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A frenzy of fiddles…and more

THE SEVENTH Shetland Fiddle Frenzy is well under way. On offer is everything from exquisitely played traditional tunes to rowdy, rule bending renditions. It is indeed a bow-arcing, string-plucking frenzy.

Highlights so far include a début performance by Harris Playfair’s Youth Big Trad Band. The group, composed of young Shetland musicians, played at the Garrision Theatre on Monday night after spending five days of intensive preparation.

The stage was bulging with fiddles and brass. Add to that cello, guitar, flute, double bass and kit drums and the air sizzled with aural energy.

Shetland-born Playfair is clearly an inspirational teacher. He has led big band formations across the world, but this was the first time he had taken his magical musical formula back to the islands.

His big trad band idea is based on traditional playing, but with so many imaginative twists and turns that the listener is led on a whirly burly tour through traditional tunes, jazz, funk and world music.

There was foot stomping, clapping, solos and improvisation. The audience loved it and the players did too. Playfair seems to be able to snake charm confidence and experimentation out of young musicians. In his own words: “Once it starts it’s like an express train and you just have to hang on!”

The concert was also a showcase for the skills and musical dexterity of Shetland’s traditional players and tunes. Dr Tom Anderson established the group Young Heritage, now The Heritage Fiddlers. Their performance ensured that the ideas of this other inspirational teacher remain central to the event.

There was also a chance to see all the Fiddle Frenzy tutors playing together. This year they include Bryan Gear, Jenna Reid, Eunice Henderson, Bernadette Porter, Bethany Reid, Jim Leask, Ross Couper, Margaret Scollay and Kaela Jamieson

Fiddle Frenzy is at heart a fiddle school.  People come from across the world to take part in workshops, concerts and to have a damn good fiddly time. The concerts and various other events are open to the wider public ensuring plenty of opportunity for students and audiences to mix.

This year there are 87 students, 60 of whom are full time. They learn Shetland fiddle tunes by ear, guitar accompaniment Peerie Willie-style and have ample opportunity to play and dance until their fingers and feet hurt.

Amongst the visitors is the inaugural recipient of an Australia/Shetland travel scholarship, the ‘Travelling Fiddleship’. Angus Downing is from Melbourne and is in search of fiddles made by John Anderson, the grandfather of Bill Sides who established the scholarship. Anderson made around five fiddles in Shetland before he migrated to Australia.

Peter Day, a Fiddle Frenzy regular from Buckinghamshire, and his partner are also taking part. “We love it. As soon as we arrive at the airport or in Lerwick we meet people we know,” he enthused.

Visiting families and partners have become an integral part of the event and a range of creative writing, textiles and art workshops keep the non-players occupied and jolly throughout the week.

Shetland Arts events manager Richard Wemyss and events assistant Carol Duncan make the whole thing happen with the help of a whole host of others. “The music is the pull but we wanted to create something unique. We offer a full Shetland, cultural experience,” he explained.

Students not only benefit from world-class tuition but also go out on trips across the islands to play concerts in country halls and to meet other players, such as the Cullivoe Fidlders.

Shetland’s musical heritage has a strong pull for visitors. However the islands also have a powerful creative draw for Shetland musicians and artists who are often inspired by local history and culture.

Tuesday saw the launch of a new album called Escape by Shetland sisters, Jenna and Bethany Reid. The suite of music was inspired by The Shetland Bus and was debuted at Celtic Connections. Part of the suite was performed at Shetland Museum and Archives as part of the launch.

Bethany had been carrying out research into myths and legends of the sea at university with a view to composing music inspired by such tales. She soon found herself drawn to the story of the Shetland Bus and in particular the story of one member of the Norwegian resistance, Jan Baalsrud.

The sisters were keen to work together on a new project and the tale provided the ideal subject matter. In 1943 Baalsrud set off from Scalloway on the Brattholm, but when they arrived in Norway the group was reported to the Germans.

The suite conveys his escape and ordeal as he tried to survive in the treacherous Norwegian terrain. He was blinded by snow, suffered from frostbite and had to amputate all but one of his toes.

Bethany and Jenna worked with a journalist to create the accompanying words for Escape, which Phil Goodlad narrates in dialect. It is a powerful and haunting combination. Baalsrud survived and there is, in turn, light amongst the darkness of the suite.

The Reids were joined by percussionist Iain Sandilands, flautist James Thomson and bassist James Lindsay. All of whom, along with Goodlad, will perform the full suite at The Garrison Theatre on Thursday night

It is striking that an historical event can be so profound that it becomes the subject of creative expression decades later. I wondered which contemporary events, serious and less so, will inspire future generations of musicians and artists. Dave Clark: The Musical anyone?

Fiddle Frenzy events and concerts continue until Sunday.

For the full programme see http://www.shetlandarts.org/events/fiddle-frenzy