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TRADFEST Edinburgh - 26 April - 7 May 2017

The fifth annual celebration of Scotland's traditional arts known as Tradfest Dùn Èideann recently confirmed its standing in Edinburgh’s annual calendar of cultural festivities. Taking place over the Beltane and May Day period, it occurred at a time between Edinburgh’s International Harp and Film Festivals in April and June respectively and this year there were links to both these other festivals, notably in the Folk Film Gathering which is now a thriving part of Tradfest.

As in previous years, the festival was promoted by TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland), based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the hub of the festival. This year Tradfest Dùn Èideann was celebrating the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, bringing two new strands to the festival's programme - Local Culture and The People's Heritage. Venues throughout the city were used for the broad range of events. Talks, readings, films, plays, dancing, walks, as well as music and song, took place at places such as the National and Central Libraries, Blackwells Bookshop, Dance Base and even the Royal Highland Centre. However, for the most part, musical events of interest to The Living Tradition readers took place at the Storytelling Centre and at Summerhall Arts Centre, the latter under the auspices of the Soundhouse Organisation and Edinburgh Folk Club.

Having said this, the festival started with a loud bang at the Queens Hall with Bagpipes Gu Leòr, showcasing a rich blend of piping sounds ranging from Highland to small pipes and from South Uist to the Borders. Participating musicians included recent Radio 2 Young Traditional Musician of the Year winner, Brighde Chaimbeul, and the combination of Angus MacKenzie and Fin Moore. Also impressive on this night of many pipes were the more experienced Allan MacDonald with Seonaidh MacIntyre, Roddie MacLeod accompanied by Gabe McVarish, and young Callum Armstrong with cellist George Pasca, going under the name of Savage Prunes. All in all a stunning start to the 12 days!

On the whole, most of the musical events were held in the Storytelling Centre’s theatre and library and Summerhall’s various rooms. There were often many things happening at the same time even within the centre itself - these were more often than not sold out. With the stimulating programme of films being shown at the Filmhouse, it was obviously impossible to catch everything but, nevertheless, during the weekend of the 5-7th May, the Storytelling Centre offered a non-stop programme of events which involved little travel between venues, as would not be the case for much of the festival.

The Friday night featured an absorbing hour of Gaelic psalms and stories from the Isle of Lewis, Lorgan Bàta Nan Salm - Traces Of The Psalmboats, led by Edinburgh-based artist, Déirdre Ní Mhathúna. Following this was a return from last year of From Thurso To Berwick, celebrating the songs and poetry of Morris Blythman. Saturday evening consisted of three contrasting performances, starting with Drinkers And Thinkers, a performance of songs from the Scottish Enlightenment from Edinburgh-based folk choir, Sangstream, led by Corrina Hewat and illustrated by slides and commentary from Donald Smith. This was followed by a session with Margaret Bennett with students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on Sir Walter Scott’s search for songs and ballads to form his Border Minstrelsy - Beyond The Border. The Saturday night culminated in a wonderfully entertaining Irish Hoolie, involving the sublime voices of Len Graham and Cathal McConnell and the amusing storytelling of Jack Lynch.

Sunday afternoon at the centre continued in the same vein, beginning with Donegal To Dùn Èideann, an hour of fiddle music from Liz Doherty from Donegal and Amy Geddes (originally from Galloway), with a touch of the Cape Breton tradition thrown in, along with guitarist Kevin Mackenzie and some step-dancing. This was followed by one of the discoveries of the festival for me. Journey To Alba was performed in the intimate space of the centre’s library by Ingried Boussaroque, a young Canadian relating her journey from the island of Montreal to the Hebridean island of Barra with a selection of Quebec, Gaelic and Scottish songs, accompanying herself on the Finnish instrument, the kantele.

That Sunday's entertainment was completed for me by a trip to Summerhall, where the extraordinary duo of Anna and Elizabeth, with banjo, fiddle, and some animation kept a full house in the main hall spellbound by their interpretation of old American traditional songs. This was only one of a contrasting series of concerts put on by Soundhouse, including more Americana from The Lowest Pair, an old-time duo making their first appearances in the UK, and, in contrast, up-and-coming Irish band, Connla, who succeeded in winning over the audience despite losing two key members to family situations in Ireland - the excellent replacement turning out to be a member of Dosca, who went on to win the Battle Of The Folk Bands which was held on the final Sunday at La Belle Angele.

Other stand-out performances at Summerhall included an Americana-flavoured evening with Dean Owens and Amy Geddes, as Redwood Mountain, giving new melodies to songs collected by archivist Alan Lomax in his book of American folk songs. Dallahan also impressed in another Soundhouse presentation. Soundhouse also held a couple of sell-out gigs at their usual venue, the Traverse Theatre bar – I caught Cahalen Morrison’s latest country-influenced band, Western Centuries, but missed the band formerly known as Lynched, now Lankum. Edinburgh Folk Club also presented two shows - Ragged Glory replacing the indisposed Fil Campbell on opening night, and Tom McConville, who was his inimitable self, accompanied by Andy Watt in a performance full of virtuosity and humour.

Gaelic music was well represented this year, with Kaela Rowan and her band providing a capacity Soundhouse audience with stirring interpretations of, for the most part, Gaelic songs and puirt-a-beul, alongside songs in English. Whyte, who so impressed in an intimate performance at last year's festival with their combination of Gaelic song and electronic music, headlined an afternoon of Gaelic Voices at Blackwells bookshop, which also featured an openly gay Gaelic poet from York and members of the Edinburgh Gaelic Choir, conducted by a Londoner! Performing to a midweek afternoon audience, like Whyte last year, were Fuaran - three young Gaelic singers, Ellen MacDonald (of Dàimh), Ceitlin LR Smith and Morvyn Menzies, performing material collected as part of a Fèisean nan Gàidheal project for young singers researching learning and recording Gaelic songs.

Before proceeding to the Folk Film Gathering part of the festival, I must mention one series of performances in Summerhall’s Anatomy Theatre. On The Radical Road: Enacting Hamish Henderson was scripted from Hamish’s songs and poems, directed by Raymond Ross, with musical direction by Alastair McDonald, who brought this production to life with three other actors. This brought to mind the annual Carrying Stream Festival dedicated to Hamish Henderson, and organised by the late Paddy Bort, an enormous loss not only to Edinburgh Folk Club but also to Tradfest’s organisers - I was told on good authority that Paddy had been a prime mover in the instigation of Tradfest.

One other sold-out concert held in the main hall at Summerhall was a fundraiser for the Scots Music Group, which featured a one-off duet from Karine Polwart and Steve Byrne, both past beneficiaries of the group’s activities, and performances from Mairi Campbell, Adam Sutherland and pipe/fiddle duo, Fin Moore and Sarah Hoy.

Tradfest officially ended on 7th May, but the Folk Film Gathering continued screening films for a further six days. The Gathering has expanded further in its third year, showing some films in the Storytelling Centre, but mostly at the Filmhouse, where attendances were uniformly good with several screenings sold out. The dual theme this year involved Songs and Labour and alongside Scottish films were features, some of them vintage, from Brazil, Italy, Finland (including a Finnish rune singer and the playing of a kantale) and Lithuania (to a capacity audience). Most of these showings included live music preceding the film. There were three contrasting films on mining communities. The Happy Lands, based in Fife at the time of the General Strike, and preceded by Scottish mining songs from Fiona Forbes; The Brave Don't Cry produced by John Grierson in 1952, based on events at the time of the Knockshinnoch disaster in Ayrshire in 1950, with mining songs provided by George Duff; and Tyneside's Amber Collective's The Scar, concerning the aftermath of the Miner's Strike on Tyneside from the position of the women - this preceded by a live performance from the MacTaggart Scott Loanhead Brass Band.

A highlight for me of the Folk Film Gathering was to be the showing of Chanson D'Armor, the first film in the Breton language from 1935, linking up with a workshop I had attended at the recent International Harp Festival on the life and work of Scottish composer and clarsach player, Heloise Russell-Ferguson, who had travelled to Brittany to perform a set of Gaelic songs at the film's premiere. Stuart Eydmann, who had researched her life for a book, had discovered that she had been responsible for bringing the harp tradition back to Brittany. There were technical difficulties with the film unfortunately, but this was made up for with a Q&A with Dr. Eydmann and recently crowned Radio 2 Folk Awards Musician of the Year, harpist, Rachel Newton, who had delighted everybody with a set of songs and tunes before the screening.

Timothy Neat’s film, Tree Of Liberty, finally brought the Folk Film Gathering and Tradfest 2017 to an end at the Storytelling Centre. It was made in collaboration with Hamish Henderson in 1986, exploring the music of Robert Burns through Jean Redpath and Serge Hovey's innovative arrangements. It was followed by a Q&A with Timothy Neat, an old friend of Hamish’s. It provided a poignant ending to this year's festival with thoughts of Paddy Bort and Hamish’s Carrying Stream coming again to mind. With these thoughts in mind, after another successful year of showcasing all Scotland’s traditional arts throughout Edinburgh, it is important for TRACS and all their partners and co-curators to carry on in the future from what has already been achieved through Tradfest.

by Neil Hedgeland