wings, whose music blends exhilaration with nostalgia. Last but not least on the north American roster are the Stringrays, one of whose players, Rodney Miller, is no stranger to the Shetland festival, having appeared with different bands in the 1980s.

There are returning Scandinavian favourites, too. Frigg – a Finnish septet – offer an energetic Nordic take on bluegrass…or is it a bluegrass take on Nordic folk? Either way, they’re a hugely popular festival band, with many European and North American tours, not to mention seven albums, under their belts.

From Denmark, we have a return visit from Habadekuk, a lively 8-piece Danish band, some of whose members have also appeared here in other guises over the years. They do polkas and jigs, but they venture into salsa and big-band jazz, too, so audiences may well be up on their feet to make the most of those rhythms.

Norway, Sweden and Scotland are united in The Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc, a returning trio that includes Shetland’s Kevin Henderson alongside Olav Luksengård Mjelva and Anders Hall. They first played together in 2009, delighting audiences with their blend of standard fiddles, octave fiddle, viola and Hardanger fiddle.

Ireland is represented by two bands this year, both of them making their first appearances in Shetland. If Frigg offer a Scandi version of bluegrass, JigJam will provide the Irish one, with its members having roots in County Offaly and Tipperary. They blend banjos, guitars, fiddles, mandolins and a double bass to excellent effect.

Also from across the Irish Sea is Heidi Talbot, from County Kildare, though she has spent several years in New York. She’s been favourably compared with a diverse range of vocalists, including Björk, Enya, Linda Ronstadt, Norah Jones and Kirsty MacColl, and has appeared on Irish, British and US television. Recently, she’s been collaborating with Swedish musicians, one of whom (Roger Tallroth of Väsen) will be here and is no stranger to the festival.

There’s more diversity from around Britain. Bristol-based Cut Capers are a nine-piece whose presence underlines the eclectic spirit of the festival, for their sound is mainly funk, soul and hip-hop, enhanced by an impressive brass section that takes them into jazz and ska territory. Popular around Britain, they’ve also performed widely in mainland Europe and farther afield.

Reinforcing that diversity, we welcome a unique choir, Imbube UK, which brings a hugely talented band of UK-based South African singers, dancers and drummers to Shetland, courtesy of Loganair. The six-strong group is directed by Luyanda Lennoz Jezile, whose CV includes being a member of the original London cast of The Lion King and director of the London African Gospel Choir.

From the west of Scotland, Project Smok are among the most exciting young bands around. This trio take their musical cues from the west coast, but journey from there into funk and jazz. Individually, they’ve won awards and one of them, Ali Levack, is a finalist in the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year.

Also from Scotland, and a legend in his own lifetime, is Dougie MacLean. He’s been here before – twice, in 1986 and 2006 – and has meanwhile appeared at, among other places, Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and the closing ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where he performed his anthemic, and much-loved Caledonia. Dougie’s been described as “Scotland’s pre-eminent singer-songwriter and a national musical treasure”. He’s just been awarded an OBE for services to music and charity.

a national musical treasure

From even closer to home, we’ll be welcoming two bands from our southern neighbours in Orkney, neither of them strangers to the Shetland Folk Festival and both of them very well-known on the British folk scene and beyond.

Saltfishforty start from their Orcadian musical base but explore all kinds of other influences that embrace Americana, eastern European folk traditions and even heavy metal. They do this with infectious rhythms, all the while making (as they put it) “as much noise as two people possibly could”.

Making even more noise, and with just as much skill and virtuosity, are The Chair, whose members are mostly from Orkney but include one Shetlander. Again, they’ve toured all over Europe, where their party-band mix of traditional Orkney tunes and blues, dub and klezmer has gone down a storm, just as it does around the UK.

Last but not least, there’s one event at the festival which brings together musicians from Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. What promises to be a truly memorable concert will feature Saltfishforty and a number of Shetland musicians, including Jenny Keldie, plus two outstanding Hebridean vocalists.

Julie Fowlis is known world-wide. She performed in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, watched by more than a billion viewers and sang the theme song for Disney Pixar’s Oscar-winning film, Brave. Kathleen Macinnes also sang for a film soundtrack, this time Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) but she’s also an actress and television presenter.

This year’s event will indeed be special, offering a particularly irresistible musical menu; there is much more information about the performers here. If you’d like to visit Shetland for the festival, you need to be organised, because concerts generally sell out well before the event. Festival membership gives early access to ticket sales and it’s available to buy online from 1 February. Tickets for the concerts go on sale to early members (those signing up during February) at 6pm (UK time) on 16 March. For full details, visit the membership page on the festival website.

you need to be organised, because concerts generally sell out well before the event

We have lots of information about planning a trip to Shetland on this website; bear in mind, though, that concerts are held in several different parts of Shetland, so if you buy tickets for evenings outwith Lerwick, you’ll need to make local travel arrangements.

Over those forty years, the Shetland Folk Festival has welcomed thousands of the very best musicians from around the world. We’re extraordinarily fortunate, both in the range and quality of music on offer, but also in the astonishing commitment, creativity and ingenuity of the volunteers who bring it all together. They make Shetland an even more appealing place to live, as well as visit.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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