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NORTH ATLANTIC FIDDLE CONVENTION (NAFCO) - Aberdeen - 11-15 July 2018

July saw Aberdeen’s halls and bars flooded with fiddle activity, which spilled out into the nearby villages and lifted the spirits with a cascade of music. The North Atlantic Fiddle Convention had come back home! Started by Ian Russell in 2001, it has taken place in Aberdeen every four years (with interim stops in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia). Its 2018 iteration proved to be an almighty celebration of the study, performance and role of all things fiddle. Now in the hands of Carley Williams and Frances Wilkins, we were offered no less than 150 events over five days.

Each of the five days followed a pattern: in the morning, the University hosted a symposium, where researchers presented papers and talks on a vast array of topics ranging from Galician music’s similarities to the Mexica Husteco, to fiddle traditions in West Africa and from the tune Moneymusk to the pilgrim music of the Kazakh Qobyz. Then from lunch until tea-time the emphasis was on workshops, exploring the different fiddle styles evinced by the performers and some of the dancing associated with it, emphasising the closeness of the two elements. Before the lip-smacking array of evening concerts, there was also a smattering of films, talks, chamber concerts or sessions/soirees to keep you occupied. And if you were still standing at the end of a packed day, there was a late-night dance where you could investigate a smorgasbord of the many traditional steps or sets on offer during the week. Or you could partake of a ‘day oot’ , unsurprisingly popular events which featured trips out to such beautiful venues as Haddo House, and allowed people to enjoy the countryside, a picnic and an evening concert with an extremely impressive line-up.

Obviously, it would be impossible to note all the dazzling array of artists involved – not least because they were all so good – but there were some standout moments, often involving spontaneous or improvised ‘coming together’ from different styles and regions.

Alasdair Fraser told how, when visiting Galicia, he bemoaned on local radio the lack of a local fiddle tradition. Afterwards he was surprised to be accosted by someone thrusting a cassette tape at him. That person was Alfonso Franco and the tape was recordings of traditional Galician fiddlers. Wind on a few years and Alfonso teaches at the Vigo Municipal School of Folk and Traditional Music and runs a renowned fiddle camp for youngsters at San Simon, where Alasdair Fraser and others are tutors. To celebrate this, they brought no less than 29 young fiddlers from the camp to put on a Galicia Foliada. It was incredible to see these youngsters producing such fantastic music with such relish, jumping around and obviously having a whale of a time. Quite a contrast to some other young groups who just look scared to death in case they get it wrong. These kids really went for it! It was a positively life-affirming experience. Many of the performances were spiced by the free-form dancing of Nick Gareiss, who seemed never to tire.

In contrast, Aberdeen’s own Paul Anderson also performed traditional Scottish music with guitar accompaniment and showed how, when eschewing trendiness, show and ‘flash’, he can mesmerise an audience just by playing strong material supremely well.

One superb idea the organisers had was to take some of the papers given at the symposium and work them into performance items, which were then performed as an item in a number of concerts - a great idea which was lapped up by the audiences. It was also heart-warming to see some of the brilliant young performers getting involved in research as well as performance and giving talks at the symposium. For instance, Brittany Haas gave an uplifting description of how much the recordings of the blind fiddle-player Ed Haley mean to her. At a time when many younger people (especially in England) are questioning the worth of field recordings in favour of either learning from the people who learned from them, or indeed a pick’n’mix approach to tunes from anywhere, it was particularly good to see.

I was however disappointed with the lack of representation from nearer to home. The reaching out to non-Atlantic traditions meant that the sole English representatives were a group from the Lakeland Fiddlers who demonstrated their music and stepdancing. Although the Rheingans Sisters were labelled ‘English’, they only played music from other countries (and were terrifically good). The poor Welsh had no representation at all!

Oh – and a plea for better tote bags! The ones available were slippery, non-recyclable plastic and the writing was wearing off even before the event had ended.

Well, when your criticisms are limited to describing the tote bags, you can see how incredible the whole of the event was!

northatlanticfiddle.com

Paul Burgess