At of the heart of the Shetland Folk Festival is the celebration of local musical talent and traditions. But, from there the programme spins out across the world, bringing the music of other countries and cultures to the islands.
Shetland’s folk music is distant yet connected to other lands. There can be heard elements of a shared heritage in Shetland, Scottish and Irish music reflecting connections in landscape and culture. However, influences from Scandinavia have created a unique sound here at the crossroads of the North Atlantic. In turn, Shetland has taken its music to other parts of the world.
Mórga is a young band from Ireland and like many local musicians, they delight in their roots. They believe that Irish musical heritage is often lost in contemporary music and came together to joyfully recreate aspects of this past. Last night they played in the Whiteness and Weisdale Hall.
Mórga is Irish for ‘majestic’ and their music is proud and soaring. Frenzied, fiddle, button accordion, banjo and, for a touch of the exotic, a gorgeously decorated Greek bouzouki, dance over the earthy pulse of the bodhran.
Some shared instruments and the sheer energy of their music brought to mind Shetland’s traditions, but it also sounded different and born of a very particular place.
Sometimes folk music is understood simply as the music of one’s own place. In Scottish folk music I hear the landscapes of the land that spewed me forth, Scotland. It is (to me) beautiful, wild and ancient. It also reflects a culture that is at times political, at times melancholic. This was what I thought of as folk music.
The folk festival challenges the idea that folk is that which is familiar by bringing music from other countries to Shetland. Next on the bill at Whiteness and Weisdale were Ahimsa, a four-piece ensemble based in India and Germany who play a blend of Indian classical music and jazz.
Ahimsa were introduced to the audience as “world music”. It is a rather strange term sometimes used to describe music that is just from somewhere else, usually far away. But it also has a sense of meaning music that is indigenous and traditional, folk music.
Ahimisa play the traditional music of India, in this case in The Carnatic tradition. This is music from Southern India that is based on a range of specific melodies and rhythms but also on improvisation.
Neyveli S Radhakrishna played a ten-string double neck violin, an extraordinary beautiful instrument and captivating to watch. Add to this the Mrudangam (an Indian drum), Ganjira (a percussive instrument that is part of the tambourine family) and Tabla, and Ahimsa create dreamlike sounds that connect to the landscape and culture of India. Unsurprisingly, it is very different from Shetland or Scotland’s folk music. However, a sense of playfulness was somehow the same.
In the midst of what sounded so classically Indian was the influence of western jazz traditions courtesy of German guitarist Matthias Muller, the resulting sounds and improvisations were refined and delicate.
Ahimsa took great pleasure in building up the intensity and speed of their music towards feverish crescendos. Then there were mischief stops and false endings. It seemed that the music laughed, the group laughed and the audience laughed, particularly when the improvisation momentarily strayed into the Pink Panther theme.
I wanted to see Swedish trio Baskery (last on) but as I saw that they were playing at the Festival Club later I left the Westside to see Aestaewast, a Shetland based African drumming group, who were performing at Islesburgh. This was the folk music of Africa being performed by local musicians, an interesting twist.
In a sea of bright, printed costumes and rosy red cheeks they sing, dance and drum. The group have been together for several years now and have grown in confidence. This is now a smooth operation but it is still one that is based on raw energy and pounding rhythms.
Cleverly choreographed changes mean that one minute they are assembled neatly on stage playing curious and delicate instruments placed into gourds (for resonance), and the next as they spill out on to the floor to bare foot stomp and drum.
They take you through complex arrangements of music from countries such as Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Cuba. The high energy, hip-swaying, arm jangling dance routines are infectious and several audience members took to the floor to join in.
So, to the Festival Club and the sardine tin squirm through the bar. There is a particular manoeuvre that you must master to avoid drink spillage as you lurch up and forwards to let someone pass behind you. Everyone doing this simultaneously creates as a hearty swell as can be found on The Roost. Then, downstairs to see Baskery.
“We have decided you need shaken up Shetland” was their opening line and wham, Baskery hit the audience with some “Swedish misbehaviour”. Their Club Late session was made up of pounding, punk pouting and agitating music, vocals and attitude. Disco folk, Punk folk and Rock’n’Roll folk delivered with gusto and skill on double bass, guitar, six string banjo, kick and snare. Baskery are super-talented, super-gorgeously-stylish and brilliantly irreverent.
A night of folk then? The acts that I saw could just as easily have been Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag, The Chair, Lau, Sheerlin or Bodega to name but a few. The programme is rich, varied and bold. The music is extremely high quality and linked by being born of and rooted in distinct lands and cultures. To that end, it is folk music at its finest.