Tuesday 7 February 2012

English folk music, alive and kicking

Over the years it has been a pleasure to welcome numerous groups to Madrid, many of them from the USA, such as the Shepherd University from West Virgina   , Morningside College in Iowa,  Homewood Flossmoor High School near Chicago, St John's School in Houston, Texas, the Amarillo Girls' Choir, also from Texas, and the South Goergia Girls' Choir.
All these groups travelled with Wens Travel while the La Jolla Coutry Day School choir arranged their own tour.

Three visiting groups from England stand out especially: Folkestra, from  Gateshead, a chamber choir from the King’s School, Canterbury and Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, London.  

Ten members of the Folkestra group, The Sage Gateshead’s Regional Youth Folk Ensemble, aged 14 to 18, spent five days dodging the rain, much to their surprise, in an uncharacteristically wet start to Spring in the Spanish capital. For the Sage Gateshead of England’s specialist music centre, this tour is part of a programme of high profile performances which has taken the group to the stage of the Conservative Party Conference, and a Proms concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. 
The group’s first full day in Madrid started with two concerts for primary pupils in Pozuelo de Alarcón, whose education department supports a regular programme of educational concerts in a 300 seat concert hall in the Municipal Music & Dance School building. Over the years the children hear a wide range of instrumental groupings and styles, but this was the first time they had seen the melodeon and the Northumbrian Smallpipes and certainly hearing English folk the music live was a new experience. 

The children were invited to have their say, and there was a steady stream of interested and interesting questions to the group. The children were struck by the group’s ability to play everything from memory, by their cohesive nature and their ability to start every set off impeccably without a conductor. The tour’s musical director, Lillias Kinsman-Blake was very much present not on stage but sitting in the audience, knowing that the preparation had all been done at home well before the concert. She is an extremely creative person in music and graphic design,and her web site is certainly worth a visit.
Lillias has founded a folk group called The Shee and this is how the group has been described:
“The Shee are an exceptional all-female band showcasing three powerful vocalists and an astonishing level of instrumental prowess. Their diverse range of individual musical influences combine to produce an adventurous brew of Folk, Scots, Gaelic and Bluegrass and has earned them considerable recognition along with high profile performances at festivals including Cambridge and Celtic Connections, as well as concerts across Europe and Canada.”
The same evening the teenagers from the north of England met an adult group of Spanish folk musicians. The dulzaina, a double-reed pipe, traditional drums, pipes and a shepherd’s flute played with three fingers of one hand were among the instruments played and the expert Jeremías Diego Fraile gave a fascinating explanation of the historical and geographical circumstances which have helped to spread the instruments around Spain. After the two groups had performed to each other for much longer than planned, the locals ended up teaching their visitors the Jota and other dances, and the visitors taught their hosts some English folk dances.
The afternoon took the group to a local secondary school. During an open class the Folkestra players skilfully arranged one of their tunes for the school players including violins, guitars, and ‘cellos and by the end of the session the piece was ready for the next day’s concert. It was refreshing for the school’s young violinists to see their near contemporaries playing with such obvious enjoyment and it was a challenge to prepare to perform from memory.
In the evening’s concert there was an audience of 120 teenagers at an English teaching centre, whose students attend many different Spanish day schools. The cultural and linguistic aspects of the event were reinforced by photos of Gateshead and brief spoken introductions by the players.
 The next day, back at the secondary school, 150 students squashed into the school’s main foyer which served as an alternative to the washed out garden which was the planned venue, and admired the Folkestra set, which began with the tune prepared the day before including twenty school pupils. The kitchen staff found a perch on the stairs, and even the security guard took some time out to enjoy the music. 
The evening session was a repeat of the day before, with a slightly younger teenage audience of 130 language students. The Folkestra group played unaware that they were making history in a small way: they are the first young musicians from the UK to perform for the English teaching centre students. 
According to a Senior Teacher responsible for organising the concerts, “Feedback from our students has been really excellent, they thoroughly enjoyed the event. They learnt about the North of England, typical English music and songs and instruments and that young people from Gateshead are very nice!”
Folkestra’s last day started early with packing and a taxi to the local school and short concerts for Primary and then for the Early Years children, about 400 altogether. The openness and enthusiasm of the 3 to 10 years olds make them a very enjoyable audience to play for.   
During this tour Folkestra generated an interest in English folk music and in instruments which are generally unfamiliar in Spain, and their playing at seven different performances to a total audience of more than 1,000 was always of an excellent standard. It was a pleasure to welcome a group of such enthusiastic players who are also such charming people.
In 2005 I attended the  National Association of Music Educators conference at the Sage Gateshead. A major incentive for attending was to see the landmark building at first hand, and the trip was worth it simply on that level. When I heard and saw Folkestra under David Oliver’s direction we started talking about them coming to perform in Madrid. I am very glad that Ruth Currie, Ensemble Co-ordinator at The Sage Gateshead, was able to bring the group to Madrid in 2008 for this memorable example of intercultural dialogue.

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