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TRADFEST - Edinburgh - 26 April-6 May 2019

At the end of last year's sixth annual Tradfest in Edinburgh, there were fears that this highly successful festival would come to an end due to the loss of funding to TRACS, who had organised the event so well. Fortunately, the Soundhouse Organisation, who promote live music in Edinburgh through house concerts and weekly concerts at the Traverse and who have previously hosted some Tradfest events, stepped in to take over what for this year was a smaller scale festival with hopes of establishing a more ambitious festival in the future. Sub-titling the event as “the past, present and future of traditional music”, Soundhouse concentrated on putting on 11 days of traditional music events around Edinburgh, leaving the Scottish Storytelling Centre to maintain activities concerning Beltane and May Day, whilst Transgressive North, separately funded, was able to continue its ever-expanding Folk Film Fest at the Filmhouse.

This year's spectacular opening concert was held in a packed Queens Hall with an exceptional double bill of brilliant young piper Brighde Chaimbeul and award-winning Irish band, Lankum. Two other major concerts were held in the Queens Hall. Another outstanding double bill featured the dynamic Talisk trio with the extraordinary concertina maestro, Mohsen Amini, and fiddler wizard Adam Sutherland accompanied by an accomplished band featuring Brian McAlpine on keyboards. Heidi Talbot compered another full and varied evening there with Fair Isle singer and accordionist, Inge Thomson, delivering an all-too-short taste of her distinctive vocal and percussive skills, featuring items from past projects and a sample from the latest collaboration - Modern Fairies. The French harpist, based in Ireland, Floriane Blancke followed, before Nordic fiddle legends Väsen brought the night to a thrilling climax.

Nordic sounds also rang out in one of the concerts staged at Soundhouse’s regular Monday home, the Traverse Bar, in the shape of Baltic Crossing - the longstanding combination of Tynesiders Andy May and Ian Stephenson with the Dane Kristian Bugge and Finns Esko and Antti Jarvela. This was an equally exciting evening, but the main highlight of the 11 days for me was a Soundhouse commission, What A Voice, where singers Fiona Hunter, Kathleen MacInnes and Kaela Rowan provided a spell-binding performance to an enthralled Traverse Theatre, showcasing traditional songs collected primarily from women tradition-bearers.

The night began with Fiona's rendition of Miller Tae My Trade learned from Ray Fisher and was followed by Kathleen’s Gur Milis Morag, citing Flora MacNeil as her inspiration. A bilingual interpretation by Fiona and Kathleen of MacCrimmon's Lament also stood out, as did various medleys of puirt-a-beul where Kaela's voice was particularly strong. The concert set included numerous well-known songs such as Berry Fields Of Blair, Crioghal Chride and, of course, Blackbird, otherwise known as What A Voice. All were interpreted by the distinctive voices of the three women backed by a band including two men, Mike Vass on fiddle and tenor guitar, and James Mackintosh on percussion and guitar, alongside Emma Smith on double bass and Mhairi Hall on keyboards, whistle and flute.

There were three other well-attended gigs at the Traverse - May Erlewine and her trio, and two I missed due to the usual clashes that are part of a festival full of alternatives. John Reischman & The Jaybirds and the Fretless, returning from Canada, both played to full houses. Other venues were also utilised during Tradfest. Dave Burland appeared at the Edinburgh Folk Club at the Pleasance, and although the Storytelling Centre was no longer the hub for the festival, several events were held there, notably harpist Savourna Stevenson's duo with saxophonist Steve Kettley and a Ceilidh Come All Ye. This was part of Hamish Henderson 100, the ongoing celebration of the centenary of Hamish's birth which began with a concert led by Lori Watson at Celtic Connections and will culminate at November's Carrying Stream Festival. This featured the likes of Margaret Bennett, Nancy Nicolson, Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, and was introduced by the Storytelling Centre's Donald Smith who joined in the singing himself. He also reminded me that the late Paddy Bort, the man behind the Carrying Stream Festival, was very much an inspiration behind the original concept of Tradfest.

The Filmhouse again had many packed houses for the Folk Film Gathering, which is so established it runs several days after the official end of Tradfest. The 2019 Gathering revolved around the theme of storytelling, including films from Estonia, Finland and Russia as well as Scotland, usually preceded by live music. Rachel Newton performed before the screening of the Gaelic film, Seachd, and Marit Falt was outstandingly busy, performing solo before a Finnish film, The White Reindeer, and with Rona Wilkie preceding a showing of The Silver Darlings, almost immediately after playing a two and a half hour score accompanying a silent Norwegian film! Songs from Newcastle were also sung before this year's presentation from Amber Films Collective, who also gave a discussion about their 50 years of filming on Tyneside at the nearby Art College.

From impressions gathered and statements made by the Soundhouse Organisation after this year's successful festival, it seems plans are going ahead to establish Tradfest on a bigger scale, with funding from Creative Scotland who have been encouraged by this year's showing. They and the City of Edinburgh Tattoo Culture Fund had helped fund this year's festival. Speaking on behalf of the Soundhouse Organisation in a post-festival press release, Douglas Robertson said: “We are beyond thrilled with the turnout for this year's festival, which shows there is a growing interest in and awareness of Tradfest as part of the city's landscape. We look forward to coming back next year and building on our relationships with venues, funding partners, artists and returning audiences.” Roll on May 2020!

Neil Hedgeland