The Wire

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In Writing

Free Folk

December 2014

Helen Morris braves encroaching tides and shifting sands to attend the Fanø Free Folk Festival, and asks what – or who – “experimental folk” might be?

Arguments about folk music, defining what it is and what it’s not, provoke a deep sinking feeling in my stomach. Though I run a folk club and am an enthusiastic singer of traditional songs, I’m not interested in those discussions. The fascinating part for me is what people do with the music: the connection between it and landscape; how people deploy music in the shifting milieu of individual and community identity; constructions of place or of the past; the functions it has in social situations. And very often it’s these threads and echoes that folk music foregrounds, plays on and develops, and from which it gets it richness and complexity.

This dynamic between an implied conservatism in folk music, as innovation and change happen at the same time, came to the fore when I recently attended the Fanø Free Folk Festival, an “experimental folk festival” in the village of Sønderho, on the Danish island of Fanø.

Though Sønderho is one of the isolated pockets where older musical traditions have survived relatively intact, there is no Danish equivalent to the wide scale Victorian-era traditional song collecting that happened in the British Isles or America. For instance, when Italian guitarist Laboule opened the festival, he asked the audience to sing their favourite folk tune. After an awkward silence someone shouted “We don’t remember them! In Denmark we forgot our own music – that’s a true story.” But, despite this general situation across Denmark, traditional music on Fanø has remained a central part of the community’s life – a living, evolving culture.

The festival is its own village-within-a-village. With only approximately 120 people present, including organisers and acts, you soon recognise all the faces and end up speaking to most of them. Volunteers cook food and the music halts for everyone to eat. It’s the only festival I’ve been to where everyone eats together and dinner is noted in the programme schedule.

On one day, violinist Daniel Merril from London’s Dead Rat Orchestra and Kirstine Uhrbrand take me to a cafe around the corner from the Forsamlinghaus (community hall) that is the festival’s main venue. Though she now lives in Copenhagen, Kirstine’s a Sønderho musician – she’s the daughter of the village’s master fiddler, Peter Uhrbrand. Locals of all ages have congregated at the cafe, as three seated fiddle players by the bar play a lilting jig that soon gets several couples waltzing round the floor. It seems easy and elegant when they do it.

“Not like that. Keep your body straight, proud – strong like the mast of a ship,” a Danish woman tells me as I attempt to dance the Sønderhoning. A local variant of a Polish dance family that reached Scandinavia in the 1500s, it’s a kind of spinning waltz with three pivoting steps to turn in close hold. Here’s people dance it in 2/4 time, after a style that’s unique to the village of Sønderho. It’s much harder than it looks.

By the time we return to the Forsamlinghaus, it’s filled to capacity. Sipping some potent kaffe punch (coffee and schnapps) I find a space on the wooden floor boards to watch the Saturday night improv session that is climax of the festival. This includes the riffings of Roginiski & Jorgens; wild scissoring strings from Merrill and Egyptian violinist Ayman Asfour; and ethereal tangents from Arborea and Laboule. Stirred-up, laughing and wailing together, the session carries on late into the night.

David Folkman Drost (of Restless Fields and Moon Gazing Hare) used to live in Sønderho and work in the local shop. Recalling how he discovered traditional music, he describes the process as “coming backwards into folk”. Later, Drost leads our group on a “Nature Walk with Music” around the village and to the beach. Pointing to the relative grandeur of the cottages, he tells us that in its heyday in the early 19th century, Sonderhø was one of the premier ports on the Jutland coast. It became so prosperous that the inhabitants were considered charmed –they would be appointed navigators on ships, sometimes purely on the basis they hailed from the town.

Twin disasters put an end to this rosy period. The sea here is volatile, the coast shifting. Sand and silt drifted over from the mainland and blocked the harbour. The advent of the steamship rendered the expertise of the Sønderho population became obsolete. Out of economic desperation they began taking voyages considered too risky by the steamship owners, to Newfoundland and the Artic. On the outskirts of the village there’s a statue of a woman and two children looking gravely out to sea, and a ring of stones with the names of the sailors who perished. In 1842 alone 28 women were widowed and 100 children orphaned. For such a small community, the loss was a catastrophe. The town became impoverished and shrank in size.

But despite these tragedies, music in Sønderho continued to develop. Merril and Asfour initially spent a week in Sønderho as festival artists in residence, meeting local musicians and attending the village’s fiddle school for children (many local to the area). They were also here for Sønderho Day – a yearly celebration where the whole village turns out for an all night knees-up. “Most of the music that’s survived here is for dancing to,” says Merril, “The dance is a key part of it, they go wild spinning round faster and faster as the night goes on. Ayman compared it to sufi whirling.” I ask Merril about the fiddle school. “It was really hard going. There’s a completely different style of playing here where you use the bow in the opposite way to how it’s used normally. All the girls were used to learning things by ear. They pick things up so fast, they were baffled by how we were struggling to get the tunes. They kept turning round and giving us withering looks.”

On another night Merril and Asfour played a set in the village church that culminated with “Mathis Mortensen”, a local tune they had learned at fiddle school. Like New York Deli sandwiches, Uhrbrand tells us, many of the tunes are named after the villagers who requested they be played. So Mathis Mortensen is remembered – whoever he may be.

The village is a stronghold of traditional music but much of the Fanø Free Folk Festival bill is at the experimental end of the spectrum. So how does it go down with the locals? I ask. “It’s split,” says festival founder Rasmus Steffensen. “There are some who really like it – these tend to be the local musicians who are interested in a broad spectrum of genres anyway. They grew up in the 1960s and 70s so have a different outlook from the generation before. Of course there are some who grumble. But mostly they’re happy that more people are visiting.”

Aside from the physical isolation of the place, the communal role music has played in Sønderho suggests why the musical traditions have persisted specifically in this part of Denmark. This longevity is not about some generic definition that asks what folk music is or isn’t, but rather about how that music is used, who uses it and most importantly, what they do with it.

The next Fanø Free Folk Festival takes place 24–26 July 2015.

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