From the Shetland Islands off Scotland come Fiddlers' Bid - a fiddle-based group that's set to stir hearts while it kicks up dust during Tasmania's "10 Days on the Island" arts festival.
Violins are apt to bring tears to the eyes. En masse, in the hands of young people, these will not always be tears of joy. The inexpert sawing of bows on strings, the struggle to stay in tune let alone in time, has defeated many a young string ensemble.
But things seem to be different in Scotland. Last June I sat in a humble hall in the Scottish highland town of Dingwall. Tears welled in many an eye as dozens of local children joined together to play several sets of traditional Scottish fiddle tunes. They played with such feeling and such skill that the audience - there to see a far more famous group - was completely lost in admiration.
As an Australian I could only envy the process that has kept the fiddle alive and well in Scotland. The Scots continue to make a determined and deliberate effort to capture people in their youth and get them hooked on this marvellous music, so deeply rooted in their culture.
But if that effort has succeeded well in Scottish towns and cities, it has surely reached its zenith on that group of islands to the far north called Shetland. Shetland and fiddling are the horse and carriage of traditional music, so thoroughly have the two become intertwined. I spoke to members of Fiddlers' Bid recently about their music, starting with the origins of the strong Shetland fiddle tradition. Fiddler Maurice Henderson takes up the story.
"There are many good musicians in the islands, on all kinds of instruments, but it's the fiddle tradition that is unique to the islands. And it's this that makes the fiddle that bit more special here and the music more unique when taking it to wider audiences."
There is some history behind this. Shetlanders, renowned for their skills in handling boats, were always in demand as crew for ships. Sailors found the fiddle easy to carry with them on board ship. "Many fiddles came into the islands from men returning from the continent, Europe. In the old days - and I wouldn't say that today would be much different - nearly every house had a fiddle in it, hanging on the wall or stowed away, but easily accessible."
The fiddle was the only instrument heard at a dance until the middle of the 20th century, when the accordion and other instruments started to come in from Scotland. "There were no village halls or anything like that. The dances all took place in the small croft houses and barns. The fiddle provided the rhythm and drive, with the dancers keeping time with the scuffle and dad o' der feet."
In recent decades the fiddle tradition has not only had to stand up against louder instruments, but also against such electronic media as radio, recorded music and television, which all threaten to homogenise music and culture. Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson was a key figure in the fight to retain the fiddling tradition. He recognised what was happening, and began recording many of the old fiddlers and their repertoire. He also began teaching in the island schools, encouraging young people to take up the fiddle.
Maurice mentions two other famous fiddlers: Willie Hunter and Aly Bain. "Aly Bain - a pupil of Tom Anderson - was an astounding fiddler at a young age and has gone on to travel the world with his music. The Shetland tradition was brought out to new audiences, through his radio, TV and live performances. Aly is more than a household name in Shetland and has inspired a younger generation of fiddlers in the islands."
"Willie Hunter had a more direct influence on the younger generation through teaching the fiddle in schools. Band members Kevin (Henderson) and Andrew (Gifford) both had Willie as a teacher and he would often have tunes with the rest of us. There are many teachers of fiddle in the islands today and lessons are available free of charge throughout the primary and secondary schools. There are hundreds of children learning the fiddle."
Shetland's isolation, as well as its Norse heritage, have also been factors in its special fiddling sound. Maurice explains. "It has roots or influences from Scandinavia where you get the ringing strings feel about the playing. Often in the Shetland style the player will draw on more than one string at a time giving a ringing effect, this is also used to emphasise notes, often this can relate to the dance, and gives the tune its Shetland character. The Shetland tunes have a unique sound and chord progressions not commonly found in other celtic fiddle tunes."
So how does all this tradition come together in the hands of the 7-piece group named Fiddlers' Bid? English-born guitarist Steve Yarrington offers an answer. "The group consists of a fiddle section that is firmly based on the islands tradition. However the rhythm section consists of band members who are incomers to the islands. Bass player Dave and myself came to the islands in a sense as migratory workers; and Catriona (harp and keyboards), through meeting fiddler Chris Stout at college." Steve sees that this "incomer influence" has given the band a different overall sound. But while they're not all versed in the tradition of Shetland music, Steve Yarrington points out that "the members of the band have a strong bond of friendship and a sense of focus, resulting in many ways from being an 'island' band. So the fact that we all are in a sense 'islanders' has been one of the biggest factors in making us whatever we are!"
Bass player Dave Coles continues. "Electronics in the music is kept to a minimum, i.e. bass guitar and electric piano. The electric piano is mostly a compromise, as a lot of venues don't have acoustic pianos. The rhythm section is there to provide a solid base for the fiddles to build on, occasionaly taking the lead where appropriate to make the music more varied."
The four fiddlers in the band have developed an amazing unison style of playing, more like the sound of one fiddler overdubbed than four separate players. This is partly a reflection of their having played together for a decade or so. (The band was first formed in 1991 while most were still at school.) They also speak of the big debt they owe one of the group's founding fiddlers, Michael Ferrie, who sadly died of cancer in 1996. Maurice continues, "Michael was a tremendous fiddle player, with a huge repertoire of tunes and an incredibly keen ear. A fiddler only had to play a tune once in a session when Michael had pretty much got it." Fortunately a number of Michael's own tunes were written down, and the band proudly continues to play his music.
The youngest member of the band, Orkney-born Andrew Gifford, joined the band after Michael's death. Now in his fifth year with Fiddlers' Bid, Andrew is still only 20 years old. Their current line-up was completed when classically trained harp and keyboard player, Catriona McKay from Dundee, joined the line-up. Her playing of the clarsach, the traditional metal-strung Scottish harp, adds a contrasting dimension to the band, alternately filling out or softening the overall sound. She also takes the lead on a number of tunes.
The group is fairly unconcerned about whether or not celtic music continues to be fashionable. "The music is still nowhere near mainstream apart from the large productions shows, which have certainly had a knock on effect on the folk scene all over the world. (But) the music has always been there and people are now rediscovering it. There are a lot of young people involved in both the music making and audiences. With more and more festivals and touring bands the future looks good."
To hear what that future sounds like, you can seek out their CDs on the Greentrax label. Another option is to visit their web site at: www.fiddlersbid.co.uk. But the best option of all is to get to one of their concerts when they come to a venue near you. I ask Maurice Henderson what audiences can expect of a Fiddlers' Bid concert. "We try to suite everybody's tastes. Flat out high energy reels, pushing the band to the edge, descriptive tunes and the more pure traditional Shetland material. We also contrast this with delicate slow numbers with rich harmonies, often featuring the clarsach. Fiddlers' Bid play a wide variety of material from Scotland, Ireland, Canada as well as the band's own material. Hopefully there is something for everyone. The band always put their all into their performance."
I ask - tongue-in-cheek - whether it's compulsory to dance at their concerts. Maurice sums up "we just hope folk enjoy the music and if they feel like dancing, that's great. It certainly encourages the band and brings more out of the music, and you may find the reels shifting up a few gears." You get the feeling that, with a little Tasmanian encouragement, this young Shetland band could be shifting more gears than our international car rally, Targa Tasmania.
Further infos/contact: www.fiddlersbid.co.uk.
Photo Credit: Pressphotos
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