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BUTTON BOXES AND MOOTHIES - Aberdeen - 6-8 November 2015

It has been an exciting time here at the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen. On 6-8th November 2015, we held the fourth Button Boxes and Moothies festival, attracting musicians and enthusiasts from many parts of the UK, Ireland, and as far away as France and the United States. This is a unique event which takes place every four years and aims to bring together instrumentalists who play mouth organs, concertinas, melodeons, Jew’s harps and diatonic button accordions. The idea behind it is to offer a platform for these often under-exposed instruments, to whet the appetite and open the ears to the music of some of our very best talents from Ireland, England and Scotland. One of our main concerns is to be able to provide a platform for performing and appreciating the unique styles of individual players, something which at many festivals seems to get lost among the numerous bands that are booked to perform.

This was the first time I was involved in the festival as an organiser, and planned the event together with Ian Russell (who has been running the event since its beginnings in 2001) and a dedicated steering group in Aberdeen. The aim for us was to draw together a weekend of workshops, concerts, sessions, ceilidhs and an academic study day to present a truly three-dimensional experience to festival-goers.

Workshops catered for all abilities, from complete beginners to experienced players, and they covered each of the instruments with non-free reed players being able to join the mixed instrument and dance workshops. We were lucky to have a fantastic line-up of performers from England, Ireland and Scotland, including concertina maestro Alistair Anderson, who led a superb closing session at the Blue Lamp on the Sunday afternoon, Jew’s harp expert Michael Wright, moothie virtuoso Will Pound, Scottish concertinist Wendy Stewart, and the excellent Irish button accordion and concertina players, Breandann Beagloich and Mary MacNamara. To launch the festival we hosted an academic study day, with keynote lecture from Alistair Anderson. Sponsored by the British Forum of Ethnomusicology, the aim of the day was to bring to light some of the groundbreaking research taking place into free reed instruments. For many of the festival-goers, this was a great way to start the weekend and the informative talks from academics and invited artists really enhanced the festival. Alistair himself commented that there were “fascinating talks from experts in a remarkably wide range of subjects and a good balance of approach from the suitably academic to the completely informal.”

Highlights included the impromptu trio of musicians who, at no notice, provided excellent accompaniment to Jerry O’ Reilly’s Irish set dancing group. Harry Scurfield was one of them, writing afterwards that it was “personally, such a treat for me - Will Pound on melodeon, the wonderful Billy Jolly on harmonica, and myself on Anglo concertina. For me, it was a delight throughout – and the dancers seemed to cope quite well with it! I had never even met the other two players, but Will’s embellishments and off-piste excursions around the melody were a joy indeed, as were the punch and drive from Billy.”

The Irish contingent was, as always, a pleasure to have at the festival, some of whom have become stalwarts in Aberdeen over the years and Will Pound commented afterwards that “Brendan Begley was outstanding. What a performance and musician!”

Highlights for me were the Mostly Moothies concert, which provided a rare opportunity to hear all our moothie-playing guests performing solo pieces - from the emblematic Irish tunes of Noel Battle to the beautiful slow airs of Murray Douglas. It was also encouraging to hear the positive feedback afterwards from people who had taken part, especially from non-free reed players, who had been very pleasantly surprised by how much they had got from the event. Although a long way off just now, plans are already afoot for the next festival which is due to take place in late 2019 - watch this space!

Frances Wilkins
The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen