Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fitting into the right musical box

I regularly get emails out of the blue from various singing groups scattered across the globe. Only yesterday I had one from a Russian ensemble, and a few weeks ago I had one from a women’s group in the US. They all ask if I can help them to set up a tour in the UK. I’m afraid that I almost always turn down their offer. I’m not a producer, I don’t have any particular connection with any venues, and besides which, I really don’t know whether this kind of stuff goes down well in the UK.

The US has several well-known “world music” singing groups, for instance Kitka, Northern Harmony and Libana. They regularly gig in the US, have a large following and release CDs on a frequent basis. Northern Harmony has toured the UK several times, but even though their gigs are well-attended, they’re usually off the beaten track, often in churches and small village halls. I was once told by a local rural touring producer that “acappella just doesn’t sell”. So not only is it hard for groups such as Artisan and Coope, Boyes and Simpson from the folk world to get gigs, but virtually impossible for any groups who sing so-called “world music”.

There may well be audiences in London for specialist groups like the London Bulgarian Choir and Maspindzeli, but elsewhere groups like this are few and far between and seldom seen at gigs or festivals. I once approached a big summer festival only to be told that they want “music that people can dance to”. i.e. loud and boppy. So is there no room for those gorgeous unaccompanied harmonies from Georgia, Bulgaria, Russia and beyond? Do African songs always need big dances and accompaniment, or can we do the occasional Zimbabwean lullaby?

How come there are more groups in the US and they get regular audiences? Is it because they have a bigger imigrant populations from harmony singing countries like Croatia and Macedonia, for example?

I always used to think that the sort of choirs that I run are unique in their repertoire, and hence something special and different. That may well be the case, but instead of that being a selling point, it seems to be a drawback because nobody knows exactly which ‘box’ we fit into. I use the tag “world music choir”, but either people don’t know what the phrase “world music” is or think it has to involve guitar playing from Mali. I get loads of requests from people wanting a choir for their wedding and I think we offer a really interesting alternative: South African wedding songs, church songs from Georgia – all to make your day special and unique. But when I write back, I never get a reply because most people want the standard Ave Maria or the gospel singers that they saw in the movie Sister Act. (We are, however, doing a wedding in the near future for a choir member who really appreciates what we do!).

Hence I say that I can’t help these groups from abroad looking for gigs. I simply don’t know who to approach, which venues or producers may be interested. It’s taken WorldSong 10 long years to build up a half-way decent following in our own back yard, I just hope that there are enough similar groups out there that we can build awareness across the whole UK and get to see more “world music” singing. Spread the word!

Of course, this presupposes that we can clearly describe exactly what it is that we do do. Many people aren't familiar with terms such as “world music” or “roots music”. This was the subject of an earlier post: What is it that you do exactly?

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hidden culture

I’ve just spent the last two weeks travelling through the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I was really looking forward to catching some traditional singing since I had been told that all three countries have a rich and well-preserved history of song.

The Lonely Planet Guide said: “Song is the soul of the Balts. And nowhere is this expressed more eloquently than in the national song festivals that unite Estonia, Latvia and Lithuanians worldwide in a spellbinding performance of song. The crescendo is a choir of up to 30,000 voices, singing its heart out to an audience of 100,000 or more, while scores of folk dancers in traditional dress throw a bewitching kaleidoscope of patterns across the vast, open-air stage”.

And the Rough Guide said: “The characteristic Baltic singing festivals – hugely popular events – played a major role in expressing the national identities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during their move to independence.”

Unfortunately most of the big folk song festivals had already happened earlier in the year!

In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made: over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia and the largest archive in Lithuanian folklore alone contains over 400,000 collected songs.

I also read in a local guide book that if you ask a Lithuanian about his country’s traditional culture, you would most likely hear about Lithuanian songs and love of singing. Apparently, only a few decades ago, most women of the Dzukija region still knew a hundred songs; the most accomplished singers remembered as many as four hundred. Often, people sang more than they spoke!

The choral folk and runo-song arrangements of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis are very popular, having influence as far away as the Estonian community in Australia! And it’s not just old, dyed-in-the-wool folk fans who follow the traditional songs, the annual Viljandi folk festival in Estonia each July attracts a young audience to see a variety of roots bands.

So how come in the restaurants and shops the music was Russian pop or Bob Marley or classical muzak, and the new Baltic MTV was full of Baltic rock of the bad 1970s kind? Where was this vibrant traditional culture that I’d been reading so much about?

I was also yearning to see some kind of authentic folk craft in the shops rather than the usual watered-down tourist rubbish (is that what people really want, or do we buy it because it’s the only thing on offer?).

It got me thinking about how visible so-called traditional culture is in any particular society. There is clearly a rich and vibrant folk tradition in the Baltics in both music and applied arts, yet on an everyday level it is invisible. What happens to all those thousands of people who join in the song festivals the rest of the year? Do they simply stop singing? What is a culture’s folk tradition any way? I guess you could say that the derivative Baltic pop music on the radio, and the buying of cheap Russian clothes imports in the markets is an expression of today’s traditional culture. Yet my background reading suggests that there is a lively, current interest in songs and music that has been handed down over generations – songs for every occasion: weddings, rye harvest, summer solstice, funerals. It is an integral part of Baltic society and runs deep. So why did I have to go hunting in modern record shops to try and find recordings of folk music hidden amongst the stacks of death metal and American pop?

What would a foreigner’s impression of our folk traditions be if she arrived at Heathrow, took the tube into London and wandered down Oxford Street? Sure we have many lively and well-attended folk clubs throughout the country, but they’re not that visible at first glance.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Holiday time!

No blog this week as I'm off sunning myself in 30°C temperatures in the Baltic states! Stay tuned for more next week.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

It does exactly what it says in the blurb – or not!

Just a quick one this week as I’m just about to leave for two weeks travelling in the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It’s supposed to be a holiday, but I’m hoping to pick up some songs for future use! I won’t be posting next week as I will be somewhere in the middle of a Latvian national park and I’m not taking any technology with me. Normal service will be resumed on Sunday 19th August.

Last week I ran an open workshop for the Warwick Folk Festival. It was billed as “World Songs” with a sub-heading “community choirs”. Rather an odd way of describing what I do, but nevertheless we had a healthy 40+ people turn up and they seemed to enjoy themselves. I’m always very nervous before a workshop, no matter how many times I’ve done them, especially when there are no advance bookings. I had absolutely no idea how many people would turn up, and convinced myself I would be happy with just six or so. Hence I was very pleasantly surprised by the turnout, even attracting about eight blokes.

As is often the case, the first few people through the door were a bit hesitant as they too did not know what to expect. I always try to put people at ease and usually ask: “Have you come to sing?” (just in case they had expected to attend a ceramics class and had wandered into the wrong room by mistake). I get many responses to this question. Often: “Oh, no, I’m just here with my friend. I can’t sing”. More often than not I persuade them to join in and they end up having a good sing by the end of the workshop. This time a couple of women looked especially hesitant and said something like: “Yes, I think so, but it depends what it’s going to be like”. They went on to say that the day before they had been on a ballad workshop and had been made to feel rather inferior and left out as they didn’t know all 30 verses of a particular song!

I tried to put their minds at ease, and very soon they were smiling and joining in wholeheartedly with the African songs. It made me realise that there were still people out there who somehow managed to put people off singing, even when those people had made the effort to turn up to a workshop and were looking forward to sing. I wonder what would have happened to those two women’s confidence if they had not come to my workshop, but just left the festival with their first experience to take away with them.

It also made me think that it’s very important to try and explain exactly what a workshop is going to be. To try and give it an appropriate name and a bit of blurb so that people know what to expect. Sometimes that’s hard as people perhaps don’t have any reference points to the subject you’re going to be covering, but you should at least make the attempt to be clear.

I ran a Beatles workshop a while ago. I advertised it as Beatles acappella and had some blurb explaining that I would be teaching some well-known Beatles songs in three and four part harmony. A couple of young women came along, but only stayed for the morning. They explained that they had quite enjoyed themselves, but it wasn’t really what they had expected! I really don’t know how to be any clearer with that one!!

On another occasion I ran a workshop called The Paul Simon Songbook. Again, explaining that I would be teaching well-known Paul Simon songs in three and four part harmony. During the warm-up I made a joke that Paul Simon was stuck on the M6 and he had phoned me to ask me to carry on with the workshop until he arrived. Everyone laughed. Except – I later realised – for two women who thought I was serious and complained to the box office when Mr. Simon hadn’t arrived by lunchtime! So we can always try to describe what to expect, but we’ll never get it exactly right!

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