FolkEast - bursting at the bellows
PUBLISHED: 12:22 06 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:22 06 August 2016
FolkEast, the hands-on festival at Glemham Hall on August 19-21, showcases tent-loads of talent, contemporary and traditional music, and Suffolk's very real stuff of life. But it has one special talent all of its own - bringing folk together. Lindsay Want meets festival fans to find out more.
FolkEast has somehow become one of those amazing, unique festivals,“ muses the man with the round, boyish face and broad smile. ”My family would be upset with me, if we couldn’t be there.” He talks of pigeon-plucking, and how a young son discovered he was a dab hand at it, of delicious local feasts with friends and family in the field, and precious memories of his little ones dancing and prancing around, then falling asleep at his feet.
“It takes a very special musical environment to encompass life like that,” he concludes – and having performed at thousands of festivals in his time, he should know. It’s a pity that there’s no more mega-band Bellowhead to bring ‘squeezy’ John Spiers to FolkEast. But everything has its up-side, and Britain’s best known exponent of the melodeon and concertina is really looking forward to returning to do it solo.
“I can say yes now and get involved in projects and running workshops. I’d like to get stuck into more community things, and I’ve always had the desire to stay for the whole festival, but needed to be somewhere else. It’ll be so great to be here with the family all weekend for a change.” How come FolkEast is so special? John has no hesitation.
“It’s a feeling thing, where everything can breathe. I think little seeds of tradition were planted quite judiciously throughout the early days of the festival. All very deliberate. Quite clever. It’s all very integrated, very quirky and embraces things that are folk, but not folkie.”
And there the melodeon maestro has definitely put his finger on the button. Have a go at blacksmithing, gleam pearls of wisdom from champion knitters, listen to cutting edge poetry, or hear timeless tales told by colourful Mummers. Share a rousing chorus in the beer tent, watch your little ones splat away in the mud kitchen, or simply lay back in a deckchair and let the music waft over you on the warm Suffolk breeze. Although FolkEast is bursting at the bellows with opportunities, you’ll never feel the squeeze.
Even when it’s full of people, the gentle nature of this giant site means that there’s all sorts of space between everything and if you rub shoulders with stuff, it’s in a delightfully different way. Forget default settings, strict tempos, or those self-perpetuating treadmills to drive you on relentlessly or dictate your next move – according to #squeezyjohn and so many others, the ‘must, must, must’ or ‘next, next, next’ of other festivals are simply not in the mix here. Everything has enough room to just be, and that allows folk to really relax and enjoy stuff even on their own, whilst comfortably in the company of others.
Communities that count
People talk of FolkEast as a pop-up village, and certainly besides the massive sunset stage to be graced in 2016 with top names like Eliza McCarthy’s Wayward Band, Blowzabella and Irish super-group, Usher’s Island, the model centres on a seamless collection of passionate and gifted communities. Wander through the willow tunnel and woodland to Amy Wragg’s creative and 95% sun-powered Get on the Soapbox stage, and discover a special platform for words to be spoken – or left unspoken – and for original musical offerings. The Art Arcade and Heritage Skills collective showcase beautiful things in the making and invite participation in free workshops to get a feel for old ways, new to you. There’s a chance to dance away in the ceilidh tent, learn a step or two, or watch Morris moves with bells on out by the village ‘green’.
Music sessions are plentiful, often simply popping up of their own accord. There are traditional games at the sporty spot, artists in residence at the Old Racquet Court and wonderful wildlife encounters out in the field. All are welcome wherever you roam and small folk get their own activities to try out in these community corners too.
Real links with the local stuff of life
Follow your nose and there’s one passionate patch for which you might get a taste more than others. The Imagined Suffolk Food Village is the folly, fantasy and maybe even first love of David Grimwood, Suffolk chef extraordinaire and dedicated folk fan. He finds himself shutting up shop at his beloved Froize Inn at Chillesford for the full three days of the FolkEast festival, and working with wonderful local producers to feed the 15,000 – well, a good number of them at least anyway. The idea of serving first class local fare in a field at sensible prices might have initially seemed a bit pie in the Suffolk sky, but now in its fourth year, it has certainly brought truly local tastes to the table and set a benchmark for festival foods as a whole.
“I just wanted to prove it could be done,” declares David who conjures up a curry night, a double sitting of a delightful two course Sunday lunch, an amazing salad bar, Saturday specials and many more meals besides over the course of the festival’s drawn out days.
“I have a real affinity with the FolkEast team, love what they are trying to achieve and want to help make it work for them. Each of the dozen or so suppliers in our village is a master of their own craft. Just like the festival’s musicians and other artisans, they all truly believe in what they do and in delivering the very best end-products to share.” With outdoor cooking, children’s workshops, foraging forays and musical entertainment also making the village a much-loved meeting place, David revels in the sheer joy and immediacy of the real fun and laughter it generates. He also values the once a year opportunity to get to relax, if only for a moment, with a pint of Lowestoft’s Green Jack wheat beer under Glemham’s great oaks, and take time to catch up with long-standing friends in the trade.
Music makers all in tune
From truly tasty local offerings to the more international dishes in the world food section down the hill, FolkEast’s focus remains firmly on making real stuff fun and provenance the king. Local lad Otis Luxton, from Blaxhall way, has been particularly instrumental in supporting this vision.
”I’d been thinking for some time about bringing together some of the country’s top instrument makers as well as makers and handmade instruments from around the world,” explains the man whose love is to craft guitars and get out on the Suffolk waters in his boat after a fashion too. “It’s a celebration of tradition and innovation and a sort of festival within a festival.”
The FolkEast ‘Instrumental’ community courtyard has a marketplace feel with a central meeting and playing space, a welcoming spot for musicians and even local jig doll workshops. There are violin and whistle makers, bodrans and bagpipes, guitars and hurdy-gurdies, even banjos made from biscuit tins. It’s a place where ‘Squeezy’ John feels well comfortable on one of its sunny sofas, surrounded by proof that these worldwide crafts and traditions are alive, thriving and constantly evolving.
“I spent some of my early festival days selling melodeons in a dark marquee, where there was no contact with the maker and the instrument was just an instrument. Here it’s another world, you can appreciate the labour of love and understand. It’s a different sort of introduction to things. There’s a sense of local and far away and it tucks everything into perspective. It’s how everything should be.”
The widest, warm embrace
Local, regional, international, understanding. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that FolkEast is flourishing just down the Suffolk road from one of Britain’s most prestigious international concert halls. That ‘instrumental’ Otis has another hat as Aldeburgh Young Musicians co-ordinator. And that three BBC folk-award winning, a capella singing Teeside lads, The Young ‘Uns, have not just embraced the role of festival patrons with gusto, but are the inspired intermediaries between celebrated Snape songster of yore, Bob Hart, and an über-talented group of 30 highly trained musicians, aged eight to 18, from all over the country.
“It’s an honour, but it’s petrifying, “shares Young ‘Uns songwriter-storyteller extraordinaire Sean Cooney. “The project with these amazing young performers is all about opening up the horizons to a new genre, as many of them have never encountered folk music before. And the cargo is so very precious – they’re rooted here, these songs.” The lads talk of inspiration found in the remarkable times of Bob Hart – a local life touched by land and sea, war and love – and how the project focuses on the youngsters developing their connection with each aspect of the Bob Hart journey.
“FolkEast 2016 will include a presentation performance featuring their interpretation of the songs,” explains Young ‘Un number two, Michael Hughes. “There’ll be four portraits of his life, set with voice tracks from the singer himself. We’ve all been out of our comfort zones on this one, but it’s wonderful to share with these talented young people and see them thriving on the whole eclectic music-rounded experience which the Aldeburgh programme delivers.”
And perhaps the FolkEast audience will find themselves challenged too by this bit of evolving tradition, especially those local voices from the beer tent who still carry Bob’s songs the old way at regular sessions in the Snape Crown or Blaxhall Ship. They might feel wary of this musical mastery and new shared ownership, but they’re sure to be touched by the fitting tribute to one of their finest.
“There can be a real power in the wordlessness of music, especially when it’s attached to stories,” adds Young ‘Un number three, David Eagle. “A chord played in a certain way can stir emotions. And it’s amazing how often we all really enjoy sharing a song not thinking of the words. The lift it gives, the joint positivity, it all comes from the communality, the togetherness, the connection through music.“
Ah, the connection – that’s FolkEast all over, a Suffolk bridge which makes the past accessible to all, gives it plenty of room roam in the present and opens up all sorts of avenues for the future. Great talent, young, old, famous or otherwise is finding its way here and feeling at home.
“If you’re a performer for long enough, you’ll have a link with Suffolk,” jests good ol’ Squeezy John. But he’s right, because FolkEast is putting the county on the map – as a real place to be.