Booklovers Unite: Aye Write Festival 2019

When I talk to people who have never been to a book festival about what an exciting experience it is, they often don’t believe me. The truth is, however, that literature festivals capture the experience of any topic worth writing about, which means there is a huge array of events on offer from nature writing to politics, fiction to poetry, geography, history, travel and many, many more.

Aye Write (14-31 March 2019) was founded in 2005 and has since grown steadily as more and more people flock to the festival year after year to meet their favourite authors and to find some exciting new reading material. The two main venues used are the iconic Mitchell Library, one of Europe’s largest reference libraries, and the Royal Concert Hall, both in the city centre of Glasgow. This means that you can easily attend a few events in a row with a nice coffee break in the library or concert hall cafes in between.

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Apart from the main venues the festival also offers free events in the community and a special mini festival for younger readers called Wee Write, including an exciting family day on 2 March at the Mitchell Library packed with fun activities and appearances by much-loved authors for all age groups. Workshops for budding writers were also worth signing up for, a series of creative writing workshops from creating believable characters for your first novel to learning how to write poetry. Alas, as is usually the case with larger festivals, there were several events on in both venues at any given time, so it was partly quite tricky to decide which events to go for.

After attending just a handful Aye Write 2018 events last year when I wasn’t living in Glagow yet, I managed to fit in four volunteer shifts beside my day job this time around. One was the opening night of the festival with one of my favourite sessions this year: a sold out reading and talk by Gina Miller, which took place in the RCH (see pic above). While her appearances on TV and radio tend to be on serious political topics, the festival talk was a chance to meet the person behind the news. We learned that death threats and racial and sexual abuse are sadly not uncommon when you stand up for what you believe in. However, having been inspired early on by her solicitor father her memoir ‘Rise’ is an inspiring account of how overcoming obstacles definitely makes us stronger.

On Sunday 17 March I was scheduled for helping out in the Green Room, welcoming authors and making sure they had everything they needed. While I only managed to attend one event that afternoon, it was a pretty intriguing one. Writer Stephen Millar and photographer Allan McCreadie set out to portray the ‘Tribes of Glasgow’ and came across many subcultures I had no idea existed in my new home city, including pagans, cosplayers and many other colourful groups and clubs.

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My next time at the festival was on 30 March, the last weekend with another bumper list of happenings. I was back at the Mitchell Library and the first event sounded interesting as psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary at Goldsmiths University spoke about his book ‘Not Working: Why We Have to Stop’. Alas, with only an hour available, we hardly got past hearing about his main theory about the reasons for burnout and giving inactivity a higher value in order to live a more fulfilled existence. But I guess taking that one hour out of a busy schedule for such an event already constitutes a healthy awareness on the advantages of taking stock of our wellbeing.

I also dropped into two other events that day, one was an illustrated talk by photographer Alex Boyd on his book ‘St Kilda: The Silent Islands’ a 21st century perspective on past and present in such a beautiful and remote place with dramatic landscapes. Another was a talk by nuclear submarine officer Eric Thompson giving a first-hand experience of working on a British nuclear submarine in his book ‘On Her Majesty’s Nuclear Service’. The event was well attended by both female and male festival goers, and, speaking to a few of them, most had a personal connection to the topic through family members working in the field or simply an interest in British history. My last event that day was the first fiction reading for me this year. Irish author Donal Ryan spoke eloquently and humorously about his experience writing ‘From a Low and Quiet Sea’, a story both set in war-torn Syria and small-town Ireland.

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31 March was the last day of the festival and I was based at the RCH for it. STV news correspondent Mike Edwards discussed his book ‘The Road Home’ an unusual road trip visiting five places named Inverness in the USA, who were all very different in size and character. The other event had an even more local connection. Emily Cutts, a Glasgow campaigner telling us of her lengthy but eventually successful struggle against a housing development in North Kelvin Meadow, known as ‘The Children’s Wood’. The book is called ‘The Dear Wild Place’ and I’m looking forward to reading it. I was amazed at the resilience, positivity and sheer determination of her and the entire community who managed to save this green space through strategic collaboration with other local organisations, businesses and individuals in a constructive way, which is truly inspiring.

If you’d like to volunteer for Aye Write in the future, keep an eye on their website a couple of months before the next festival happens. The shifts I did were between 4 and 6 hours long, which covered about two to three events. You work along other motivated booklovers and we were provided with some coffee and sandwich vouchers to keep us going throughout a busy day.

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Arab & North African Womxn’s Arts in Glasgow: Dardishi Festival 2019

I first came across Dardishi (8-11 March 2019) when I attended Document Human Rights Film Festival in Glasgow last October. Having been looking forward to it for months, it was a shame I only managed to make it to two sessions on one day, but it still left a big impression.

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My first event on Saturday afternoon was called ‘Diasporic Daydreams: Storytelling, Solidarity and Survival in our films.’ It was a wonderful collection of short films by Arab and North African female filmmakers living in diaspora creatively and positively dealing with ways how to overcome trauma. The showcase included documentary, animation, fiction and interview and my favourite was probably an animated short film movingly chronicling a displaced young Syrian woman’s dilemma of having to bridge two very different worlds. The pleasure of being at smaller, more grassroots festivals is getting a unique chance to discover cultural jems such as these, which highlight shared human experience and bring us closer together rather than divide us. Even better if a festival champions womxn filmmakers and artists who are still underrepresented in almost all walks of life. The curator of this event, researcher Sumaya Kassim, led an audience discussion after the screenings and empathised the importance of solidarity across cultures and genders in times of rising fascism and xenophobia.

The second event was a screening of Mai Masri’s award-winning feature in Arabic with English subtitles called ‘3000 Nights’. Its female protagonist, a pregnant Palestinian schoolteacher serving time in an Israeli prison, took us into a world that is as cruel as it is intriguing. This film definitely didn’t make for easy viewing, but another example of how such stories can help cross cultural barriers and remind us of our shared humanity where mainstream media or politics often fail.

Other events included a creative writing event, a children’s art and activism workshop and even a session on learning to DJ all of which gave anyone identifying as a girl or womxn plenty of opportunities to express themselves creatively in a welcoming and safe environment. For those of you not from Glasgow, the venue, the CCA right in the centre of Glasgow (including a veggie cafe), is a wonderful incubator of cultural events and there is guaranteed to be something interesting on if you are visiting.

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Apart from film screenings (including a queer movie night), music and talks, there was also a lovely quiet space to hang out in between events, which required no ticket, was open to all and provided a respite away from the noisier aspects of the festival. A real effort had also been made to make the festival accessible in various ways: financially via sliding scale ticket options as well as in a physical sense to people of all abilities, including providing sign language interpreters.

I was delighted to hear that the volunteer-run festival has secured further funding for events throughout the year. You can also support Dardishi by getting on their mailing list, attend events and purchase some of their lovely and creative merch and zines, all created by womxn. Oh and if, like me, you had never heard of the Glasgow Zine Library before, do check out their events as well as the fabulous Glasgow Women’s Library.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with tickets for the 2019 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Transcending Traditions: Celtic Connections 2019

I’ve been coming to Glasgow for Celtic Connections every January since 2016 and ever since first arriving in the city I felt it might be a good place for me to live. So last autumn I finally made the move from London and it was fantastic to be in town for the whole 18 days of the festival (17 Jan – 3 Feb 2019) for the first time!

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Being the largest winter music festival in Europe, the event has been a success story for many years now. It not only attracts a huge number of locals who enjoy outstanding music from different parts of the world, it has also become a magnet for visitors from other countries who brave the winter weather in order to experience the unique atmosphere of Glasgow city.

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This year was no different and the festival boasted a bumper programme of acts from the worlds of folk, Americana, classical, Indie, roc & blues, spoken word and many exciting cross-over collaborations.

Week 1

The festival started for me with a celebration of Tiree music festival (see pic above) at the Old Fruitmarket including Trail West and Skerryvore. On Saturday I was looking after two very different bands as a volunteer artist rep, May Erlewine, melodic Americana from Michigan, and the Como Mamas, three fabulous gospel singers from Mississippi, at Mackintosh Church (one of my new favourite buildings in the city, well worth a visit). On Sunday I was at King Tuts for the first time for an afternoon session of up an coming artists part of Hazy Recollections. Later that night I popped into a couple of gigs that were happening around the corner from each other: Irish trad musician Daoiri Farrell and friends playing ‘The Dublin Session’, Charles Esten of the Nashville series fame, sold out, but alas not my kind of thing and a bit of The Roaming Roots Revue at the Royal Concert Hall including the always excellent KT Tunstall. After taking a much needed break for two nights I was back on Wednesday with a session of lovely Welsh music including songwriter Gwyneth Glyn in the Strathclyde Suite of the RCH. On Thursday I very much enjoyed seeing Americana artist Caroline Spence again who supported US musician Steve Forbert at St. Andrews.

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Week 2

My second festival Friday was a night of old-time and more modern Appalachian tunes and songs with Canadian trio The Lonesome Ace Stringband. On Saturday I was looking after two more bands for the day: Andrew Combs & Charlie Whitten from Nashville and Amy Helm from New York. They played Oran Mor and both were excellent, Andrew & Charlie complemented each other perfectly while Amy and band played an energetic set for an enthusiastic audience. The day after I went to see Madison Violet form Canada at the Fruitmarket and then headed over to St. Luke’s for Tennessean Ashley Monroe. On Monday I was at the Rhiannon Giddens show at the RCH (with surprise support by Kaia Kater). With such an outstanding voice she can really sing anything well, but although the orchestra arrangement was fascinating, it didn’t touch me as much as her other work usually does. Midweek I caught Canadian Leeroy Stagger at King’s Theatre (a new venue for both the festival and me) and then headed over to the Mitchell Theatre for Emily Smith and her husband Jamie McClennan, who I hadn’t seen for years and who was as good as I had remembered, a more Americana sound this time around. I only caught one of the BBC Seirm recordings at Hillhead Bookclub this year, but it was again a wonderful line-up including Tim O’Brien and Blue Rose Code, one of my Scottish favourites of recent years.

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Week 3

The third Friday of the festival I was so tired after a long week at work and constant concert going that I just wanted to get some sleep, but a friend abroad messaged me to say check out the line-up at St. Luke’s tonight. So I reluctantly ventured out into the cold and was pleasantly surprised the venue was seated for the night, hurrah. The first band up, Pretty Archie from Cape Breton pretty much woke me up within five seconds and I also really enjoyed Chance McCoy’s first solo set at the festival. Nashville-based headliner Nicki Bluhm and her band were excellent, but I was too sleepy by then to really appreciate it. Saturday was my last time looking after festival bands this year and I was at the Old Fruitmarket (see pic above) again for a very exciting collaboration by Karine Polwart and a selection of other musicians (Shetlander Inge Thomson, Graeme Smilie, Louis Abbott of Admiral Fallow etc.). Her ‘Scottish Songbook’ consisted of a diverse selection of popular songs by Scottish bands of the past and present from Annie Lennox to Frightened Rabbit with a lot of humorous banter thrown in. My final gig of the festival was at the O2 Academy across the river, another great listed building and impressive former cinema. The show started with Canadians Pretty Archie (see pic below), followed by the very rocky Hooten Hallers from Missouri (both bands’ first visit to Scotland) and the popular The Dead South, Canadian bluegrass with an edge.

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You might be reading this and wonder if you have been to a completely different festival. Around a dozen different musical offerings on many nights make it a tough choice for festival goers. This year I often simply went by what hadn’t been sold out yet or was easy to get to if the weather was particularly adverse (it was in fact, fairly OK for this time of the year, phew). I also tried to make it to a few venues I had never been to in the years before.

You don’t need to move here like I did to enjoy what Glasgow has to offer, but this exciting Scottish city is definitely worth a visit, especially during Celtic Connections. Read more about previous editions of the festival (2016, 2017, 2018) and a guide to Glasgow during Celtic Connections. Hope you’ll join us next year!

Shared Experience: Document Human Rights Film Festival 2018

With all the political upheaval going on in the UK at the moment, it is tempting to want to just hide under a duvet and sleep throught it all. However, once we look outward and explore people’s lives outside our own living environment, we will often find astonishing parallels and might discover a shared human experience we didn’t realise existed.

Document Human Rights Film Festival Glasgow has been around for a decade and a half and this year’s edition took place from 30 November until 2 December 2018 at the Scottish Youth Theatre in the heart of Merchant City. The festival presented 40 feature length and short documentaries – many prize-winning and all inspirational – from around the world plus a number of intriguing discussions with international filmmakers. As every film was only shown once, it was a tough choice, but I still managed to make it to a good range of screenings, which were all fascinating in their own way.

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On Friday night I picked a special screening curated by Creative Interruptions of restored films from the time of the Palestinian revolution, which was followed by a Q&A with Iraqi filmmaker Kassem Hawal. My own knowledge of this part of the world is fairly limited and it was interesting to see that the PLO with their generally military approach to conflict also worked on preserving the local culture, which included a filmmaking unit, aiming to keep alive a collective memory, so important to the survival of any culture. It was a glimpse into a world which the other side tried their best to hide from the people and the wider world. Listening to Hawal talk about his own experience trying to make and distribute films about difficult or controversial topics and a limited budget reminded me how little we really know about non-Western cultures unless we really do our own research. Document Film Festival was therefore a welcome window into an often hidden, multifaceted world.

My first film on day two was a nearly 2.5 hour long meditative piece by experimental American filmmaker Ben Russell entitled ‘Good Luck’, which explores the differences and similarities of two groups of men working in the mining trade in vastly different conditions in Serbia and Suriname and was shot on Super 16mm film. As there were some tech problems (later resolved) and as I was feeling pretty rotten because of a cold, I decided to leave after about half an hour, but sincerely hope there will be another chance to see this film. It was received very well at the festival.

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I returned to the Scottish Youth Theatre later that night for a screening of Chaos by Syrian filmmaker Sarah Fattahi, who is currently based in Vienna. The film portrays three Syrian women living in exile with very different stories but united in their experience of trauma and all the complexity it involves. Sadly, a workshop with the filmmaker scheduled for the same day had to be cancelled, but we were lucky to have a skype Q&A with Fattahi touching on the topics covered in the film. I was really impressed by Fattahi’s work and approach and will definitely keep an eye out for any future films.

The last film I saw was probably my favourite and was very moving from start to finish. In ‘A Woman Captured’ filmmaker Bernadett Tuza-Ritter had unprecedented access to the life of Hungarian woman Marish for a year and a half and followed her from a situation of what can only be described as modern slavery (like an estimated 45 million people worldwide!) to standing on her own two feet and forging a positive future for herself and her family. I was close to tears several times when I saw Marish getting treated literally worse than any animal and the difficulties she faced escaping this terrible situation. In times where cuts to social budgets are the norm in this country, too, it begs the question what we are doing in our own communities to avoid such terrible abuse. Not easy viewing, but with (luckily) a hopeful ending, it motivated me to keep fighting against injustice. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for all of us to do so.

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After an empowering weekend of films and discussions I highly recommend checking out this small but important film festival, which boasted an incredibly dense programme of brilliant documentaries you won’t see in your local Cineworld. Yes, it can be difficult to take a closer look at issues around the world most of us are lucky not to have to deal with on a daily basis. However, those you care about human rights will instantly find their tribe at events like Document. It was easy to get talking to other attendees and the dedicated and friendly festival producers and volunteers (see pic above), many of them students of human rights and similar degrees. I had never been to the venue before, but will definitely look out for future events there as it is in such a central location and had a nice vibe about it.

I’m already looking forward to Dardishi Festival, a new feminist zine and arts festival happening in Glasgow from 8-10 March 2019. Their fundraising booklet with women’s writing and art (see below) is really beautiful and partnering with Document was a great idea. It’s so good to see smaller festivals supporting each other. They often get less press than bigger events with larger marketing budgets, but like with Document, the programme quality is often at least as high. In fact, finding local festivals and helping them thrive could be your new year’s resolution, how about that?!

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A Honky Tonkin’ Great Time at The Long Road Festival 2018

It’s always exciting to be there for the first ever edition of a new festival and I’m very glad I made it to the inaugural The Long Road Festival (7-9 September 2018) at Stanford Hall, near Rugby. After having been led down the wrong motorway by our Satnav on Friday afternoon and arriving a bit later than anticipated we were joking that the seemingly never-ending road we followed to get to the festival location was surely what it was named after!

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We missed a few of Friday night’s acts, but got there just in time for rocky UK Americana outfit Case Hardin on the Front Porch stage (which looked like a wood cabin including smoke coming out of the chimney!), who I hadn’t seen for way too long. I then headed over to the Interstate stage for London-based country music quartet The Wandering Hearts and finished up inside the Honky Tonk venue for a set by Northerner Twinnie, who I had never heard of before, but who impressed with her voice and positive energy. It had gotten quite cold by then and I decided to call it a night in order to get the best out of the rest of the weekend.

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Saturday started with a real bang as it was time for the Women in Country in the Round slot in the Honky Tonk bar (inside the ‘building’ on the right in the pic below), one of the best festival sessions all weekend. It featured Irish-born but now London-based Megan O’Neill, UK country singer Laura Oakes and Texan country artist and a former ‘The Voice’ winner Danielle Bradbery. Luckily, most of my favourite artists were scheduled inside the cosy Honky Tonk, a brilliantly designed nod to Nashville music city, which just felt like actually being in the States! So while it wasn’t the best of festival weather outside, we had a front row table for a long list of absolutely superb acts, most of whom I’d seen separately on various occasions and are all well worth a listen.

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The Loose Music takeover really made my Saturday with my only complaint being the disappointingly short half hour sets for most artists. We spent most of the afternoon happily cooped up inside the Honky Tonk listening to hours and hours of brilliant live music courtesy of Yola Carter (UK), Caroline Spence (USA), Erin Rae (USA), William The Conquerer (UK), Frontier Ruckus (USA) and Danny and the Champions. I also managed to catch the always amazing Angaleena Presley earlier that day and, to top it all off, listened to a fabulous set by Lee Ann Womack (see pic below), who should have really been one of the headliners, my first time seeing her live.

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Sunday was the only really sunny day and by that time all of us knew the venues inside and out and were just enjoying moving between the different areas. There was again a packed programme from around lunchtime until late. I saw blues duo Andrew Alli & Josh Small (USA), UK Americana artist Danni Nicholls, New Orleans-based Luke Winslow-King (with fab Italian guitarist Roberto Luti) and Ashley Campbell (see pic below), who had some very witty songs and sounded a lot more Americana than I had thought.

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I also caught Dori Freeman (USA), Charlie Worsham (USA), who made some lovely comments on how appreciative UK audiences are, Emily Barker’s more Americana side, some of Elizabeth Cook’s (USA) set, who was very popular with some of my friends and UK country duo The Shires closing the main stage that night. My favourite set all weekend though, has got to be The Lone Bellow (USA) on the Interstate Stage (see pic below) It never ceases to amaze me with how much energy and fun these guys perform and cannot imagine anyone not getting blown away by their beautiful songs and great stage presence.

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Apart from the live music, there was also a film screening, ‘ Born in Bristol’ on the birth of country music, dance classes, stunning vintage cars on display, the family area Possum County with games and music, wild swimming (though with the temperatures we had, I doubt many braved the cold water) and a good selection of food and drink stalls. The veggie and vegan options included burritos (my fav that weekend), pizza, burgers, sweet potato fries and buddha bowls and there were also various breakfast choices and hot drinks until the evening.

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If there was anything the organisers might reconsider for next year it would be the very strict checks at entering the arena. I don’t usually attend festivals where the camping is fenced off and it made it feel a bit impersonal and unnecessary for the kind of crowd this festival attracted. Any kind of food, alcohol and even umbrellas were officially banned, while security searches were minimal. On the plus side, I was delighted to see that dogs, like sweet Roxy below, were allowed (this year only as day visitors, in future, hopefully overnight, just like at e.g. Maverick Festival and Shrewsbury Folk Festival). As far as I’m concerned, four-legged festival attendees always add to a relaxed atmosphere and it was so great to meet so many festival first timers.

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What really made the first The Long Road festival stand out was the excellent line-up from the Country, Americana and Roots music scenes, well done Baylen Leonard and team. Yes, it was a little sad that long-anticipated headliner Carrie Underwood had to pull out at the last minute for health reasons, but the huge range of quality acts, great sound on most stages and the beautifully designed festival venue all made for an outstanding event, which is most definitely here to stay! Better get next year’s tickets as soon as you can.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2018 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Sing, Dance, Drink, Repeat: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2018

I’m always reluctant to return to the ‘real world’ after another four days packed with amazing live music and lots of happy people at Shrewsbury Folk Festival (24-27 August 2018). I made my way to Shropshire on the train on Thursday as usual, set up the happy tent (stewards get an extra night on site) and then headed into town for a charity shop crawl, a nice pub dinner and a pre-festival live session in the Woodman pub. It’s the simple things in life that count!

SFF18 Happy TentFriday is always the first official festival day and the excellent Irish Daoiri Farrell Trio opened the Bellstone Marquee (biggest stage), followed by the fiddle playing step dancing Fitzgeralds from Ottawa Valley in Canaday, a welcome return after their fab debut last year. I then headed over to the Pengwern Marquee (second biggest stage) for Rusty Shackle, a Roots and Americana outfit from Bristol, who really got the crowd going, and somehow day one was already over much quicker than I thought.

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On Saturday I spent most of the morning in town catching some of the morris displays from festival sides (pictured above is Shrewsbury Morris) and was back at the festival site (a short walk or shuttle bus ride) just in time for one of the world music collaborations, Chinese flute player Guo Yue and Joji Hirota with the London Japanese Taiko Drummers. What a fascinating set alternating between powerful drumming sounds and graceful Chinese flute melodies. Shooglenifty and Dhun Dhora, singing in Gaelic and Marwari respectively, were another successful example of a meeting of two very different cultures with rich musical traditions.

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It’s easy to see why Americana singer-songwriter Yola Carter from Bristol is a star in the making. Her set in the Pengwern Marquee was mesmerizing and fair play for doing a song acapella after the microphone failed, which was one of the very special festival moments this year. I left Richard Thompson in the Bellstone Marquee to his stalwart fans and instead headed over to the Sabrina Marquee for one of my two favourite dance sessions this year, the fabulous Mankala with band members from no less than seven countries. Their high energy and completely addictive mostly African fusion sound had even the most reserved audience members at least clapping by the end and most of the rest of us on our feet from start to finish. So much fun and a great example that folk music encompasses a huge range of traditions from all around the world.

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Sunday was another bumper day with a great mix of sounds. The wonderful Passerine project, initiated by and including English folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow was back for a second year, this time with ‘Women in Transit’ and again some incredibly moving stories. Apart from the three main stages, there is also the club as in dance tent, which I managed to finally visit after all the live music had finished. Oh well, one ceilidh dance is better than none.

Usher’s Island wasn’t a band name I was familiar with before the festival, but it turned out it was an Irish traditional super group made up of Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, John Doyle, Paddy Glackin and Mike McGoldrick. What a privilege to get to hear these legends of Irish music play a set together, sublime. This was followed by one of the best Americana singer-songwriters around, Nashville-based Gretchen Peters who treated us to some of her classic songs as well as new ones from her current album ‘Dancing With The Beast’. I was glad I headed over to the Pengwern Marquee right afterwards for a bunch of much more lively musicians as I managed to catch the end of Scottish band Skerryvore’s first ever set at the festival.

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As I’ll soon be living in Scotland I decided I should probably make friends with the sound of bagpipes (still quite a while to go, mind) and really enjoyed their full set on the main stage on Monday afternoon. I spent the rest of the festival in the Pengwern Marquee listening to The Mighty Doonans from Newcastle and the by now traditional festival finale, the folk slam with Jim Moray. This year’s featured artists included Rosie Hood, members of Rafiki Jazz, Jack Rutter, Elly Lucas, Sam Carter and some fabulous step dancing by members of The Mighty Doonans as well as The Fitzgeralds.

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I personally always focus on listening to as much live music as possible, but SFF offers so much more, you can learn to play an instrument (see pic of beginners ukulele jam further up), your children can pick up som circus skills, you can learn traditional dances from around the world, do yoga, eat your way through the many yummy food offerings and visit the lively and very friendly town of Shrewsbury (lots of charity shops, cafes and history to explore). Every year (7th in a row this time!) I greatly enjoy meeting the usual combination of repeat festival goers and fellow stewards who I’ve known for a while and always enjoy catching up with plus the festival newcomers, and the many lovely pooches (pictured above are adorable duo Amber and Archie) as well-behaved dogs are allowed at the festival, just not inside the venues.

So if you are still thinking Shrewsbury might be a little far for you to come ‘just’ for a festival, think again as it really is one of the best places for music lovers to spend an enjoyable weekend among like-minded people. Plus with ca. 5000 seats in three huge indoor venues, you never need to worry about the weather or not getting to see your favourite artist. Oh and one last thing: don’t be fooled by the ‘folk music’ label, it is a very broad and inclusive church and if you’re open-minded, you’ll definitely have a fantastic time. Try it out for a day next year or, even better, go straight for the ‘full monty’, it’s simply unmissable!

Genre-Defying Live Music With A Message: Cambridge Folk Festival 2018

Unlike the very rainy 2017 edition, Cambridge Folk Festival, which took place one week later than usual from 2-5 August 2018, managed to avoid any downpours this time around. Instead, it got caught in the continuing heatwave, which made it look like we were in sunny Spain or Portugal rather than South East of England.

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The festival began with a very impressive Thursday night lineup, the lively Whiskey Shivers from Austin opening stage 2 and a fabulous set by Scottish musical collaborators Kris Drever, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble (of Idlewild) and Louis Abbott (of Admiral Fallow) followed by the fantastic all-female Kinnaris Quintet from Glasgow at the Club Tent. So far so excellent!

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When I talk to people who don’t usually listen to folk music, they often don’t realise what a wide variety of genres are represented at folk music events. A great example were Songhoy Blues (see pic above), a rock band from Mali with a seriously danceable groove, and Saturday night headliner, punk poet and feminist icon Patti Smith, who, once on stage, immediately asked for the smoke to be turned off in no uncertain terms. As a nod to the folkie audience, she included ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ by Bob Dylan in her set and seemed impressed with the audience’s singing skills. The inofficial award for the best audience participation this year went to the Pierce Brothers from Australia, however, playing a set on stage 2 on Friday night, when everyone just kept going with one of the choruses after the song had finished and the band picked it up again to huge applause.

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Rhiannon Giddens’ (see pic above) curator role this year (including booking Yola Karter, Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater and Peggy Seeger) was noticeable in all the right ways and it was generally great to see that the festival continues to champion female voices, including their commitment to the Keychange equality movement. Artists of all ages were speaking out about equality and about resisting a more and more selfish culture. Sister duo First Aid Kit from Sweden talked about sexual harrassment during their set on Friday saying that “the blame and shame of rape crime should always belong to the perpetrator, not the victim.” The couple of half-drunk men right behind us (who left after some of us reminded them several times that we were interested only in the music rather than their shenanigans) were proof that even at a very friendly festival like CFF, there are always the odd situations when you need to make clear that disrespectful behaviour, like shouting ‘give us a kiss’ at artists on stage or disrespecting women’s personal space in a crowd, is not acceptable.

UK singer songwriter and activist Grace Petrie, who played stage 2 on Friday night (check out her song ‘I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist”), Prince Edward Island-based Irish Mythen and the one and only Janis Ian all had various songs highlighting the shortcomings of today’s society and politicians, homophobia and sexism. The most poignant and outspoken of all was most likely one of Janis Ian’s newly written songs entitled ‘She Is, She Is (Resist)’, which went “when they say you don’t have a right to exist, persist, resist, persist and resist, resist resist, resist!”. Hear, hear.

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The protest song is certainly alive and well and folk festivals, such as Cambridge, continue to attract a large cross section of people from many backgrounds, ages and places. This year I spoke to festival goers from all across the UK, Ireland, Iceland, and as far as Mauritius and Australia.

On top of all the first class acts on the main stages, there are also always lots of other activities on from 10 am until late during the festival weekend. You can do yoga, willow or drawing workshops, learn to play a new instrument or listen to talks by festival artists, such as the Women in Music session in the Flower Garden on Saturday or join a songwriting workshop with Eliza Carthy in the Club Tent on Friday morning.

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My favourite events were two workshops on Sunday. The first one was a singing workshop with Nashville-based singer songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, whose set that night on stage 2 was also fabulous. In her morning session (see pic above) she had various people come up to help them make the best of their own voice and it was incredibly fascinating what a difference ten minutes with a skilled teacher and a supportive crowd can make.

The other event was a youth singing workshop with Boston-based Americana group Darlingside, who are known for their incredible harmonies (see pic below). They certainly passed on their love for music to the youngsters attending the afternoon session in The Hub and the band singing ‘White Horses’ accompanied by a choir of young people harmonising on it was the one festival moment this year that’ll stay with me for a long time.

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Last but not least, here are a few personal festival tips: Make sure you don’t miss out on the Den stage with many amazing upcoming acts (it’s also much less crowded than the main stages), the lovely cafe and the flower garden, both in the same area by the duck pond; bring something to sit on, but ideally not a hardbacked chair as they are not allowed inside any venues; your own food and drink is OK to take along, just no glass; don’t forget the Coldham’s Common campsite has an afterhour open mic venue (until after midnight) and a free shuttle bus runs there every few minutes from Cherry Hinton Hall; a lot of the artists sign their CDS (and some do selfies with punters) at the Mojo tent near stage 2; be kind to others, don’t take up any more space than you need in the already crowded outside arena, don’t block any exits and get up from your blanket inside the tents when it gets busy; finally, be spontaneous, play along if someone starts a Mexican wave in the shuttle queue, bring your ukulele and start your own session and don’t just be a spectator – folk music is for participating and the community is only as friendly and welcoming as each one of us!