Tradfest: Come all ye and celebrate the music of our immigrant communities

A new commission for this year’s Tradfest aims to celebrate the many immigrant musicians who have made Scotland their home, writes Jim Gilchrist

Phil Alexander

“Come all ye…” The time-honoured exhortation has been the traditional rallying cry of folk balladeers. For many these days it may evoke Hamish Henderson’s stirring Scots Internationale, the Freedom Come-All-Ye. Musician and academic Phil Alexander widens that sense of fraternal outreach in his own project, Come All Ye, commissioned by Edinburgh’s Tradfest festival which opens at the end of this month.

Alexander’s composition aims to celebrate the many immigrant musicians who have made Scotland their home and contributed to this country’s culture. He is well placed to curate such a celebration. As a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, he studies Scottish-Jewish musical life during the early 20th century; as a pianist and accordionist, he has been a cornerstone of the band Moishe’s Bagel, exuberantly eclectic purveyors of klezmer, Balkan and Middle-Eastern music and beyond – and who, sadly, played their final gig at the beginning of this month.

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Come All Ye, at the Traverse on 2 May, started to formulate in Alexander’s mind after he mentioned his university research to Jane-Ann Purdy of the Soundhouse organisation which runs the music programme for Tradfest. She expressed interest, then, says Alexander, “I started thinking more generally about the fact that while Scottish traditional music is well represented in Scotland – as it should be, not quite so visible were the other traditions that have come here from other places.”

The resulting programme, a mixture of newly composed music and traditional material, is, he says, “quite a kaleidoscope”. Performers include Scots-African musician Clare Robertson, who plays the mbira or thumb piano among other instruments, Adnan Shamdin, a Syrian Kurdish oud player and tabla percussionist Hardeep Deerhe, as well as singers Brina Ward from Jamaica and Fong Liu from China. From the Hungarian fiddle tradition comes Yani Lang, while Alexander’s colleague from Moishe’s Bagel, Brazilian Mario Caribé, will play bass and Alexander himself adding “my own Jewish sounds”.

He describes it as “a concert that will tell stories of arrival and departure, displacement and togetherness, through the voices and instruments of the musicians themselves.” Scotland’s own musical traditions will be represented in an opening set by the Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin Big Band.

The current appalling state of world affairs highlights the whole issue of immigration, he agrees. “The thing is, though, immigration has been going on in some form or other, in different waves, as long as there have been humans, and terrible things like wars prompt more. The idea of accommodating difference within a society is something that we really should be accepting by now, shouldn’t we?”

Despite the disbanding of Moishe’s Bagel, Alexander keeps busy musically, not least in the Firelight Trio with fiddler Gavin Marwick and nickelharp player Ruth Morris. “It’s been 18 really fantastic years,” he says of the Bagels, “but there was a feeling that we were risking becoming stale if we carried on and we thought we’d quit while we were still ahead. Between the five of us we’ll play together from time to time, so we’re not going to disappear altogether as a sound.”

The tenth Tradfest opens on 29 April with a concert at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms by the renowned Highland fiddler Duncan Chisholm and rising singer-songwriter Beth Malcolm. The programme also encompasses concerts in various venues by such folk luminaries as the duo of Martin and Eliza Carthy, pianist Dave Milligan with singer songwriter Karine Polwart, piper Malin Lewis, “acid croft” favourites Shooglenifty and the Finnish power-fiddle outfit Frigg.

Bogha-Frois – “Queer voices in Folk” , is a collective of LGBT musicians curating concerts by various groups including Hebridean trio Hecla and the young band Madderam, as well a “Queer Folks’ Tales” session at the Scottish Story Centre. And in partnership with Edinburgh University’s Celtic and Scottish Studies department, the festival’s Rebellious Truth lecture will be given by Belfast musician, composer and sound artist Úna Monaghan, spotlighting gender inequality in traditional music.

Tradfest runs from 29 April to 9 May. See www.edinburghtradfest.com