Scottish singer and broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy today described the Shetland Folk Festival as “one of the jewels of the musical world, not just the folk world.”
After performing at the official opening of the 33rd festival, Mary Ann said: “People know it’s a big festival. You’ve got to make a big effort to get here but the reward is more than equal to that.”
And clearly many artists and fans agree. Prior to the festival’s 1pm opening session in Islesburgh the centre’s revolving doors were opened. People poured in to buy tickets and t-shirts and packed the upper seating area, while musicians with fiddles, guitars and double basses squeezed past, heading to the temporary bar or to Room 16 to see and hear the first band, Skerryvore, play.
“It’s exciting”, said one visitor as the session unfolded. Exciting, and pleasurable because musicians mix freely with fans, said one of the organisers Mhari Pottinger.
Describing the event, she said: “We take over Islesburgh. Visitors can really become part of the festival. They make repeat visits, there’s something quite unique here that keeps drawing them back. There’s no backstage – at other festivals the good stuff happens backstage, here it’s for everyone to witness. Not many festivals have a club like this.”
It was through the camaraderie of the folk world that Chris Luedecke of Old Man Luedecke came to the isles. Clutching his banjo, he said of this, his first visit: “It’s really great. I met a bunch of the [Shetland] organisers at Cape Breton and hung out with them in Nova Scotia, where I live.
“I’m glad it’s a week [here] because I can spend quality time here, not moving about every day. It was impressive to arrive by boat, you get a sense of remoteness.”
Irish singer Niamh Ni Charra, who also plays fiddle and concertina, is in the isles for the first time with her own band (although she had visited previously). She said the atmosphere was important. “It’s one of my favourite festivals, it’s so well-organised. We’re here for a few days, we get to meet other musicians and hang out with them which is quite rare, at other places we fly in and fly out.” Being able to watch other acts during an evening means: “we’re being entertained ourselves, we think, ‘do we have to get up and play now?’”
And the audience plays a part in the enjoyment too. Niamh, who hails from Killarney, said: “People here have a huge tradition of music and are so knowledgeable. I prefer playing for an audience that loves music and appreciates their own culture, it’s an easy sell.”
Also from Ireland and playing their “first ever gig” as a new band are the Rambling Boys of Pleasure, who have a mix of Irish and American-style music, much self-penned. Guitarist and singer Alan Burke, who, with several of the other band members, has been to SFF before, said: “All the band are really looking forward to it. It’s off the beaten track and it’s great to see somewhere like this through music.”
He also praised the locals who come to see them: “None of this [music] goes over their heads. The audience recognises dance music and loves singing. It’s such a musical place and we enjoy playing through the age groups.”
Mary Ann Kennedy agreed about the locals helping to make the festival a great event. She said: “It’s special, coming into a community where music plays such an important part, and which is so welcoming to musicians who come from all over to take part.”
Recorded sessions and interviews will be distilled into two of her radio programmes, World Routes, to be broadcast on Sunday night on Radio 3.