LIFE hasn’t always been plain sailing for Edinburgh’s best-known celebration of the traditional and folk arts, but as Ceilidh Culture turns ten this spring, organisers are bullish about the event and its place in the artistic life of the Capital and Scotland.
Bringing together an array of performers and practitioners – weaving song, dance and narrative into its month-long programme of events – Ceilidh Culture 2012 is bigger and more diverse than ever.
With the Usher Hall providing marketing and management support, the event seems to be on an upward trajectory. Audience figures are increasing year-on-year and media interest continues to grow.
While the community spirit that drove its creation is also strong, so too is its international flavour, with performers coming to Edinburgh from across Scotland and overseas.
The event’s growth has not been without struggle and challenge, but today’s organisers and performers are confident Ceilidh Culture is cementing the inclusion of the traditional arts at the centre of Scotland’s social and cultural life.
“Historically, these art forms have been on the periphery,” says Steve Byrne, traditional arts development officer at Edinburgh City Council from 2002 to 2007 and one of the founders of the event in 2003.
“At the time the event was established, when I was arts development officer at the council, it was part of the culture at the time that the traditional arts were coming more into the mainstream.
“They were being recognised more by the Arts Council and by the devolved government in Scotland, and it was felt that Edinburgh, as the capital city, should showcase that.”
One of the strengths of the festival, which launched this week with piper Louise Marshall Millington taking a key role in proceedings, and one of its driving principles since it was established has been an openness which, organisers say, is key to its success.
“It’s not a centrally programmed festival, it’s a bit like the Fringe in that sense,” says David Francis, organiser of Ceilidh Culture’s opening concert event from 2006 to 2007.
“It’s open to anyone to put on a gig. I think that’s one of the best things about it and why it continues to grow ten years after it first started. You have a spread of low-key community events right up to big-name acts.
“You go from events like Kim Edgar’s BIG Breakthrough Concert, involving kids from the BIG project in Broomhouse, choirs and leading musicians, to something like The Civil Wars who are playing at the Queen’s Hall.”
The presence of The Civil Wars – the Grammy-winning country duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White – is no accident. The range of events offered at Ceilidh Culture 2012 is augmented by a prominent contingent of performers from across the globe.
“Our event is about comparing and contrasting different cultures,” says Fiona Campbell, one of the festival’s founders and co-organiser of Northern Streams, a mini festival within Ceilidh Culture that showcases artists from the UK and Europe.
From Iceland’s Bara Grimsdottir and Norway’s Kim Andre Rysstad to Sweden’s Karin Ericsson Back and Maria Misgeld, the festival features a strong Nordic and Scandinavian presence.
“Northern Streams started initially as a festival for Scandinavia and Scotland, and this year we have artists from Iceland coming,” she adds. “The events we’re putting on help us see the links between these cultures and our own, and they’re also helping to build links.
“Recently, the Swedish Embassy has been helping us out with organisation, and the Norwegian consulate has been very helpful, as has the Danish consulate, particularly with publicity.”
Organisers, however, insist the focus continues to be on the Capital’s ever-bubbling traditional arts community.
“After the failure of the Edinburgh Folk Festival in 1999, it was felt we should still have some traditional and folk music festival going on,” says Fiona. “One of the things recommended was that it should be a bottom-up affair, something that would help promote what happens across the city all year round. It’s what’s continued to drive the festival over the years.”
That ethos, and the event’s embrace of the entire range of traditional arts, is shown in David Francis’ own performance, with wife and musical partner Mairi Campbell, of the story of Duncan Campbell, Mairi’s grandfather and a preacher in the Highlands.
“The show is an exploration of his life in story and song,” says David. “That interweaving is something Mairi and I definitely share an interest in. It’s a format we’ve done successfully at the Fringe and this is very much a follow-up.
“Ceilidh Culture is a great opportunity to put on a show like that.”
Mr Byrne adds: “I think Ceilidh Culture has now become much more of a recognised brand in terms of what it represents. In some respects, it’s like a platform for the traditional arts community.
“What’s unique about this event is it is representative of the traditional arts community and driven by the city itself.”
n Ceilidh Culture takes place in various locations across Edinburgh from March 16 to April 15.