Interview: Jim Sutherland on reuniting La Banda Europa for Celtic Connections

Jim Sutherland's La Banda Europa
Jim Sutherland's La Banda Europa
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There’s a distinct irony, but also perhaps a certain saving grace, in that the wonderfully kaleidoscopic, pan-European folk orchestra La Banda Europa should be re-assembling in Glasgow at a time when events in Europe seem contrary to the 36-strong pan-European folk orchestra’s core principles. A marvellously protean concatenation of instrumentalists, playing bagpipes from several countries, Scandinavian nyckelharpas, French hurdy-gurdies, Armenian duduks and much else, La Banda Europa will perform at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections next weekend , its first gig since 2010.

La Banda’s creator and artistic director, Jim Sutherland, agrees that the big band’s re-emergence as we move into the geo-political queasiness of 2017 is somewhat paradoxical. “In a way, that was one of the things that really galvanised me to make it all happen,” says the composer and producer, who formed the orchestra in 2007 to fulfil a vision of a group that would both celebrate the diversity of European folk heritage and “serve as a fanfare for a dynamic, modern Europe”.

“It’s not an anti-Brexit statement – although personally I am anti-Brexit, but it’s looking at the underlying society, of which Brexit is a symptom, and all these things like the rise of hate and the ‘othering’ of people and the whole refugee crisis.”

The Celtic Connections performance will include two premieres of works by Sutherland. One is We Are an Ocean, titled after a quote by the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro: “Individually we are but one drop. Together we are an ocean.”

“I like that,” says Sutherland. “It’s about shared humanity, and it says a lot about what La Banda is about. The piece starts with the whirring dry stone of the planet, then come comets that bring oceans which in turn bring life and it turns into a big, anthemic celebration.”

A second premiere, The Pillars of Hercules, wasn’t originally written for La Banda but was commissioned for Marseilles’s incumbency as European Capital of Culture in 2013. Composed for a 40-piece, “Mediterranean rim orchestra”, the 16-minute piece was never actually performed, as funding fell through. “That was really frustrating, because it was something I was really proud of,” says Sutherland. “I’ve re-written it for La Banda and it’ll be good to give it a proper public performance.”

Cash, or rather the lack of it, has been a significant factor behind La Banda’s silence over the last few years. Of course, assembling and funding a 36-piece band from across Europe was never going to come cheap, and was made even less likely by the global financial crash, so when Glasgow Life, which runs Celtic Connections, and Creative Scotland offered funding to re-unite the orchestra and commission a new piece, Sutherland was delighted.

The band, which will be conducted, as ever, by trombonist and arranger Rick Taylor, will be based at Platform Arts Centre in Easterhouse where, apart from four days of rehearsals, it will make its first recording and will also visit refugee communities in the area and host a free event for them at the arts centre.

“The band members fly into Glasgow on the 24th and hopefully won’t get too excited about seeing each other again and get arrested that night – because it’s a great party band and they haven’t seen each other for ages,” laughs Sutherland. “Then we start rehearsals on the 25th.”

Among those at the Glasgow concert will be potential funding partners from around Europe, invited in a bid to gain backing for the ongoing development of the band, which he hopes will tour the UK in 2018. Already, though, La Banda is experiencing what he regards as “a taste of how things might be. We’ve got three Serbian musicians in the band who are having visa problems. It’s like … Wow! Is this where we’re headed?

“But even though it’s a more difficult situation, I’m determined to make it happen.” ■

*La Banda Europa plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 29 January as part of Celtic Connections, see www.celticconnections.com