ENLIVENING some 26 venues across Edinburgh from 29 April to 11 May, with its hub the ever-creative Scottish Storytelling Centre, this year’s TradFest – an ambitiously wide-ranging celebration of traditional and other arts – boasts more than 80 events.
And while not overtly political, it is certainly suffused by issues of Scottish cultural renewal and identity which have seen a flourishing of traditional music in the past two or three decades.
“It’s an interesting concept,” agrees Dave Francis, musician and executive officer for the Traditional Music Forum, one of the key partners in TradFest, “because during the 20th century those two terms – renaissance and revival – were quite key in Scottish culture, with the so-called Scottish literary renaissance early in the century, with Hugh MacDiarmid and company, then the folk revival in the second half, which of course, through people like Hamish Henderson, linked into the MacDiarmid renaissance as well.” Not always with the goodwill of the inspired but famously carnaptious MacDiarmid, and one of TradFest’s non-musical events, Clash of the Titans: Revival and Renaissance looks at famous “flyting” between Henderson and MacDiarmid in the letters pages of this newspaper, over the poet’s dismissively elitist attitude to folksong.
The festival programme encompasses concerts and ceilidhs, street events, storytelling sessions, conferences, film screenings, talks and debates ranging across an intriguing clamjamfray of topics, from bagpipes to Celtic art revival, Scottish cookery to political self-determination. Musically, the bill features such names as Breabach, the Nuala Kennedy Band, fiddle quartet Rant, and a concert pairing of Gaelic and Lowland traditional singers Kathleen MacInnes and Fiona Hunter, while balladeers Alison McMorland and Geordie MacIntyre explore the history of the present Scottish folk revival in song. The previously successful Flowers of Edinburgh showcase concert will be revived, compered by Simon Thoumire, who will reform his old band Keep It Up for the occasion. Incoming performers include the duo of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, English band the Old Dance School, as well as nights of Mediterranean ad Balkan music. TradFest’s ethos – reflecting that of organiser TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland) – is to bring together aspects of the traditional arts which, as Francis puts it, “at one time were never really separated. Storytelling, dance and music could all quite conceivably happen within the same four walls.”
Themes of revival and renaissance, in terms of successive cultural flowerings, are further exercised in a conference on the Celtic revivals of the 19th and 20th centuries, in the National Gallery of Scotland and National Library of Scotland, while, at Teviot Row House, a seminar on Scottish Bagpipes: Past Present and Future examines the current flourishing state of piping.
The programme also ropes in the city’s pre-existing Beltane celebrations and May Day March – pagan fire ritual and radical workers’ celebration. These are strands, says Francis, which go back to medieval times. The Storytelling Centre home at the Netherbow, the former site of a mighty fortified gate separating Edinburgh from the adjacent burgh of Canongate, was traditionally a location for May Day revels – an element reflected in the programme by the anarchic Armagh Rhymers and other mummers’ groups.
Francis refers to an event, Old Story: New Sang, with storytellers Stuart McHardy and festival director Donald Smith invoking the Earl of Seafield’s remark at the signing of the Treaty of Union in 1707, that it marked “ane end of ane old song” and searching for “some notes and melodies for a new Scotland”. Revival and renewal once again, suggests Francis. “Regardless of what happens in the Referendum, the hare’s out of the trap, really.”