Celtic Connections seemed a crazy idea: a folk music festival, staged at a formal concert hall, in the middle of Scotland’s dark, cold, rain and snow filled winter weather? The venue didn’t fit, people wouldn’t come out, and besides that events were scheduled over a run of more than two weeks. Bound to fail, for many reasons.
It didn’t. Twenty five years ago, the deck did appear stacked against success for Celtic Connections. Over those years, through ups and downs in world politics, music industry practices, and many other challenges, Celtic Connections has not just survived but prospered. That first festival comprised a bit over sixty events held in one venue. This January more than three hundred events will be held in venues across Glasgow ranging from pubs to churches to to schools to concert halls, drawing in artists and audience members not only from across Scotland but from across the world.
Several highlights of this year’s Celtic Connections:
On opening night, 18 January, many artists who have performed at the festival across the years retun to share music new and traditional, Among those on the bill so far are Saltfishforty, Cherish the Ladies, Eddi Reader, Sharon Shannon, String Sisters, Kris Drever, Ross Ainslie, and Ali Hutton, with more expected. When the festival comes it its closing weekend eighteen days later, Transatlantic Sessions will see a range of artists join forces at the Royal Concert Hall for a gig with an ever changing but always fascinating line up, helmed by musical directors Jerry Douglas from the US and Aly Bain from Scotland.
Connections across the world to artists who celebrate their own roots is a hallmark of Celtic Connections s. This January, Malian singer Oumou Sangaré celebrates adventurous new music which fuses her traditional Wassoulou roots and commitment to social commentary with with rhythms and grooves from rock, funk, and soul. Vermont based trio Low Lilly bring their fusion of Americana and Celtic music with a distinctive New England flavor. Frigg, a seven piece group from Finland, will share an evening with the Nordic influenced music of Shetland’s Fiddler’s Bid. Juan de Marcos and the 17-piece Afro Cuban All Stars draw on a century’s worth of sounds and styles across the history of Cuban music, from vintage son to Latin jazz to hip hop. Fiddle and guitar duo Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola, from the Scottish Highlands and Finland respectively, now live in Norway. In their music they explore connections among all three places in ways both new and traditional. Andrew Finn Magill brings in North Carolina roots and Brazilian grooves to his music, while The Railsplitters explore cutting edge of bluegrass music, and top Americana songwriter Shawn Colvin celebrates twenty years of making music which crosses genres from folk to country to rock.
Celtic Connections: festival’s deep connection to the Celtic side of its landscape is always highlighted in the programming. One of the ways that Celtic landscape will come into focus this season is through Donald Shaw’s music for the film Scotland’s Wild Heart in an evening in which he will share the program with String Sisters, a collaboration of fiddle players from Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Sweden which had its beginnings at Celtic Connections. From another point of Scotland’s compass, Inge Thompson, who comes from Fair Isle, offers Northern Flyway, a program based on the migrations and travels of birds in that northern island.
The late Martyn Bennett’s work GRIT, which fuses recordings of traditional music of Scotland with twenty first century sounds, was orchestrated for a pan Celtic ensemble in a wildly successful concert at Celtic Connections 2015. In 2018, the GRIT Orchestra will return with another of Bennett’s works, Bothy Culture. Top mountain biker and adventure cyclist Danny MacAskill chose Bennet’s version of Blackbird as the sound track for a film of his unique trek in his native Skye’s forbidding Cuillin Hills. He will join the musicians at the concert, perhaps with images of that trip. It’s one of the most anticipated events of the festival’s run.
Another anticipated evening will take place in the historic City Halls as Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, who comes from the west of Ireland, andJulie Fowlis, who grew up in the Western Isles of Scotland, offer music new and traditional.
Though each will give a full concert on her own it is possible the two longtime friends may decide to share a few songs as well — they made an album exploring connections between Irish and Scottish Gaelic song several years ago.
The three men who make up the band Lau
are well known for cutting edge music that respects tradition while carrying forward. They will perform a concert celebrating their ten years as a band, offer a birthday party ceilidh, and present a day long series of workshops on the nuts and bolts and inspirational aspects of making traditional music.
Workshops are a regular feature of at Celtic Connections during the day at the weekends. Come and try sessions offer the chance try an instrument you may never have had a chance to get your hands on: classes for beginners and intermediate players are also offered and there’s an in depth advanced workshop on fiddle and cello taught by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. One weekend is focused on singing, with top musicians including Gillian Frame, Corinna Hewat, and Robyn Stapleton among the instructors. All music is taught by ear, and there’s a big sing on the afternoon the workshops end with participants in all workshops invited to join in.
There are other chances for audience members to join in: lunchtime gigs at Glasgow Caledonian University and free concerts most afternoons at the Danny Kyle Stage at the concert hall come with the chance perhaps to encounter and encourage a rising star. As the schedule o fformal concerts winds down in the evenings, the festival club, where headline acts show up and you never know who might be on stage, gets under way. At other venues after hours there are ceilidhs, instrumental sessions where all are welcome, and in a quieter spot there’s a long running song session for sharing and listening.
That’s just a taste of what’s in store as Celtic Connections celebrates 25 years. There are ways you can join in, too, whether you will be making it to Glasgow or not. Many BBC radio shows offer live and recorded broadcasts through the festival; if you are where you can see BBC television broadcasts there are often those too. Ireland’s broadcasters, both English and Irish language radio and television, are on hand, as is the radio station from Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde. Independent producers are busy during the events, too. The Celtic Connections Festival website is a good place to find out about all of this, as well as check on tickets, venues, and schedules.
Photograph of the Cuillins, Skye, by John Allan.
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