Welcome to the third of our new, bigger, better-quality quarterly editions. Reaction to the new format continues to be almost entirely positive – sometimes effusively so – and this has been reflected by a continuing increase in direct sales and subscriptions, bucking the steep national trend. And (fingers crossed) our sparkling new web site ought to be live out there by now too.
Mind you, you can’t win them all. Whilst feedback on our main Summer feature on the UK’s women folk musicians and their experiences was very enthusiastic, the day it was announced online practically the first comment – from a white American woman folk musician – was about the cover. “Are there no women of colour folk musicians in the UK?” she demanded to know. “Not in the line-up of The Shee, no,” was my tongue-in-cheek response, fully aware that the general answer is sadly “not many.” This is a separate situation that we’ve grappled with for years in this country, with fRoots often at the forefront of trying to help the UK folk scene become more representative of society as a whole. But sometimes you can try and fight battles on too many fronts at once.
There’s a big thread about the current realities of folk clubs running through this issue, particularly that many of their audiences and organisers are now not just ageing but simply very old. It’s the focus of Colin Irwin’s major think-piece, but also – along with the clubs’ changes in political engagement – comes up in interviews with several artists too. Now, you could equally say that we should have dealt more with the lack of ethnic diversity in these features too, but again there’s a danger of getting bogged down in too many causes at once, causing diversion and dilution.
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Being one of those old people, the rose-tinted spectacles come out increasingly often. If you dived into our back pages from the second half of the 1980s, you’d probably be amazed how much more diverse the music was on folk festivals and even in clubs back then – from Tex-Mex accordeon to reggae, from Sweden to Italy, from Senegal to bhangra. One artist interviewed this issue, who grew up at that time, remembers how his folky parents’ listening swerved from Joni and Carthy to Kanda Bongo Man in that era. He holds us personally responsible!
But it didn’t last. Many of the people left going to folk clubs weren’t the ones who liked all that: they’re the comfortably conservative tendency. So it comes down to the same thing: to get more diversity in folk clubs, you need to get younger audiences back into them as well, just as day follows night.
One of the main ways to enthuse people with musical possibilities from elsewhere, the equivalent from other cultures of our own traditional musics that we’re so passionate about, is to give them the chance to experience it live. When you’ve seen, for example, a taranta group from Puglia or an mbalax band from Senegal in full flight, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to want to play that sort of music. But the example of young musicians from other cultures with a real pride in theirs, and innovative ways of approaching it, can certainly be a great ‘lightbulb’ inspiration to people born here to look afresh at their own roots. It is not an uncommon experience, but one they’re hardly ever going to get in folk clubs in their current form.
And now, if you’ve followed the warnings in the national press throughout this long hot summer, the chances of getting such experiences from touring artists in other venues, or even on festivals like WOMAD, are being diminished by the so-called ‘hostile environment’. Escalating visa costs and spurious bureaucratic obstacles have already resulted in cancellations and no-shows, but now it has reached the point where some artists simply aren’t engaging in the often tiresome, expensive and humiliating process at all and are just turning invitations down.
If, as looks increasingly likely, we crash out of the EU next March with no deal, that’ll remove European artists too (not to mention preventing UK artists sharing our cultures there). As I said in the bit the Guardian cut out of the printed version of a letter of mine that they published in early August, “It could get harder to experience the vernacular music and cultures of neighbouring countries than at any time since German bands roamed the English countryside in Victorian days, and the Polka was an early ‘world music’ craze. How very Rees-Mogg.”
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More of those occasional, unintended threads run through this issue. It was only when putting it all together at pre-press time that I realised we had three features on Canadian artists, and three features on veteran blokes of a blues-ish tendency. If you suspect that might be BBC-style ‘balance’ against the dominance of younger, female and definitely non-bluesy UK artists last issue, I’m afraid you’d be wrong – it’s all a cosmic accident again!
There’s also quite a lot of Martin Carthy, from the major 15-page retrospective feature which we’re rather proud of, to constant references by other artists. I’m sure somebody will take offence…