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Shetland’s links with Norway take musical form

by Alastair Hamilton -

In basing himself in Norway, internationally-known Shetland musician Kevin Henderson is not only helping to maintain Shetland’s strong Scandinavian connections. He’s also demonstrating the value of today’s technology in promoting culture and learning.

Those connections go back 1,200 years or so, to the Viking era, and remain important to this day. 600 years of Norse rule left their mark on place-names, the Shetland dialect and the rich archaeological record. More recently, Shetland offered a refuge and support for the Norwegian resistance through the ‘Shetland Bus’, a covert link maintained initially by small fishing vessels that sought to evade Nazi surveillance.

The legacy is the warmest of welcomes for Shetland folk up and down the west coast of Norway, where Norwegians often speak of Shetland as their “western isles”. In normal times, summer flights offer the opportunity for travel in both directions.

Kevin moved to Norway about seven years ago but had been coming and going from 2006. “I was on the road quite a lot, with Boys of the Lough, doing long tours in the States, and that sort of thing, so although I was technically based in the UK, I was basically here.” He now lives about halfway between Oslo and Kristiansand.

Growing up in Shetland, Kevin benefitted from music tuition in school and from the teaching of one of Shetland’s finest exponents of the fiddle, Willie Hunter. In 1991, he and other school friends (Maurice Henderson, Michael Ferrie, Chris Stout and Davie Keith) formed Fiddlers’ Bid. Andrew Gifford joined in 1997 after Michael Ferrie passed away.

Augmented over the years by other exceptional talents, including harpist Catriona Mackay, guitarist Seán Óg Graham and bassist Neil Harland, the band has taken Shetland fiddle music to audiences around the world for almost thirty years, picking up a string of awards along the way.

It's not unusual for Shetland musicians to play in more than one band, and Kevin has been involved with several. In 2002, he was invited to join the well-known Boys of the Lough and from 2003 has played with Session A9.

Since 2009, he’s also a member of The Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc, with Olav Luksengård Mjelva and Anders Hall. As Kevin explains, that came about through a festival.

“I met Anders, and we just hit it off, just in sessions and playing at the festival. We got on great, both on a social level and musically. Anders had had the idea about having a fiddle trio for a while, and when we met and were playing, he was quite intrigued by the different styles, the different types of tunes. He mentioned Olav, because he was with him in Sver, another band, and he said ‘Why do we not just get together, have a weekend of just playing music and see what happens?’

“So, in May of that year we did that, and it went really well, so we thought, let’s put together a tour, and we’ll see what the response is. We did a tour in Norway in November that year and then the rest is history!”

Kevin enjoys living in Norway, though he does sometimes miss the informality of Shetland or Scotland. “Norway’s great, but it’s not the same on a social level, where you can just go in a pub and start speaking to somebody. It’s just a different culture. But a lot of the time, when they find out you’re from Shetland, they open up quickly”.

The Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc has also won worldwide praise, playing at (among other events) the Tønder Festival in Denmark, Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Celtic Colours in Cape Breton and Boston’s A Celtic Christmas Sojourn. Their first album earned a Norwegian Folk Award and a place in Songlines magazine’s Top of the World selection. There have been many television and radio appearances, too, for example on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

The Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc has won worldwide praise

Kevin feels that his style “has maybe slightly changed since I moved to Norway and started playing more Scandinavian music. Some ornaments that I do just kind of happen and I think ‘where did that come from’? When you move to another place, the other culture comes in and you listen to more of that music. It goes in without you realising, I think.”

He makes interesting comparisons between Norwegian and Shetland music.

“The style of tune is different. They do have reels in the south-west region of Norway, but I wouldn’t say they’re played like we play them. The most common types of tunes are halling and springer, which we don’t really have, though some of our older music is more akin to that.”

Indeed, Shetland music has itself changed from the old, traditional form. “The influence of Scottish music has definitely changed how it was played. If you listen to old archive recordings, a lot of the time there’s a lot of slowing down and speeding up in the tune. But when Scottish dance music came in and became popular, the beat was evened out.”

These days, Shetland musicians don’t tend to adhere to a single expression of the tradition. Even so:

“There’s something about the makeup of the tunes that’s unique. You can tell if they’re Shetland, although there’s a lot of similarities to Scottish and Irish music, I suppose. I guess everyone’s got a different opinion on it, but for me, I think a lot of fiddle players in Shetland have their own style now. We have access to so much music now; before, you didn’t. You were more or less locked in your village and the transport links were poor. It’s said that at one point there were five regional styles within Shetland, just because folk never got out of their island. Each area had their own version of a specific tune. I think that, when the collectors came and transcribed it, one version became the go-to version, the other versions kind of got left out”

at one point there were five regional styles within Shetland

That, he says, is something that is common to every tradition. The vastly increased ability to travel has also tended to modify styles: “a couple of hundred years ago, folk didn’t have trains and buses and cars to go everywhere”. Where styles did become closer – Kevin cites the example of Shetland and Donegal - it was probably because players were meeting up and exchanging tunes through fishing or whaling.

“I’ve heard the same thing in Norway; there are regional styles. The Hardanger fiddle’s not found in the north of Norway, for example. It’s a similar story wherever, I think.”

So, how is Kevin’s own music evolving? “I would say I’m starting to look at doing more of my own music now and that I’m starting to get very interested in jazz and improvisation.”

“I’ve always like Stephane Grappelli and that style, but I’ve never learnt it, and the whole improvising thing, for me, I find it a bit scary! The older I get, the more I’ve wanted to go and learn it, and the more I love it. I really appreciate that skill, to be able to go and just come up with an amazing improvisation, just off the cuff.

“I’ve met a Dutch jazz fiddler, Tim Kliphuis, a few times – he’s one of the best in the world. He invited The Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc to come to this fiddle weekend he was holding in Holland. I was speaking to him and said ‘I would really just love to come and visit you, and learn more about the jazz style.’

“I explained that I was always fearful of this improvising thing and he said it was only because I’d never done it. I admired his thought process on that!” The band has taken part in Tim’s Rotterdam Fiddle Weekend; jazz and perhaps classical styles may become more influential in the years ahead.

Another encounter led in the same direction “I met a piano player from America called Neil Pearlman who’s into Cape Breton music but he’s also from a jazz background. I really love jamming with him and he’s amazing at improvising. We started a duo, with a new album. So, I suppose I’m starting to get into that side of things as well.”

Kevin, Olav and Anders don’t confine themselves to playing concerts and festivals. They’re also committed to developing fiddle-playing skills among all those who want to learn. One way of doing that is through fiddle camps.

“We had the idea, because there’s so many folk that ask, at concerts, ‘where can we learn your music and do you have workshops?’ So we thought, why don’t we just have a camp? We’re quite active in teaching at various other camps, in various places. We had the idea that we’d move around, so we’ve had it in Norway and Sweden and ideally it would have been in Shetland this year, but then I got asked to do the Folk Frenzy, so it would have been a clash. But we’re having it in Scotland this year – if it goes ahead.” Like all events in the coming months, there’s no certainty that it can happen.

The band has also published two tune books containing the music from their two albums, which are a valuable resource for teaching and learning.

Technology plays a part, too. Kevin has also done quite a lot of one-to-one tuition via Skype, and he’s not alone among Shetland tutors in providing online lessons. “Generally speaking, it works fine” he says, though “folk that haven’t done it before find the thought of it a bit weird!”

There are just a couple of things to bear in mind. It’s not ideal for beginners, “because at that stage you need to be a peerie bit hands-on, moving the fiddle into the right position” and it’s not possible to play together with the student. But, “for intermediate and upper levels, it’s great!” Anyone who’s interested in finding out more about Kevin’s teaching can contact him via his own website.

Given the current pandemic, it may be a while before audiences can once again enjoy, in live concerts, the superb playing of Kevin and The Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc, but for the moment it’s possible to hear them – and the other bands that he’s involved with – on CD or via online streaming sites. Best of all, Kevin is also embarking on live-streamed performances!

In these unique circumstances, supporting our creative community in any way we can is vital; but we must hope that it won’t be too long before, once again, they can inspire and energise us in person.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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