Shetland Folk Festival 2008

9 May 2008 in Festival, Music, Shetland

Various venues, Shetland, 1-4 May 2008

Munnely Band. © Lieve Boussauw (

A FEW YEARS ago, before she went solo, Karine Polwart came to the Shetland Folk Festival as lead singer with Malinky, an experience that directly inspired her song ‘Follow the Heron Home’, whose chorus – “By night and day, we’ll sport and we’ll play/And delight as the dawn dances over the bay” – brilliantly encapsulates the event’s uniquely hedonistic character.

Polwart’s opening line, too, “The back of the winter is broken”, further highlights another crucial element in all this nigh-on non-stop merrymaking, coinciding as it does, this far north, with the first real flush of spring – even as the daylight hours here already extend late into the evening, and the sun’s well up by the time the festival club turfs out at 5am. This year, the sun also shone from cloudless blue skies throughout almost the entire long weekend, making visitors and locals alike feel extra-specially blessed.

Polwart’s song found its own way home for the 28th Shetland festival, as performed by Shauna Mullin, the lead singer with Ireland’s David Munnelly Band, whose striking contralto voice – think Dolores Keane in her prime, but even deeper and richer – won her an All-Ireland title a few years back. (From Donegal, Mullin is Paddy Tunney’s grand-niece, so it’s obviously in the genes.)

Munnelly himself is a West Mayo accordionist with shoulders like an ox and a playing style of matching power – though capable, too, of great delicacy, as in his fluttery, feather-light accompaniment of Mullin’s singing. For the most part, though, the band’s instrumental sound – also featuring fiddler Daire Bracken, guitarist Paul Kelly, and Munnelly’s brother Kieran on flute and percussion, plus stepdancer Nic Gareiss – comprises a big, beefy romp back to Irish music’s dancehall days in 1920s America, conjuring shades of the Flanagan Brothers in jigs and reels vibrantly laced with ragtime, jazz and swing.

Compared with the eight-piece line-up I last saw at Celtic Connections, this streamlined touring version left some of the arrangements sounding a little depleted, but their attack, brio and feelgood energy nonetheless made them a popular hit of the weekend.

Also on the bill when I saw Munnelly’s band in Scalloway, Shetland’s ancient Viking capital – complete with dramatic ruined waterside castle – were acts from China, Croatia, Texas and Shetland itself, reflecting a festival that this year exceeded even its own customarily eclectic standards.

The Chinese delegation were called Hanggai, a Beijing-based six-piece whose members are all of Inner Mongolian birth or descent, and whose music is based around that region’s tradition of khoomei throat-singing – as popularised by Huun-Huur-Tu – along with tunes reflecting the rhythms of long horseback rides across the steppe.

These elements, with instrumentation including morinkhuur and tobshuur (respectively akin to a cello and a banjo, each with two strings) and modonchor (a vertically-played flute) were powerfully interwoven with guitar, electric bass, percussion and bare-knuckle rock stylings.

Given their own rich local music culture, centred as it is on fiddle tunes, and their distance from the beaten touring track for international acts, Shetland audiences are always particularly hungry for the exotic, and their amazement and delight at the extraordinary split-note sounds produced by two of Hanggai’s three singers, potently meshed with the soaring, anthemic tones of the third, saw the band taken comprehensively to the islanders’ hearts – and vice versa.

Their concerts became more of a love-fest with every passing night, and they were also well stuck into the late-night sessions back at the festival club, jamming and singing away both with Shetland musicians and other overseas visitors. This being Hanggai’s first ever UK visit, though – one undertaken entirely without state support, and exclusively to play Shetland – it’s somewhat mind-boggling to imagine the impressions they’re taking home. Shetland isn’t exactly typical of Britain at the best of times, and at festival time it’s another planet altogether. Hanggai will likely be spotted on the mainland before too long, however, with their first European album release, Flowers, due later this summer.

The young sextet Afion made up the Croatian contingent, merging soulful traditional love-songs and ballads with plenty of rhythmic invention and technical flair, if not quite enough overall assertion. The lone Texan was veteran singer-songwriter Katy Moffatt, a regular collaborator with both Tom Russell and Rosie Flores, whose sensuously seasoned voice draws on country, blues, gospel, jazz and rockabilly influences, in material that encompassed both wistful fragility and exhilarating ballsiness.

Completing the Scalloway line-up – which offered a particularly choice microcosm of the overall programme – was top local fiddler Bryan Gear, accompanied by a few friends on guitar, bass and piano, displaying his immaculate lyrical touch, exquisitely limpid tone and meticulous articulation to full advantage.

Apart from Hanggai, though, the biggest unanimous vote for musical highlight of the weekend was won by the young Danish fiddler Henrik Jansberg and his four-piece band, the latter variously juggling guitar, mandolin, banjo, nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle), double bass and cajon. A buoyant, expansive, densely-layered blend of Nordic, Celtic, jazz, rock, bluegrass, funk and classical flavours, their music bestrode the expressive gamut from understated elegance to raging red-blooded wildness, united by exceptionally classy playing all round. Look out for their aptly-titled new CD, Omnivor: it’s an absolute treat.

Highland champions the Peatbog Faeries were also on toweringly fine form for their big Friday-night show at Lerwick’s Clickimin Centre, before a sellout 850-strong crowd. Having a full 90-minute set at their disposal, the full nine-piece posse, including brass section, built up both sound and atmosphere with majestic implacability, led by Tom Salter’s blistering guitar work and Adam Sutherland’s pyrotechnic fiddle along with Peter Morrison’s pipes.

Other heroes of a more local variety were rising stars Breabach, whose twin pipes’n’fiddle attack won them a whole host of new friends as far away as the ultra-northerly isles of Yell and Fetlar, as they plied the festival’s extensive gig circuit outwith Lerwick, and the monumental Orkney octet The Chair, whose small-hours club set on Saturday night, decked out in full regalia of ludicrous wigs and weird costume masks, will linger in many minds as the weekend’s maddest image.

© Sue Wilson, 2008