Songs sans frontieres

It won’t be televised into every home in Europe, and there are unlikely to be huffy national protests over scoring or the ultimate shame of nul points, but at least the entries in next month’s alternative Eurovision Song Contest won’t all sound like rejects from Top of the Pops. The first Liet Ynternasjonaal, to be held in Leeuwarden, in the Netherlands’ bilingual northern province of Friesland, promises originality if nothing else.

The event, showcasing songs in ten different European minority languages, is the brainchild of the Frisian foundation Liet (liet is Frisian for "song"), and will be held in the provincial capital on 28 April, the day after the highly successful Frisian song contest that has run there for the past 12 years.

The Liet Ynternasjonaal is a deliberate reaction against the cultural greyness of the Eurovision Song Contest. "In the Eurovision," says one of the new event’s organisers, Onno Falkena, "you get songs from Yugoslavia to Israel and they all sound the same basically, most of them in English, and nothing is very original."

He has a point. With the original contest’s record for coming up with brain-numbing choruses such as "Boom bang-a-bang", "Boum Bada Boum" or "Bana Banana", does it really matter what language they’re singing in? "The Frisian alternative is about promoting diversity - musically, linguistically and culturally," explains Falkena, a journalist with the province’s broadcasting station, Omrop Frysln, and a committee member of the foundation, which promotes the province’s ancient language of Frisian.

The contestants will represent ten European minority languages - Basque, Catalan, Breton, Frisian, North Frisian (from Germany), Kashubian (from Poland), Occitan, Smi, Welsh and Irish. No Scottish contenders on this first occasion, however - Gaels take note. "People seemed interested," says Reank Terpstra, a museum director involved with the Liet who visited Edinburgh briefly to try and drum up participants, "but from the organising point of view there was nothing happening."

Among those he spoke to was Rita Hunter, manager of the Fis Ris, which promotes traditional music in Ross and Cromarty. "We gave him phone numbers and, following that meeting, the music officer at the Scottish Arts Council circulated an email with details of the competition," says Hunter. "Certainly people were sent the information but whether or not they acted on it I don’t know. Perhaps people need longer to get a new idea for a song going. It might be that we’ll get people off the ground next year."

It’s perhaps worth recalling that minority languages - and Gaels - did make a curious foray into the Eurovision contest in 1996, when Gaelic singer Karen Matheson sang the French entry - written by a Breton. The song, Que naissent les enfants, was by guitarist and composer Dan Ar Braz, with whom Matheson was working at the time. It was voted into the number 19 spot (Ireland’s Eimear Quinn won, while Britain’s Gina G came eighth) and the whole experience is not one on which Matheson cares to dwell. Suffice to say that what was originally a characterful, folky little number ended up well and truly "Eurovisioned", complete with orchestra.

Such insipid anonymity should not be the case with the Liet. "The songs will be less commercial and more original than the Eurovision," promises Falkena. "The performers should be representative of wherever they come from, but they don’t need to be folky. We have a band from Finland, for example, Angelit, who sing in Smi but take their ancient joik tradition and make it sound like 2002. The Basque participants, Bat Britten, are definitely rock, but they more or less represent what the Basque music scene is all about just now."

While the other nine contenders were announced last week, the Frisians’ own entry won’t be decided until the day before the contest, during the finals of the Frisian song contest. That event, which sells out every year in the province capital of Leeuwarden, has produced at least one major success with the duo Twarres, who are now chart stars in the Netherlands and Belgium - but singing in Frisian.

The winner of the Liet Ynternasjonaal may not end up in the charts just yet, but will be invited to appear at Oerol, Friesland’s premier cultural festival, on the island of Terschelling, in June. Judging will be by a jury of representatives from the competing linguistic communities who, like their Eurovision counterparts, will not be allowed to vote for their own group’s song. But although the event will draw numerous TV crews from participating areas and elsewhere, it is unlikely to be disrupting TV scheduling across the continent in the manner of its glitzier mainstream counterpart. "No, no. Not yet anyway," remarks Falkena, cheerfully.

Terry Wogan, regular presenter of Eurovision, once remarked: "There’s not enough silliness in the world. Eurovision helps to keep it balanced." The promoters of the Frisian alternative hope to restore a balance of a different sort.