Traditional values: Previewing the tenth folk Oscars

The tenth folk Oscars are presented on Saturday, covering the whole of the trad scene, and their founder hopes they will boost the winners’ profile as much as an award once helped him

The tenth folk Oscars are presented on Saturday, covering the whole of the trad scene, and their founder hopes they will boost the winners’ profile as much as an award once helped him

THEY may not quite engender such unlikely scenes as celebs getting their legs in a twist during the paso doble, or MPs going AWOL in the jungle, but the Scots Trad Music Awards have succeeded in bringing an annual touch of glitz to the Scottish folk scene which only a decade ago would have seemed improbable, to say the least.

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This Saturday, the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, to give them their official moniker – also known as “the folk Oscars” – will celebrate their tenth birthday, filling the Nevis Centre at Fort William. It will be the fifth year the awards ceremony has been held in the Highland venue after several years in the Lowlands, and the first in which BBC Alba will broadcast part of the ceremony live – the awards’ main sponsor for the past five years being MG Alba, the Gaelic Media Service which produces BBC Alba in partnership with the BBC.

The 750-seat Nevis Centre, already sold out for the evening, will host performances ranging from the eclectic, high-energy folk-fusion of the Treacherous Orchestra to acclaimed singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, while MCs Mary Ann Kennedy and Tommy Kearney will present the awards to the winners of the 16 categories, decided by a combination of online public voting and a panel of judges from the music industry and media. The awards cover such categories as Scots and Gaelic Singers, Instrumentalist and Composer of the Year, as well as pipe and dance bands, teachers, venues and community projects.

The event will also have further inductions into its now established Scottish Traditional Hall of Fame, this year including Anne Lorne Gillies and Roddy MacLeod MBE as well as two sadly posthumous inductions for the influential piper and composer Martyn Bennett and Jock Tamson’s Bairns fiddler and prolific tune composer Ian Hardie.

Presented for outstanding contributions in the field are the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Traditional Music, this year going to harpist Isobel Mieras who has been a pivotal figure and hugely influential teacher in the clarsach revival, and the Services to Gaelic Music Award, going to Rory and Calum MacDonald, the songwriting brothers at the very core of Runrig.

For the man behind the awards, concertina wizard, composer and industrious traditional music activist Simon Thoumire, their success over the past ten years has been a vindication of his original vision. Thoumire, now 42, himself reaped the benefits of an award, picking up a coveted BBC Radio 2 Young Tradition award back in 1989.

The beneficial impact of that prize on his own career prompted him to later initiate the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician awards in 2001. Then, it seems, there was no stopping him and the Scots Trad Awards took off the following year.

“We started them because there was a real need,” he says, speaking in his office in Bearsden, outside Glasgow, that is home to Hands up for Trad, the organisation which runs both awards. “I felt it was the right time for it.

“For some time there had been a concentration on youth, and that scene was flourishing,” he recalls, referring to initiatives such as the Feisan movement in the Highlands and the popular Edinburgh-based Youth Gaitherin’ in which he played a key part. “Yet there was also this amazing general folk scene going on that I felt wasn’t being celebrated.”

One might question whether a glossy concept of an awards ceremony doesn’t go against the very grain of an entity like the Scottish folk scene which, as well as its higher profile, Celtic Connections-style manifestations, is essentially thirled to grassroots music-making and a certain anarchic disregard of establishment.

“I absolutely agree,” says Thoumire, unabashed. “But the aim of these awards from day one was to increase the visibility of traditional music to the public and the media. The public looks at the Oscars ceremony and basically sees that this is a top-notch event, red carpets… the lot. So we needed some kind of parity with that.

“The way we deal with the roots,” he continues, “is that everybody’s included.” Back in 2002 when he was getting the awards under way, he discussed them with Maggie Cunningham, then BBC Scotland’s joint head of programmes, now chairwoman of BBC Alba: “I was telling her about my ideas for the ceremony, and about what I thought ‘folk’ was; and she said basically that her ‘folk’ was something else completely.

“That made me realise that for this event to be successful, we had to include everybody, from the Peatbog Faeries to the dance bands, pipe bands, Gaelic and Scots… And that, I think has been the success of the whole thing – one, that the industry has really supported it, and, two, that everybody comes out for it and speaks with one voice.”

Also, he adds, “I get to wear a nice suit.” They may not feature such spectacularly lachrymose acceptance speeches, à la Halle Berry, as their Hollywood equivalent, but the Trad Awards certainly do see the folk scene come out, rather atypically, in its best bib and tucker.

As the moving spirit behind numerous other initiatives, including the compendious Foot Stompin’ Scottish music website, the DISTIL development programmes he runs with Dave Francis for emerging traditional musicians , as well as Hands up for Trad, the organisation which, among other things, handles the Scots Trad Awards and the Radio Scotland award scheme – not to mention helping care for the two young children he has with his wife, fiddler and teacher Clare McLaughlin, Thoumire has little time these days to exercise his playing and compositional skills. He was, however, in Sweden recently, rehearsing with guitarist Ian Carr, a frequent playing partner, now based there, for an album they plan for next year.

One of Thoumire’s previous band names was Keep It Up – a rallying call to play and promote Scottish music – and that is exactly what he intends to do, regardless of pressing awards ceremonies. “So I keep it up, and I keep my standards high, because I love the music, and I’m paranoid about losing my chops.”

• For further details, see The second half of the awards ceremony will be broadcast live on BBC Alba on Saturday night, from 9pm-11pm.