One of Shetland’s brightest fiddle stars has released a debut solo album which goes right back to his roots.
Kevin Henderson has been prominent in the folk music world since co-founding Fiddlers’ Bid in 1991 when he was just 14. He joined Celtic band Boys of the Lough in 2002, replacing Aly Bain. Since then he has become a member of five bands, performing as far away as the USA, Australia and Japan, appearing on television and radio programmes across the globe and being featured on 15 albums.
But Shetland is home and his eagerly-awaited new album Fin da Laand Ageen (meaning to arrive back home), celebrates the isles’ unsurpassed fiddle tradition. In it Henderson brings together a collection of tunes from all parts of Shetland, from Foula to Fetlar and from Unst to all points south.
Henderson started playing fiddle at the age of nine, inspired by his grandfather, and had legendary teachers in Trevor Hunter and latterly the late Willie Hunter, “a fantastic teacher and fantastic person” who became his tutor through the school system. (Henderson attended Bell’s Brae and later Sound Primary School and Anderson High School).
About the new CD he said: “I’ve been wanting to make an album of purely traditional Shetland fiddle music for quite a while now as it’s something that isn’t really being done at the moment.” The last person to do such a thing, he said, was the late Gibbie Hutchison from Whalsay, and since then bands have tended to record a mix of traditional and contemporary music, together with their own compositions. Surprisingly, therefore, an album of undiluted Shetland music is something of a rarity.
Now that he has reached the advanced age of 34 Henderson is reflecting on his fiddle heritage. “I’m finding the older I get it’s the music I’m always coming back to and also playing more and more. I have begun to appreciate it more than I did when I was younger. I love delving into the archive collections and listening to the old guys. It’s something that gives me so much pleasure.”
Although he did not conciously set out to preserve the music Henderson loves to promote it, and takes care to include the old tunes and their stories when he takes workshops.
He does not consider himself a collector, but he is to a certain extent following in the footsteps of the great fiddle tune collectors such as Tom Anderson, who himself featured a tune from a fiddler known as “Stout” in his collection Ringing Strings. Stout travelled throughout the North Mainland helping crofters with their work and apparently composed a tune in every district. All are lost except Stout’s Trip to Skea, featured by Henderson within the CD’s first track.
Another tune comes thanks to the late Jeemsie Laurenson of Fetlar, whose grandmother remembered a lullaby now recorded as Minnie O’Sirva’s Cradle Song. Yet another, Da Silver Bow, comes from the playing of the late Peter Fraser from Walls, featured in the very first publication of Shetland music from 1938. And Da Cross Reel is so old that the dance steps it accompanied have been lost over the course of time. Then there are old jigs and tunes for weddings, one for Christmas Day and even a set in praise of smuggling. There are also two tunes for the Foula reel included in homage to one of Henderson’s favourite fiddlers, the late Lell Robertson from Yell.
Henderson’s talent makes his playing seem effortless. His music is deftly executed and by turns melodic and lyrical or more strident, using a heavier bowing technique. Or it can be a full-bodied sound of ringing strings, where two strings are played simultaneously, creating an “underlying drone” characteristic of Shetland fiddling and emanating from the Hardanger fiddle tradition.
The album features Swedish musician Mattias Perez on guitars and mandola and some fiddle work from his wife Nina Perez on one track. Henderson said: “I love Mattias’ playing and feel it really sits well with the traditional Shetland tunes, so was delighted to have him on board for the project.”
Henderson, who was a consistent prize-winner at Shetland’s Young Fiddler of the Year competition, served his time as an electrician with Shetland Electrical Services and owes his bosses “a lot of thanks” for letting him have “more holidays than I should have had” to go away playing.
He gave up the day job nine years ago and is now in constant demand as a performer. Besides being in Fiddlers’ Bid and Boys of the Lough, he has played with Scottish group Session A9, since 2004; Nordic trio, The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc since 2009; and Shetland/Norway trio Aamos, also since 2009. All the bands have a slightly different flavour, he said, some have percussion, some do not, some feature songs and others have a heavy Scandinavian influence. Switching from one band to the other he finds “refreshing”, and is about to go on tour with Nordic Fiddlers Bloc promoting (another) new album.
- Fin da Laand Ageen will be released on 17th October.