Travels with Mr Extra Item
by Jed Mugford
Shetlander Kevin Henderson first came to prominence as a member of Fiddlers’ Bid. He later joined the great Scottish band, Session A9, and the long-established band, Boys Of The Lough. He is also one third of the highly acclaimed Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. Jed Mugford spoke to him one grey autumn afternoon.
This area that has been likened to the West coast of Ireland, with its patchwork of green fields, separated by low hedges and occasionally dry-stone walls. This is a very rural area, with very few towns and – like Ireland – lots of small cottages scattered throughout the lush, green countryside. But that is where the similarities end. There are no big dramatic cliffs here, and there are no fierce Atlantic storms battering the coastline. In contrast, the countryside slips peacefully down to the shoreline. A shoreline that consists of small bays and estuaries where the water laps gently on the shore. Some beaches are rocky, others consist of sheltered sandy bays. The calm seas here are partly due to the hundreds of small islands that are scattered along the whole of this coastline. This is not the image most people have of this country – this is Norway’s south coast. There are no towering mountains, no sheer-sided fjords here. But this is where Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson now calls ‘home’.
I spoke to Kevin online after he had just collected his young son from school. I started off by asking him what took him to Norway in the first place. He smiled. “Well, it was a woman!” he replied in his soft Shetland accent. “I was working at Ethno, which is basically a music camp for young people from all over the world, teaching music to each other. I was actually working there as an artistic leader, they call it. Basically, the students teach each other and then they have artistic directors, leaders, that just help. Annika, my partner, was also working there, she had been a student there for several years. They have these music camps in various countries throughout the world, it’s quite widespread; Belgium, Australia, India, they have had it in Scotland and England, they have had them in many countries, but it was started in Sweden. This music camp was in Rättvik, in Sweden in 2006. It was actually an amazing experience. It also opened my ears to music I thought I didn’t like - for example, Balkan, Indian, and even some Scandinavian music - but I realised it was because I didn’t really understand it, as it was rhythms I wasn’t used too. When I saw the dancing associated with the music, it helped bridge that gap for me and I got to learn it up close and personal. That completely changed my outlook in music generally.”
“When our relationship became more serious, I decided to move to Norway permanently.” But what about working with UK-based bands, was the travelling a problem? I asked. “Generally it is pretty straightforward. In the beginning I used to use Ryanair a lot because there was a direct flight from Oslo Torp to Edinburgh.” But is it awkward to take a fiddle on board Ryanair flights? I asked. “I always booked an extra seat for the fiddle. It was called ‘Mr Extra Item!’ I use SAS a lot now because I have a gold card. The benefit of that is that I get on board first and can make sure my fiddle is safely stowed away in a locker.”
I had to ask Kevin the big question of the day: how has he been coping during the pandemic? “At the start I was pretty lucky because I got a lot of online work, like live streaming gigs, also teaching and workshops and that sort of thing. But I became quite tired of sitting in front of the laptop. I was really thankful to have that work, but I also had the mindset that there were so many musicians struggling for the same thing. I felt that I had been quite lucky for the first two or three months, but I thought I would take a break and maybe give others the chance to do the work I was doing. Also, I was lucky that the Norwegian government had this crisis package as well, that was a big help. Then it kind of opened up a little in October - November 2020 in Norway when I had a couple of gigs with Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, just in Norway. We had a couple in December, but that was when the infection rates started to go up a lot and they closed the border to Sweden, so Anders couldn’t get over without going into quarantine. Olav and I did a couple of gigs as a duo, but it was more like a couple of solo sets with just us playing a few things together at the end. So having those gigs at the end of the year… it was great to get out again.”
“As I mentioned before, I was getting a bit disillusioned with all the online stuff and I found I wasn’t getting out of the house much. So my neighbour, who is the golf course manager here, asked me if I was interested in some work. I thought, ‘ya, I’ll take it, because I need to get out, I need to see people’. So I have been working there since the end of March and I have been really busy all through the summer. I have actually really loved it - working outside in the fresh air, and there is a great group of people working there. They are very flexible so if I need to go off and do a gig or two, I can. But I would have been struggling financially if it wasn’t for this golf course work.”
Going back to Kevin’s early days, I was curious to know how Fiddlers’ Bid evolved – a group of school friends playing together in their spare time, that grew into a very successful touring band. “There was a young enterprise scheme happening at the time,” Kevin said. “It was a national thing. You basically had to start a company, sell shares, sell a product, that type of thing. We had the idea of setting up a recording company, making a cassette tape and selling it. So we had Fiddlers’ Bid, Shetlands Young Heritage and a band called The Alliance on this tape. It was a huge success and we started getting asked to play at local events and things. I was 14 at the time, along with Chris Stout and Michael Ferrie. Maurice Henderson and David Keith were two years older than us, so they were 16. The original line-up was four fiddles and a piano. There was a guy, Steve Yarrington, who was originally from Birmingham but moved to Shetland because of his work. He was a jazz/rock guitarist, but he knew about recording and he recorded us and added a guitar on some things, so he become involved in the band. A bit later on we decided to have a bass. It took off from there. The first time we played outside Shetland was actually here in Norway! It was at Måloydagen (the town of Måloy is twinned with Lerwick) and we also played at Lorient Festival in Brittany the same year. So we actually played abroad before we played in mainland UK. Then we got a bit of a following on the mainland and a couple of record companies were interested in signing us. We decided to go with Greentrax. Our first recording with them was Hamnataing. But before that we had recorded our own CD called Around The World which we funded ourselves and recorded in Edinburgh. This was the same year we played in Lorient, if I remember correctly - 1994. We released three albums with Greentrax, then we started our own label after that and released All Dressed In Yellow. It is 30 years ago since we started, so this year is our thirtieth anniversary!” He sat back in the chair and thought for a moment.
I wondered if Kevin had noticed any similarities between Shetland music and Norwegian music. “I think certainly, in the very old traditional music from Shetland, there are similarities there, and we have ceremonial music like bridal marches which is common in Scandinavia. For example, the Shetland tune Da Farder Ben Da Welcomer, the structure and rhythm of that is very similar to some Springer/Halling type tunes. Then there are things called Muckle Reels which are very unusual in rhythm and structure and that is the same as some of the Hardanger music. Even on the south west coast of Norway, they have a tradition of reels as well and, of course, the reel is the most common type of tune found in the Shetland tradition.”
“Also, there are some areas of Shetland where the fiddle tuning was A E A E and also A D E A, and the ringing effect from that tuning echoes the Hardanger sound too. In addition, there is the folklore which is connected to the music. We have the Trowies maybe connected to the Norwegian Trolls, for example. In Shetland you would say ‘trows’ when referring to a tune or a story, but would say ‘trowie tune’ or ‘trowie story’.”
“The Shetland traditional style has definitely changed over the years. Traditionally it was a solo fiddle player that played, that’s similar to the Norwegian Hardanger tradition – usually a solo fiddle player. If you listen to the Whalsay style for instance, there is a lot of ebbing and flowing – speeding up and slowing down within the music - and I think a lot of that got straightened out when the Scottish dance music became popular. It became more regimented. If you listen to some of the very old archive music, there’s a bit of freedom there, it’s not so regimented. You can tell a Shetland style, of course, but I think most fiddle players now – just my opinion – generally have their own sort of style, because there has been so much influence from different styles of music – Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish, Bluegrass. Whereas before, within Shetland you had like five different styles. At that point transport links were poor, people didn’t get outside their village; there was less influence from the outside world. There were even different versions of one tune in these different areas. But when people started transcribing music, one version would become the standard version and the other versions would die out and be lost. Luckily, some can still be found in the old archives. You would have a different version of the same tune in Yell, and Unst, and the mainland of Shetland. It’s the same in other countries too. Sweden would have different versions of a polska in different areas, and Norway would have the same thing – different versions of the same tune. It’s the same in Scotland and in Ireland. It’s a common story in most places.”
“The thing about Shetland is… a lot of Shetlanders went to sea, so they were exposed to a lot of different styles and met other fiddle players and took back versions of tunes. Then they got into the Shetland tradition and got played in a Shetland style. I don’t know if this is true or not, but there’s a story that when Tom Anderson assembled the Forty Fiddlers, they didn’t have a tune in common. There were different versions of tunes. Which could well be possible because of the poor transport links and that sort of thing. It’s great that music has been transcribed because it has been an essential part of saving a lot of music. But it is a shame that other versions have been lost. It was extremely lucky that Tom Anderson realised that Shetland music was getting lost, and he collected tunes from old players when he was out working as an insurance salesman.” Tom Anderson (1910–1991) is credited as having saved a vast amount of Shetland’s traditional music. Kevin continued: “Shetland music is, of course, a big passion of mine and something I keep going back to. A few years ago, I released an album (Fin Da Land Ageen) with Swedish guitarist Mattias Pérez. It was an album of purely Shetland tunes, because I realised that it had been a few decades since an album of just traditional Shetland tunes was made. Also, the older I get, the more I realised it is the music I love playing more and more. It’s also a passion of mine to teach traditional Shetland fiddle music at various fiddle schools and music camps around the world.”
“Another collaboration I have done recently was with American piano player Neil Pearlman. He comes from a jazz background but is also deeply immersed in Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton music. We released our debut album (Burden Lake) just when the pandemic hit, so we had to cancel the tours we had set up to promote it in both the US and the UK.”
Over the 30 plus years that Kevin has been involved in music, I wondered if there was anything or any track that stood out for him as something he is particularly proud of. “Do you know, I’m proud of all the things I’ve been involved in for different reasons. Fiddlers’ Bid was my first project. I have always loved playing in Fiddlers’ Bid, I mean, we are all school friends. I think it’s really interesting to look back on how we started and developed and how the music has developed over the years. I have always been proud of that. Also, I love playing with Session A9. That was a different project for me, a lot of people might think it’s a similar band to Fiddlers’ Bid. Line-up wise, yes, but musically it is more of a focus on Scottish music, and we have the songs. I have learned a lot playing with Session A9. Getting to play with Boys Of The Lough was a real eye opener in many ways. That was my first real touring experience, going on the road for four weeks, usually when we were going to The States. I remember the first concert with them, I was so nervous. We were playing in this beautiful old big theatre in Brunswick, in Georgia. Before we started, Cathal McConnell leaned over and said to me: ‘Remember, this has to be up to the highest possible standard!’ He was having a joke,” Kevin laughs. “He was just trying to relax me. But I have learnt so much playing with Boys Of The Lough - the stagecraft and how they interact with the audience. Then there was Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. That was a completely different thing for me. Playing without accompaniment, just three fiddles, and also hearing Olav and Anders, where they come from – from a harmony point of view. That was a real ear opener for me, they didn’t want to do the same thing twice. Olav and Anders are really clever with their use of harmony. So I have learnt tons from those boys too.”
I was curious to know how Nordic Fiddlers Bloc was formed. “I met Anders at a couple of festivals and we really enjoyed hanging out, socialising and jamming. He had an idea of starting this fiddle trio. He played in a band called Sver with Olav, so he asked Olav if he was interested, and we decided to meet up and play some music together and see what would happen. We met up in Voss (Norway) for a couple of weekends, and we just loved hanging with each other and we loved each other’s music and styles. We decided to arrange a tour and got great feedback from that. We have been going for 12 years now. Wow! Time is disappearing!” Kevin sits back in the chair and laughs.
“I have been lucky to play in all the bands I have been involved in, and with all the musicians I have been lucky enough to play with - it’s been fantastic. I am really thankful for that.”
Photo: Alistair Cassidy
Published in Issue 142 of The Living Tradition – February 2022.