Scotland's farthest-flung folk festival refuses to be put in shade by seismic forces

BETWEEN belligerent Icelandic volcanoes and tightening arts budgets, this isn't the easiest of times for folk music organisers.

The flight ban prompted by the volcanic ash cloud cast a certain shadow over the auspicious run-up to the forthcoming 30th Shetland Folk Festival, an event which not only mingles top folk performers from Scotland and further afield with Shetland's own burgeoning traditional music scene, but also embraces the daunting logistics of conveying these acts by road and ferry to some of the islands' most outlying communities.

"I'm trying not to think about it," was how one of the festival organisers, Mhari Pottinger, put it when I asked how flight disruption might affect a 30th birthday programme including various bands who would be flying in, such as Vsen from Sweden and, from America, the Wiyos and the Foghorn String band, as well as the German-Indian fusion band Ahimsa.

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With a tentative lifting of flight restrictions, prospects for the festival, which runs from 29 April to 2 May, were looking brighter as this article went to press. Other eminent names on the bill include the band the festival regards as its global ambassadors, Fiddlers' Bid; the concertina-guitar duo of Simon Thoumire and Ian Carr; the widely acclaimed trio Lau; Session A9; Sligo-based trio The Unwanted, and Franco-Irish gypsy jazz from the Paradiso Jazz Quartet.

The scattered nature of island venues can mean a 12-hour round trip for the Lerwick-based performers, while the renowned festival club in Islesburgh Community Centre generates considerable seismic heat of its own, prompting at least one weary visiting musician to suggest that this festival requires a government health warning.

Despite its outlying nature, the Shetland festival fast established itself as a major date in the UK folk calendar, a status which Pottinger attributes at least partly to its strong community involvement, "and also to the power of Shetland music in itself. Visitors are often blown away by the quality of musicianship up here." Local involvement was a given, right from when Charlie Simpson and the late Dr Tom Anderson, busy championing Shetland music at festivals in mainland Britain, decided it was time the islands had a showcase festival of their own.

While it takes more than a volcanic ash cloud to quench the rumbustiously creative spirit of the festival, fall-out of a different sort, from these economically straitened times, means all is not as healthy as it might be on the traditional music scene.

In Shetland itself, while the festival is financially secure for the moment, there are concerns that the islands' renowned fiddle skills could be threatened due to Shetland Islands Council's plans to scrap free music tuition in schools.

Meanwhile, in the wider Scottish traditional music scene, once again it appears to be grassroots music-making that is losing out, as the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland announces that it is making all four of its full-time staff redundant, continuing on a volunteer-led basis. The TMSA's national convener, Douglas Craik, says that the decision follows the loss of core funding from the Scottish Arts Council two years ago.

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Craik says: "Every avenue has been explored to redress the adverse financial position in which many grassroots Lowland Scottish traditional music and song organisations find themselves.

"However, there comes a point when your reserves start to dwindle, and we were aware of our contractual obligations to our staff, so the point of no return came at the end of March, and we had to take that step, with great sadness."

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The feeling of Craik and others is that when it comes to funding, a disproportionate amount of the pot goes to high-profile stage performance, rather than the essential teaching and community-based music-making that enable the folk scene to flourish.

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