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National Folk Festival - Canberra, Easter, 2002
Colleen Z Burke
As usual the National Folk Festival was a vibrant affair - it's always a place to meet friends, have sessions and listen to wonderful performers both from Australia and overseas. It's too big to encompass everything but I'll mention some special highlights. The first performer in the Opening Concert in Budawang was Kahil Gudaz from Afghanistan, playing the sitar, an inspired, subtle choice focusing our minds on the appalling situation in Afghanistan and the plight of the refugees. This year the festival's theme was the Year of the Outback and the set design and lighting for the Budawang stage was superb with it's depiction of Uluru. Ted Egan was an excellent compere and performer. Merri-May Gill surprised with her wonderful voice and very funny, satricial lyrics, Warren H. William gave us a country and western taste of the Northern Territory. Blackwoods repertoire of songs and tunes from around the world was thoughtful and lively. The Sole Sisters presented "the music of the feet" with traditional solo steps and clog dances ranging from Ireland, the Appalachians, to Cape Breton. The Wrigley Sisters from the Orkney Islands finished the concert in fine uplifting style with a combination of fiddle, keyboard and guitar.
Another of the festival's highlights was the premiere of New Theatre's concert version of Reedy River written by the late Dick Diamond and first performed by New Theatre in 1953. The play originally commissioned by Melbourne's New Theatre is set in the aftermath of the great 1890s shearing strike which saw the Shearer's Union almost destroyed, its leaders gaoled and its membership in disarray. It tells of the Union's fight back, the impact on a bush community of the personal cost of the struggle. The play is rich in drama, humour, romance, unforgettable characters, Australian slang and great bush ballads including "My old black billy" Helen Palmer's powerful "Ballad of 1891" and Henry Lawson's title poem "Reedy River" tastefully set to music by Chris Kempster. It was directed by actor/director/teacher Marie Armstrong. As well as a cast of gifted actors and musicians it was interesting to see Sydney singers Kate Delaney and Christy Reynolds in their first acting roles where they exhibited considerable acting talent.
The original Bushwhackers formed by the late folklorist John Meredith, was also involved in early productions of Reedy River. Four of the original band Chris Kempster, Cecil Grivas, Alex Hood and Harry Kay were a popular drawcard at the festival. There was a strong feeling of the continuity of folk music in Australia and I was impressed to hear Brian Mooney, now living in Tasmania, singing again. Brian was one of the formative singers in the early Australian folkmusic scene introducing many Irish and Australian folk songs into Australian pubs and early folk venues. The retrospective concluded with The Grey and Crusty concert which was more entertaining then I'd anticipated with young as well as older performers taking part. Phyl Lobl sang a very moving song written in memory of her late husband Gerri Lobl. Dave Brannigan (concertina), Maggie Duncan (fiddle), and their seventeen year old son Chris, (tin whistle), played a selection of the late Chris Wendt's tunes. This concert finished in rousing style with all performers singing the late Harry Robertson's song "Wee Pot Stove", lead by Evan Mathieson.
Moziak put together by well-known Irish singer songwriter Andy Irvine, for an Australian tour, was generally acknowledged to be one of the most exciting and vibrant groups at this year's National. As well as Andy, the group included Ireland's Donal Lunny, Rens van der Zalm from Holland, fiddle and guitar, Bulgarian Nikola Parov who plays gajda (Bulgarian pipes) and kaval and Bruce Molsky from the US who plays fiddle, five string banjo and also sings.
There's also always a wide age range of performers which is important for a healthy folkscene. This year was no exception and there was a great wealth of talent in younger musicians and singers. A few who impressed audiences were Gypsy Hot Club, Freylok, Spoot, Mango Jam and singer songwriter Rebecca Wright.
There were many singing and music sessions, but the lively Irish sessions I sat in on were often led by Irish box players Billy Moran and Joe Fitzgerald who are both Melbourne based and Caoilte O' Súilleabháin, originally from West Cork, now living in Warnambool, Vic. Joe Fitzgerald launched his new CD "Hills of Clare" at the festival. The next weekend he also launched his CD at The Harp, Sydney, joined by brother Paddy as well as Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Central Coast Irish musicians, so the festival atmosphere continued.
In my concert of "The Poems and Songs of Irish Australia" my son Paddy Affley, who plays Latin Flamenco guitar, sang his first ever song at a folk festival - John Dengate's "The Answer's Ireland" accompanied on guitar by Rebecca Wright, a singer songwriter from Brisbane. The concert included some fine singing by Kate Delaney and Andy Irvine did an inspired rendition of his song "Gladiators". Jennifer Martiniello read her moving poems included in the anthology The Turning Wave, edited by myself and Vincent Woods.
This year's National was special with something for everyone - a great tribute to both the organisers and volunteers.
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory