By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
THE most recent addition to Shetland’s music scene, the Peerie Willie Guitar Festival, started last night with a public workshop.
The guitar festival was set up in 2005 to honour Willie Johnson, one of Shetland’s most well-known exponents of the instrument, and has attracted international artistes since its inception.
This year will see guitarists, singers and songwriters from as far away as north and south America coming to Shetland to join local performers in a musical extravaganza. The four-day event culminates on Sunday evening with a concert in the Garrison Theatre.
Peerie Willie died in the summer of 2007 at the age of 86 but was able to attend two of the late summer festivals. This year, as always, the emphasis is firmly on guitar music in all its forms in recognition of what he did for the instrument.
An important part of the festival will be workshops in the accompaniment style Willie “invented”. This style will be displayed by one of Shetland’s leading exponents Brian Nicolson, who will play at the final concert with Young Fiddler of the Year Maggie Adamson.
Visiting performers this year include guitarist Martin Taylor, a patron of the festival who was a close friend of Peerie Willie. A self-taught and multi-award-winning guitarist, he has had a four-decade career which included touring and recording with jazz violin legend Stephane Grapelli.
Martin will be joined by Scottish-Canadian jazz vocalist Alison Burns who hails from Dundee and was brought up on the Great American Songbook and with whom he has recently released an album of jazz standards and contemporary material, 1:AM.
Another visitor is Redmond O’Toole, an Irish classical guitarist who was the first in the world to adopt the groundbreaking eight-string “Brahms guitar” which he plays in the cello position connected to a resonating box, allowing great freedom for both hands and an expanded repertoire.
Also playing will be Miguel de la Bastide, an award-winning flamenco guitarist and composer. Originally from Trinidad, he now lives in Canada and has become the first person there to be featured with some of Spain’s most respected flamenco guitarists.
Fellow Canadian Andy Sheppard will also be at the festival. Andy is a steel string guitarist, singer and songwriter who displays influences from the Beatles to Beethoven to Louis Armstrong. Rhythms of South Africa expanded his musical horizons. He is a master of fingerstyle, slide and laptop techniques.
Another guest will be Brian Gore, a fingerstyle steel string guitarist from San Francisco known as a “musical romantic”. His compositions are inspired by myth and modern literature and his playing boasts a unique melodic technique incorporating classical and percussive styles.
South America will be represented by Cecilia Zabala, an Argentinian guitarist, singer and songwriter from Buenos Aires and an active participant in the musical scene there. She draws on a rich mixture of influences from folklore to jazz, tango and Brazilian music.
Organising the festival has been Shetland Arts music development office Bryan Peterson, who said that this year there would be more emphasis on taking the performances to the community and to schools. Workshops with the musicians will take place in mainland secondary schools either today or Monday. Bryan said: “There is going to be a bigger geographical spread this year and we’re trying to make more ties with schools.”
Fittingly, one of the festival’s performances will be in Mid Yell, and it was in Bouster, in the Herra, Yell, that Willie was born in 1920.
His musical interest was sparked when his mother bought him a ukelele to while away the hours in a period of illness. He progressed to the guitar and joined his first band at the age of 14.
He became fascinated by the music of the gipsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and realised that the chording and style of swing jazz could equally be applied to traditional musical accompaniment, a highly original idea.
Peerie Willie played in bands in London after the war and on his return to Shetland joined forces with the late Dr Tom Anderson. The pair regularly played together. Peerie Willie never made a solo recording but can be heard on recordings as an accompanist to others including fiddler Aly Bain.
Peerie Willie’s musicality was legendary. Martin Taylor recalled in a BBC documentary of 2005 that during sessions at the Lounge bar Peerie Willie would pick up any instrument that came to hand and play it.