Tag Archives: review

Music is for Everyone: Folk Weekend Oxford 2017

Folk Weekend Oxford (21-23 April 2017) is in its 6th year this year and although it is largely volunteer-run, it punches way above its weight with a packed three-day programme for all ages. I’ve been back stewarding this year and it was great seeing some familiar faces and meeting lots of other folk music enthusiasts of all ages. The festival, whose patrons are Jackie Oates and Bellowhead’s John Spiers, has a truly inclusive ethos, believes that the arts are for everyone and most of the venues are fully accessible. At the stewards briefing we also learned some basic Makaton signs to use, my favourite being the one for cake. Ready for a weekend of music and fun!

Oxford Canal fwo2017

After leaving my bags with my Airbnb hosts on Friday afternoon and a delicious wood-fired pizza at The Rusty Bicycle off Cowley Road, I did a tour of Oxford’s charity shops and then headed to Wesley Memorial Church for my first stewarding shift at the opening concert of the festival with melodeon player and singer Ollie King, acoustic folk band with a Russian twist, KARA, and Jim Moray, who reminded me again why folk music is so relevant in today’s complex world by helping us to reflect on and make sense of what’s happening around us.

Opening Ceremony fwo2017

Saturday was a packed day which started with a performance by the festival choir (picture above) led by director Cat Kelly (read an interview with her here) on the Ashmolean Museum forecourt. All day there were morris performances in the town squares and lots of opportunities to join in, be it in the many ceilidhs (you never need to bring a partner and can learn all dances on the spot) or Scandinavian ‘bals’ or by learning a new skill, like playing the spoons, or making folk-related crafts.

I was glad that I had opted for another concert on Saturday afternoon as I caught Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood (their new EP ‘Wings’ is beautiful) who performed a stunning set of songs and harmonised perfectly, accompanied by guitar (Megan) and fiddle (Jackie). Their performance was followed by well-known Sheffield-based Melrose Quartet (picture below) showcasing their latest album ‘Dominion’. I spent the evening at St Barnabas Church in the Jericho area of Oxford stewarding at a ceilidh with musical accompaniment ably provided by The Discussion Topic (including a full drumset!). It was a lovely, energetic crowd of all ages and we got to join in a bit as well in our breaks.

Melrose Quartet fwo2017

Somehow the time always goes by way too fast on festival weekends and I decided to do my best to slow it down by attending a song writing workshop with Somerset singer-songwriter Ange Hardy (picture below) on Sunday morning. We tried our hands at different ways of approaching song writing, first using nursery rhymes as a structural starting point, then letting ourselves be guided by the memories evoked by scent and finally working with a drawing or picture. The next talk by Mike Heaney was entitled ‘The Complete and Utter History of Morris (in 60 minutes)’ and it was fascinating to learn a bit more about its origins and different morris dancing traditions from around the country.

songwriting workshop fwo2017

In the afternoon I headed back to Jericho for another ceilidh and dropped into The Quaker Meeting House on the way back into town, which was also one of the festival venues and has a fabulous flower garden – a nice spot for a break in the sun. Just like at Grinagog two weeks ago, we were lucky with the weather all weekend and I do hope this trend continues in the next few months.

stewards fwo2017

If you live in Oxford or are planning a visit, make sure you check out and support Folk Arts Oxford, the non-profit behind the festival, as they put on community events all year round. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!

 

Sea, Sun & Fun: Grinagog Festival 2017

Officially billed as a ‘weekend of mudless mischief by the sea’, the brand new Grinagog Festival, which took place from 7-9 April 2017 in Torquay, Devon, had a pretty enviable start. Most summer festivals in the UK would have been thrilled with three days in a row of sunshine and temperatures of around 20 degrees, never mind a location right by the sea – and it was only the beginning of April. I travelled down to Torquay on the train (3 hr journey for less than £40 return and a direct connection from London) and combined my festival experience with exploring the nearby attractions.

Torre Abbey Grinagog

Most of the festival venues were located in and around historic Torre Abbey (originally founded as a monastery in 1196) and the Riviera Centre right next to it. With a family day taking place on Saturday (graffiti workshops, crazy golf, family rave, storytelling, the lot) and most headliners (Akala, Rat Boy, Congo Natty) having been scheduled for way after midnight for the younger party crowd, the event catered for distinct groups of festival goers while also allowing everyone to get a taster of music they might not have heard of, but might well enjoy. I also managed to catch the world premiere of a documentary on the rise and fall of ‘The Lost Vagueness’, a quirky part of Glastonbury for many years. On Saturday afternoon, everyone gathered on the lawn beside the RICC and followed the giant Grinagog paper mache puppet (lovingly made by Egg Shed Arts) and the Grinagog Carnival & Samba Band down to the sea.

Saturday was also my favourite day music-wise as the London-based The Nest Collective put on a great selection of well-known and up-and-coming folky acts in the chapel, the ballroom and the undercroft downstairs. These included Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston (who apparently won’t be together as a duo for that much longer, what a pity), The Carrivick Sisters (who play about five different instruments each), Cynefin (singing in Welsh), folk duo Phil & Hannah and The Ceilidh Liberation Front, who put on a great ceilidh in the Spanish Barn. There were also lots of opportunities for local music acts to show off their skills on the Soundlaunch Buskers Stage outside Torre Abbey and some of the other tents.

Grinagog Puppet

Fair play to the organisers (including DJ Chris Tofu of Contintental Drifts) for putting on such a huge variety of live music plus talks, films and lots of side activities, such as a roller disco, paddle boarding, trapeze workshops, swimming pool parties etc. Personally, I found the huge line-up a little overwhelming and due to the great weather a lot of the acts scheduled in the many indoor venues earlier in the day were playing mostly to only a handful of people. I trust, however, that once the festival has established itself on the event calendar, many of those details (maybe a few additional food vendors including more veggie options, more site art/themed decorations, less noise interruption by drop-in visitors at quieter gigs) will be ironed out eventually. The main question a new festival like Grinagog needs to ask itself is what kind of event it wants to be and what it wants to achieve. I’m a big fan of specialised festivals (one genre of music, documentaries etc.) as the attendees tend to just have more in common and it’s often still possible to make them accessible to a wider audience by offering a taster day/sessions. Having said that, more general, but uniquely branded festivals, such as End of the Road or Larmer Tree, which appeal to families as well as other groups of festival goers and attract repeat customers by offering an escape from everyday life with well-known music acts as well as quality arts and culture programming, can also be hugely popular. While the possibilities are endless, the financial aspects of running a festival successfully, especially in today’s economic climate and such a crowded market, cannot be overestimated, and are a big factor for survival.

The best part of the weekend, as always, were the passionate people making it happen and the friendly punters. I met a couple with a toddler who’d just returned to Devon after living in Japan, two visiting yoga teachers, a local financial advisor and part-time musician and lots of other locals, many of them with adorable dogs of all shapes and sizes. Especially the younger ones were thrilled to have this new kind of event in a traditional English seaside town where chippies, souvenir shops and bars putting on cover bands tend to dominate the main street. There is definitely a great potential for more collaborations with local businesses to further bridge the divide between traditional and new and creative in future. It will be exciting to see what a big smiling beast of a festival Grinagog develops into in the coming years. I, for one, was chuffed to have been invited to its first birthday bash and hope it will be with us for many more years to come!

Torquay harbour sunset

P.S. If you’re visiting Torquay or one of the nearby towns I can recommend a walk to Cockington Village with its thatched cottages, less than half an hour on foot from Torquay train station and a stop at The Blue Walnut Café along the way (it even boasts a tiny cinema). From Cockington take the path down to the sea, it’s idyllic. I also really enjoyed a return ferry trip (30 mins each way, £3 return) to Brixham, strolling along the fishing harbour and watching kids catching crabs as well as walks to Baddacombe beach and Anstey Cove, which has a basic but friendly café right by the sea, well worth the 15-minute detour on foot.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. 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.

A Bookish Weekend Up North: The Manchester Literature Festival 2016

manchester-literature-festival-2016-logoI really love discovering a city through its cultural venues and this October I spent a weekend in Manchester to attend a few of the Manchester Literature Festival events. Running from 7 to 23 October 2016 and in its 11th year, the city-wide festival offered over 80 readings and talks for book lovers. I managed to catch these great events:

An Evening with Jackie Kay Manchester-based writer Jackie Kay, is always a pleasure to listen to. The event at Halle St Peter’s was chaired by Rachel Cooke, who guided the conversation from Jackie’s childhood with her adoptive parents in Glasgow, to her early years as a young poet up to the present time becoming Scotland’s ‘makar’ (poet laureate) in March 2016 and planning a new project based on visiting all the Scottish islands (sounds fascinating!). There is always such an interesting contrast between Jackie’s bubbly, outgoing personality and her thoughtful, melodic poetry, often dealing with some serious subject matter. I was glad I picked up her memoir Red Dust Road, which chronicles the search for her birth parents in Scotland and Nigeria, after the reading. While the book is partly incredibly sad, it is a fascinating, multi-layered read, which is also extremely funny and honest.

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi This event was held at the Central Library and featured one of Sudan’s best known poets who has been based in the UK since 2012. After a bilingual reading of his poetry in Arabic and English, the writer was interviewed by author Travis Elborough. I’m always interested to learn about cultures I don’t know much about and languages I don’t speak. As a translator, this often reminds me of the language barriers that need to be overcome in order for different cultures to understand each other and poetry is definitely one of the most beautiful ways to accomplish this.

ann-cleeves-event-manchester

Shetland with Ann Cleeves When I was visiting Glasgow for Celtic Connections last January someone recommended the TV series Shetland to me. Having never been a fan of crime dramas or novels, I reluctantly gave it a go, but was quickly hooked by it, like so many of us have been. So of course I jumped at the chance to see the author of the Shetland series, Ann Cleeves, in conversation with lead scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe and actor Alison O’Donnell, who plays Tosh in the series. The event (see image above) chaired by broadcaster Erica Wagner provided a fascinating insight into the writing and adaptation process and it was lovely to see how well the collaboration seems to have worked in this case.

As it was my first visit to Manchester I also tried to get a good bit of – mostly literary – sightseeing in over the weekend. Here are some of my highlights:

chethams-library-manchester-1

Literature-related museums and places: The John Rylands Library is part of the University of Manchester and the historic building dates back to 1824. I was even more impressed with a tour of Chetham’s Library (pictured above) the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom, which, together with the renowned school of music, was established as early as 1653. Not specifically literature-related, but well worth a visit is The People’s History Museum. It has some fascinating exhibits and brings the history of working people in Britain to life, right up to the present day. Second hand and comic bookshop Paramount Books, near the Shudehill bus station is a great place for stocking up on reading material about the city and further afield.

nexus-art-cafe-manchester

Cosy cafes & pubs (with lots of veggie options): I ate at quite a few places during the weekend, which included The Earth Café (great veggie curry and desserts) in the basement of the Manchester Buddhist Centre. Another favourite was the fairly well hidden Nexus Art Café (cakes, coffee, snacks, see their courtyard above) as well as Common (extremely yummy veggie chili cheese fries). For a coffee or tea break you can’t go wrong with a visit to North Tea Power or Home Sweet Home. On Sunday night I headed to Odd Bar for a few drinks and some (by chance excellent) live Americana with The Wicked Path. I didn’t have enough time to make it to HOME and The Deaf Institute (they apparently do a great vegan hangover all day brunch on Sundays) this time, but did take a look at The Pilcrow Pub (see below), one of Manchester’s newest community ventures, which was largely built by volunteers (how cool is that?!).

pilcrow-pub-manchester

Mind Over Matter: Soul Circus Yoga & Wellness Festival 2016

I started my yoga journey nearly a year ago and it must have been around the same time when the idea for Soul Circus (19 – 21 August 2016) was conceived by the festival founders, Matt, Ella and Roman. When Matt contacted me about the event earlier this year I was very impressed by their concept: a wellbeing-focused yoga festival with music and food thrown into the equation and thereby bridging the gap between the yoga, music, foodie and wellness communities. It was an experiment I was most happy to be part of.

yoga foto 3 main tent

YOGA: The top reason most of us gathered for Soul Circus in a rural part of Gloucestershire on a fairly rainy, windy weekend in August was the yoga classes with teachers from the UK and abroad. Three distinct yoga areas (Hot Tipi, Experience Tipi & Main Sail Tent) plus an arial yoga set-up offered plenty of options to choose from. As I had hurt my hand just two days before the festival and felt a bit under the weather in general, I soon realised that instead of energetically throwing myself into all sorts of exciting workshops, I’d have to adjust my expectations to match my physical and emotional state. How refreshing to then discover a class by the lovely Kate Lister whose positive energy was seriously infectious and we found ourselves giggling more than once while trying to balance in a particular pose. And there was even group singing, woohoo. Without the self-imposed pressure of having to try as many classes as possible, I opted for quite a few meditative and theory-focused sessions instead. This turned out to be an excellent choice as it not only helped me to keep my energy up throughout the weekend despite the partly adverse weather conditions, it also inspired me to focus more on the spiritual side of yoga. The mindfulness talk by Charlie Taylor Rugman in association with Warrior Wear (another inspiring yoga start-up story) in the Experience Tipi on Saturday as well as his pranayama class the next morning provided a lot of food for thought and motivated me to further improve my own home yoga and meditation practice. The only class I decided to go to despite my inclination to hang out on one of the cosy beanbags around the corner instead was a yin yoga class by Evelyn Cribbin. I know I need more yin to balance out the many yang aspects in my life, yet this has always been the most challenging part of my yoga practice. But hey, I got through it (Evelyn’s soothing voice and clear instructions were a great help) and, in time, I might even learn to enjoy it. The last session of the festival for me was a very interesting and down to earth yoga anatomy class with Emily Young. In the large Main Sail Tent we had 90 minutes to explore pretty much every muscle in our bodies, do some partner work and learn how this knowledge could benefit our posture and lives in general.

Ushti Baba Soul Circus

MUSIC: Being a big fan of quality live music I was very curious what The Fat Hat Collective from Bristol would come up with on their live music stage. Let me tell you, they didn’t disappoint! In fact, it was a great pity so many of the yoga classes overlapped with some excellent band slots, but I’ve noted all their details and they will most likely appear on another part of this blog at some stage. Their mix of dub, gypsy, folky, jazz and R&B sounds plus some spoken word and even a Mongolian acrobatics display were wonderfully eclectic and all excellent. In case you’d like a taste of the fab music we enjoyed for three days, make sure you give these guys and the rest of the collective members a listen: Lounge Cat Ideals, Mount Nakara, Snufkin, The Inexplicables (who I missed as I was already wrapped up in my sleeping bag by that time, but who come recommended), Ushti Baba & Solus. Kudos not only to the musicians but also to the stage crew who successfully battled wind and rain most of the weekend to provide us with quality sounds!

breakfast Soul Circus

FOOD: I admit I’m a big fan of burrito and wood-fired pizza stalls at festivals which would be a great addition next time around. However, the food on offer at Soul Circus was of some of the best quality I’ve ever had in a festival setting! Raw vegan chef Jay Halford and team as well as the always cheerful Asparagasm crew did a particularly good job of offering a yummy selection of breakfasts, mains and desserts all day long. In addition, there were also other options, such as a curry and salad stall, (vegan) ice cream and croquettes. Some of the festival partners, such as Plenish, Wholefoods Cheltenham (the knowledgeable local team did great wine & cheese tasting sessions), Positivitea and Rude Health also offered snacks, hot/cold drinks and breakfast items plus there was a daily gin happy hour provided by The Little Gin Company in the Kit and Ace lounge, so it is well worth upgrading to a VIP ticket. With their concept of working with select sponsors/partners who enhance the festival experience while helping to provide funding for the event, Soul Circus seems to have struck a positive balance. This might not work for every festival on the planet, but particularly in the high end sector, it can be a clever and sustainable strategy, if the partners are well-aligned with the values of the event.

Meet the Founders Talk Soul Circus

WELLNESS & LEARNING: With the weather being less than ideal, especially on the Saturday, many festival attendees took advantage of the onsite sauna, hot tubs and complimentary treatments by Liz Earle Spa, who also provided some luxurious toiletries in the showers and toilet block. I personally greatly enjoyed the ‘Food and Travel’ talk in the Kit and Ace lounge by Tom Perkins, author of ‘Spices & Spandex’, who told us of his –  sometimes very adventurous – travels, mostly by bike, around the world and the deeply inspiring encounters with locals he had had along the way. Another session hosted by Kit and Ace which proved very interesting, was the ‘Meet the Founders’ talk with Plenish founder Kara Rosen, and Soul Circus founders Matt Millar and Ella Guilding. As with so many things in life what really counts is having a good idea, finding business partners who complement your own skills, getting genuine target audience feedback, tweaking the product or service accordingly, getting influencers on board and keep working hard towards your envisaged goal.

tent village Soul Circus

All in all, a well-planned first edition of a growing event with a lot of future potential (not only) for the UK the yoga community in the years to come. I made some lovely new yogi friends (among them @76sunflowers, her own review here) from different areas of the UK and further afield and was genuinely impressed by the many friendly volunteer helpers who always seemed to have a smile on their faces. And even if you aren’t a yoga addict (just yet), with this much entertainment and pampering on offer, you could happily spend a day or too relaxing, eating nurturing food and enjoying the fantastic live music. If there is anything that could still be optimised it would probably be keeping the yoga tents and the music stage a bit further apart, so each can be enjoyed fully and separately. It would also be wonderful if bottled water used across the site could be switched to mostly tap water and the transport options for train users could be improved in order to further decrease the ecological footprint of the festival. Other than that, Ella, Roman, Matt and the rest of the team are definitely onto a successful festival format, which is bound to add greatly to the growing yoga festival circuit in the UK.

Read the Life is a Festival interview with Matt Millar, one of the Soul Circus founders, on how the inaugural festival came about here.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a VIP pass for the 2016 festival in exchange for a personal review and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers.

Folktastic: Warwick Folk Festival 2013

Morris Dancers Warwick
Another weekend, another festival. This time I headed to Warwick boasting an impressive medieval castle and, at the end of July, the Warwick Folk Festival (25 – 28 July 2013), which has been around for over three decades. It is one of the most trad-oriented festivals I’ve volunteered at so far and offers a diverse programme of concerts, ceilidhs, workshops of all kinds as well as children’s entertainment. While a large number of the events took place on the festival grounds beside the river Avon, there were also plenty of ‘fringe’ events happening in Warwick town centre. A handy shuttle bus ferried festival goers between the two locations. 
Jim Moray & band WarwickThe three evening concerts on the main stage included Jim Moray, O’Hooley & Tidow, Dervish, The Young’uns and an energetic performance by Le Vent du Nord, hailing from Quebec, on Sunday night. However, my favourite venue of the whole festival was the Co-op acoustic stage. Despite the noise of the espresso machine on the far side of the tent, it was the most atmospheric venue to me.
Nurse Roberts & Medicine Man WarwickFavourites were Sarah Horn & James Cudworth (also playing with Aelfen), Nurse Roberts & the Medicine Man and Brent Mason, a Canadian singer-songwriter, who we had a nice chat with on the train back to London.  O'Hooley & Tidow Warwick I also loved the sound of Salvation Jane, an Australian vocalist ensemble with beautiful harmonies, Niall Teague & the Fast Company, a dynamic Irish band, and folk septet The Old Dance SchoolThe Old Dance School Warwick Volunteering was fun. I had a couple of shifts at the main stage, one very uneventful afternoon one, while Saturday evening was as busy as it gets. There was a bit of a downpour for a few hours and everyone crowded into the huge and relatively dry and warm space. Was also happy with the spot we found for camping. Proper showers and toilets nearby and a bit hidden away from the main area, guaranteeing a few good nights of sleep (additionally improved by hot water supply for my hot water bottle from the first aid volunteers, thanks guys). All in all a very enjoyable musical weekend.
Tent view Warwick