September 11, 2009

'We all have to defend the culture we love'

No-one involved with the Scottish folk scene in recent years, or the broader Celtic music scene, can fail to have been struck by the international melting-pot of influences cross-breeding with traditional tunes and rhythms, spawning their vigorous hybrid offspring.

More latterly – and likewise largely in the hands of younger musicians – the same has been true of English folk music, a progression that reached a new apotheosis last year when the singer Jim Moray featured the British-Ghanaian grime rapper Bubbz on his version of the classic incest/murder ballad Lucy Wan. No less significantly, that track's parent album Low Culture, Moray's third, topped the hotly contested annual critics' poll in UK scene bible fRoots, indicating that approval of such experimentation had penetrated the folk establishment further than ever before.

Regardless of the beautiful rainbow nation or global village seemingly embodied in the music itself, however, the ethnic profile of British folk musicians and audiences remains overwhelmingly white. Well, of course it does, comes the readiest common response. By definition, surely, traditional music has its roots and core in how things used to be, two or three centuries past or more, when the British Isles' population was similarly uniform; the history, subject-matter and culture it enshrines are the specific product of this people, in this place, and thus continue to resonate strongest with those whose own roots here are of longer duration.

Unfortunately, that's very much the kind of argument now being deployed by the British National Party, in pursuit of its constitutional commitment to "restoring … the overwhelmingly white make-up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948". BNP leader Nick Griffin has made an increasing point of identifying himself as a folk fan, singling out Kate Rusby for the unwelcome status of his favourite singer, and referencing our own Eric Bogle's famous anti-war anthem, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, in his recent maiden speech as an MEP.

According to the anti-fascist campaign group Searchlight, the party is attempting to co-opt folk music as its new "political soundtrack", jettisoning previous associations with heavy rock outfits such as Skrewdriver as part of its drive for greater respectability, allied to its targeting of older voters.

The current BNP handbook urges activists and organisers to get involved with local folk events and re-enacted customs, "as popular awareness of the growing power of Islam encourages support for and interest in our own religious and cultural traditions". Citing renewed popular interest in St George's Day festivities as one of the party's "major successes", the manual notes that, "most regions of the country have cultural events which are unique to that area, or county … Why not do some research to see if there's a lost local tradition you can inspire a team of enthusiasts to revive?"

An organisation called the English Fair Fund, which provides grants to support St George's Day celebrations, has been exposed as a BNP front, while the Steadfast Trust, a like-minded body established to promote the interests of the "ethnic English", is another declared champion of traditional music.

At the heart of the traditional scene itself, there was quite some stushie earlier this year when Georgina Dale of the Middle Bar Singers, veteran session stalwarts of the equally veteran Sidmouth festival in Devon, stood as a BNP candidate in the local elections.

Several prominent English folk artists have also been horrified to find their material featured on compilations sold through the BNP website – as were our very own Capercaillie, upon discovering a song of theirs being featured directly on the same site, underlining that this isn't an issue conveniently confined to south of the Border.

"It was a song I wrote a few years ago called Who Will Raise Their Voice?," says the band's co-founder Donald Shaw. "It was actually about what was going on with Bush and Blair at the time, expressing my disenchantment over that, but when it was used on the BNP site I suddenly realised how the title and lyrics could be interpreted in a completely different light."

In the broader context of Scottish culture, similar issues have been uncomfortably foregrounded by the Year of Homecoming promotion, not least by the clumsily belated addition of a lone Asian man to the originally all-white crowd featured on the official Homecoming graphic. Several commentators have also questioned why Caribbean countries were omitted from the list of target diasporan markets, given that more than 60 per cent of names in the Jamaican telephone directory, for instance, are of Scottish origin, highlighting Scots' central role in the region's former slave-based plantation economy.

Even the totemic Homecoming figure of Robert Burns, after all, was on the point of leaving Scotland for Jamaica to become – in his own words – "a poor negro driver", when the bestselling success of the Kilmarnock Edition persuaded him to stay.

As for today's Scottish folk scene, Shaw argues that its slowness to reflect contemporary multiculturalism, at least in terms of personnel, is in large part simply a product of history – in which even the most modern fusions remain rooted – rather than racism.

"Our traditional music doesn't have much of an urban history until relatively recently," he points out. "It's tended to be strongest in rural areas, on the geographical fringes, where there has always been much less integration with immigrant communities, so there is an inherent conservatism there."

Nevertheless, in his capacity as artistic director of Celtic Connections, Shaw has consciously sought to broaden the festival's cultural mix – in part for pragmatic reasons of keeping the programme fresh, but also with a view to making the event more inclusive. As well as appearances by major African artists such as Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour, a key event in this respect was 2007's Burns Mela, a Scottish/Asian Burns Night that was specifically targeted at Glasgow's largest ethnic minority community.

"It worked really well," Shaw says. "We got about a 50:50 mix of people coming along on the night, and ever since then I've had a lot more contacts from the Asian community suggesting ideas and artists for the festival, so it's definitely opened doors longer term, too."

In a similar vein was this year's Jamaican Burns Night, somewhat ironically commemorating that near-miss by the national bard, and very aptly featuring Edward II, one of the few contemporary British folk acts whose line-up includes both black and white musicians. Originally formed in Cheltenham in 1984, they won a large following for their fusion of traditional English and Celtic sounds with reggae and African music before disbanding in 1999, and are currently enjoying a year-long reunion to mark ten years since that split.

The band's trombonist, John Hart, professes himself unsurprised that so little has actually changed in that time. "It's partly just the nature of the music business," he says.

"A genuinely multicultural band like us, trying to bridge what are perceived as separate traditions, is never going to be easy to market or pigeonhole. But it is also partly the nature of the folk scene, particularly in England: there are a fair number of people in that audience who are pretty politically conservative, even far right wing, which is why the BNP are trying to use folk music as a vehicle.

"It's also about economic as well as cultural accessibility: folk music is very largely a middle-class pursuit, and most folk festivals happen well away from the cities. My feeling is that there could well be a bigger, mixed, urban audience who'd love these events, but either they're not marketed to, or they can't afford it, or both."

Hart and Edward II are among a fast-growing list of supporters of a new initiative called Folk Against Fascism, officially launched at the aforementioned Sidmouth festival last month, and also backed by such leading English acts as Jim Moray, Eliza Carthy and Bellowhead.

Its immediate practical aim is to devise and distribute a campaign logo for artists to use on CDs, with the aim of discouraging their sale through far-right outlets, while organisers are also hoping to stage a major live event in London next year.

"Overall, though, we really just want to get people talking, and make them aware of what the BNP are up to," said a spokesman for the campaign – who asked not to be named.

"There is an argument that setting up in opposition like this only gives them more publicity, but we felt we had to take a stand to defend the culture we love, a culture we want to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone, against this kind of distortion. You only have to look at what the Nazis did with German folk music to see where this kind of thing can lead: that might seem alarmist, but after the Euro-election results this year, the potential parallels are just too chilling to ignore."



Anonymous said...

Sickened to read that one of the middle bar singers at Sidmouth Folk Week stood for the BNP.
A lot of folkies will be distressed to read this.
Great article from the Scotsman newspaper espcially having attended Celtic Connections festival for the Burns Night with Edward II who are amazing.
The article does make some good points about some of the shortcomings with the folk scene which is alive and well but can also be vulnerable to incursions by the BNP if we are not careful

Carmenego said...

Hullo :-)

I'm of Indian extraction and I'm also a folk singer - it's difficult not to be when you play acoustic guitar and the ukulele! It's something I'm often hesitant to call myself, but my white friends and fans have no problem with it (perhaps in South London, it's just not that big a deal?)

It's such a shame that a medium as vast as music can have these petty labels attached to it. I'm probably lucky enough to have never knowingly met a racist musician but in my experience, racism and music cannot go hand in hand - to have any sort of songwriting talent, you need at least basic knowledge of music history: you cannot like Elvis or The Rolling Stones without at least accepting the merit of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.

AFAIK folk music by its very nature changes with society - new instruments, social trends, etc all contribute to an ever changing style of music. It's so much fun creating a new sound by blending Irish, French, Scottish, Welsh, Jewish and English traditional music with jazz, funk, ragtime and nu-metal - believe me, it works!) and it's a very exciting time to be in folk music :-)

Really great blog by the way, you're in my RSS feeder!