Shetland Folk Festival Countdown
by Alastair Hamilton -
Music’s a really big thing in Shetland. We’ve musicians playing in just about every genre from heavy metal to trad jazz, or African drumming to classical. However – whatever musical direction people choose – the love of music-making is often nurtured in that extraordinarily deep pool of creative energy, our traditional music scene.
It was the recognition of music’s special place in Shetland’s culture that led to the founding of the Shetland Folk Festival. For the past 37 years, the event has brought local and visiting musicians together, inspiring each other and delighting audiences.
The hook may be traditional music, but the festival is eclectic. What’s more, it has often welcomed players who went on to make their way on the international stage. I recall, for example, the extraordinary sound of Hanggai, bringing Mongolian throat-singing; but there’s been a wealth of other musical experiences from India, Africa, Australia, Europe and North America.
Just looking through the lists of artists on the archive pages brings back more wonderful memories and the list of performers reads like a Who’s Who of the folk scene: Dave Swarbrick, Kathryn Tickell, Dougie McLean, Kate Rusby, Richard Digance, Eddi Reader, Elvis Costello, Elana James, D L Menard, Sharon Shannon, Ralph McTell and of course our very own Aly Bain. Just as Shetlanders have travelled the world, the musical world has come to Shetland.
The festival is staged entirely by volunteers, members of a dedicated committee who combine a passion for music with admirable organisational skills and an extraordinary capacity for hard work. The whole event is embedded in the community: the visiting performers stay in volunteer hosts’ homes. Concerts take place in community halls throughout Shetland as well as in larger venues in Lerwick. The Festival Club, in a large, many-roomed community centre, is a box of delights in the late evening and the small hours, when players return to expend their remaining energy in informal sessions. (It’s also an excellent place to sample a range of craft beers.)
The committee has announced the provisional line-up for the 38th festival and, in May this year, twelve confirmed bands or soloists will take to festival stages the length and breadth of the isles to demonstrate their musical virtuosity. The four-day feast of music will present visiting musicians from USA, Canada, Holland, Denmark, Finland, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. With a rousing menu already in place and more to be announced, Shetland Folk Festival 2018 promises to be yet another one not to be missed.
Of the twelve acts so far announced, five are from across the Atlantic, playing in diverse styles.
Strings-only supergroup quartet, The Fretless, hail from Canada. They push the boundaries of their local traditional music with their own intricate and high-energy arrangements. Their trophy cabinet includes a 2017 Juno Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. Playing fiddles, violas and a cello, there isn’t a fret among them.
Cajun music has always gone down well at the festival and another supergroup quartet to visit this year is The Cajun Country Revival. The band includes two members of the much-loved Foghorn Stringband, who played in the 2010 festival, together with Cajun legends Jesse Lége and Joel Savoy.
Identical twins, The Brother Brothers are based in Brooklyn, New York and lean towards the darker, moody elements of Appalachian folk and bluegrass traditions. They are fast developing a reputation stateside for captivating live performances and stunningly rich vocal harmonies.
From Manitoba in Canada comes William Prince, a Juno Award winning singer-songwriter from Peguis First Nation, who performs his beautifully tender music with an amazingly rich baritone voice that’s bound to seduce audiences from the moment he starts to sing.
Our final act from across the pond are James Hill and Anne Janelle, another award-winning singer-songwriter duo from Canada who play ukulele and cello. Their intricate and enchanting sound has earned them a Canadian Folk Music Award for best Album of the Year.
From mainland Europe come two very different bands. The festival is delighted to welcome back Baltic Crossing following their very well-received performances during the Shetland Folk Festival in 2012. Their individual members have also played at previous festivals with in groups such as KAN, Habadekuk, Esko Järvelä Epic Male Band and Tsuumi Sound System. With members from Denmark, Finland and England, they have roots firmly planted in Nordic and Celtic traditions, stirring audiences with performances that blend great vitality with a good splash of humour.
Dutchman Tim Kilphuis’s Trio are internationally renowned legends who have been entrancing audiences for over a decade. Alongside bandmates Roy Percy and Nigel Clark from UK, their repertoire includes gypsy jazz, classical and folk music. Gypsy jazz always delights festival audiences and that, alongside sheer technical brilliance, will win them many new friends.
Scotland is well represented this year with three award winners.
Siobhan Miller is the only person ever to win Scots Singer of the Year for a third time. She’ll be bringing her award-winning vocals and soulful renewal of traditional song to Shetland. She performed at the festival in 2012 alongside Jeanie Leslie and this time will be returning with her fantastic band.
Self-described as “hypno-folkadelic ambient trad”, Scottish legends Shooglenifty will be making a welcome return following their previous visits to the festival in 1995 and 2009. Following the sad loss of their much-loved fiddler and front man Angus R Grant in 2016, they spent last year remembering, recording and re-grouping, and are now back again with a new fiddler, ready to create their usual fiery and infectious blend of Celtic traditional music and dance grooves.
Hailing from the Scottish Highlands and Islands is a young band who won the title of Up and Coming Artist of the Year at the BBC Scots Trad Awards last year. Hò-rò’s unique and energetic tune arrangements and vibrant stage presence, accompanied by a dollop of Highland craic, will go down very well.
Calan from Wales brings together five remarkable young musicians who have created their own fresh and vibrant sound as they breathe new life into traditional Welsh music. We can look forward to Welsh step dancing, humour and colourful attire, as well as fast-paced, uplifting tunes and beautiful, haunting songs.
Last but by no means least of the visiting acts booked so far is Moxie, a young quintet from Ireland who have added some progressive, world and jazz influences to the traditional Irish backbone of their sound. They are fast garnering a reputation for highly charged live performances and are becoming a festival favourite in Europe, America, Australia and beyond.
If past experience is anything to go by, audiences will be hugely impressed by the wealth of homegrown talent on the programme. Visitors and locals alike will be entertained by our own Haltadans, whose stylish performances give a new lease of life to long-forgotten tunes.
Making their debut appearance at Celtic Connections in Glasgow this year – and hot on the heels of their first album launch – are talented Shetland youngsters Fjanna, whose ages range between 14 and 16. They will be performing traditional Shetland and Scottish traditional tunes as well as their own compositions, demonstrating the skills that saw them deservedly win the Shetland’s Got Talent competition in 2016.
Also performing at Celtic Connections this year are Vair, who had the room completely crammed at their album launch at the Shetland Folk Festival last year! Citing traditional Shetland, Scottish and Irish folk and American bluegrass as their influences, their aim is to make music for any occasion.
It’s back to Americana with another local band, Kansa. With their own contemporary sound and tight knit harmonies, they’ve individually grown up enjoying the musical flavours of blues, jazz, funk and bluegrass which they bring to their performance.
Those are just some of the 40 or so local performers who, collectively, will demonstrate why the islands are world renowned for their musical talent.
There will be more announcements about the line-up in the coming weeks. Festival concerts will take place all over the isles and will conclude as usual with the famous ‘Foys’ – three venues open on the Sunday night featuring a short 15-minute set by all of the visiting bands.
If you’d like to be part of it all, the first requirement is to be rather more organised than I’ve sometimes been myself: the lesson has been learned. Ticket sales take place in two stages, with early members (those who buy memberships during February) able to book their choice of concerts from 19 March. Tickets go on sale to the general public from 2 April but, if you leave it until then, you might find that one or more of your chosen concerts is sold out. All booking is online.
All of this adds up to a superb musical extravaganza that combines concerts, sessions and sleepless nights. We’ll all be exhausted by the end of it; but deeply satisfied!
Posted in: Creative Scene