The ballad of the revivalists

Raymond Ross

The rebirth of traditional music is largely due to the work of one group, Raymond Ross reports

Summertime is festival time and in a town or village near you there's likely to be a folk festival sometime between May and September. Thirty years ago there were no such events in Scotland. Now the country boasts some 72. This remarkable growth has much to do with the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland, a registered charity and an educational body in its own right.

The TMSA exists to promote, present and preserve the traditional music and songs of Scotland and to that end organises folk festivals, runs workshops and competitions and liaises with many educational bodies to raise awareness about Scotland's musical traditions.

With one full-time worker, the national organiser Elspeth Cowie, and a part-time administrative assistant, the TMSA would seem to have its work cut out. Funded by the Scottish Arts Council with an annual grant of Pounds 27,000 to cover essential requirements, it remains a largely voluntary body with eight branches and more than 700 members.

It is often the first port of call for further education colleges wishing to establish certificated music courses which are broad-based. It can operate as a facilitator for teachers and tutors as well.

"We are an educational body in the broadest sense," says Ms Cowie. "For example, we generated the idea for the Grampian HARP - the Heritage Arts Regeneration Project - which works with schools to broaden an understanding and appreciation of the Doric language. It's a joint venture run by the North East Scotland Heritage Trust and involves singers and musicians going into schools or pupils visiting National Trust sites where aspects of local life and culture are enacted using music and song."

Cowie has been in the post only six months but is already brimming with other project ideas as well as being vigorously defensive of the importance of traditional arts in Scottish culture and critical about public funding. "There's a huge imbalance in the amount given to opera and ballet compared to traditional music. And that's true of private or commercial sponsorship as well. Some commercial companies are more willing to listen now but the whole funding area is something we have to concentrate on. It would be nice to think we supported our culture the way they do in Ireland."

That said, there are grounds for optimism. The festivals seem to be going from strength to strength. There's a ceilidh revival in full swing and young instrumentalists are flourishing as never before.

"I'd say we're on the second or third revival since the original Fifties-Sixties revival," says Ms Cowie. "This year alone five new festivals have been established. There's an element of people feeling more Scottish and taking a pride in their culture. There's also a growing demand for more funding, especially when people see how Gaelic culture is now being funded. But one of the strange things is that although instrumental music is burgeoning, new singers are not coming through at a similar rate. Singing workshops are a priority for us at festivals and throughout the year."

The ceilidh revival which has swept Edinburgh and Glasgow in particular in recent years is also evidence of renewed interest in traditional music and dance. "It's a phenomenon which, ironically, has yet to reach country areas outwith the Highlands and Islands, but again it's evidence that something is happening."

Despite these hopeful trends, Elspeth Cowie still feels that not only is traditional music disadvantaged financially but it's also largely ignored educationally. "Very few teachers are knowledgeable in traditional music. If you issued an edict tomorrow saying traditional music and song had to be taught in Scottish schools, it couldn't happen. The teachers aren't there.

"Part of the value of the HARP project was that it helped teachers to see the value of traditional music. There has to be more dialogue between teachers and tradition bearers. No one is saying the teacher has to learn traditional ballad singing overnight, but the teacher could bring in local singers and give the pupils the real thing.

"We are open to collaborating with all sorts of bodies in education to develop courses. We are working with the the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum to promote traditional music during the review of Scottish culture in schools which should report next summer.

"We want as many people to get involved as possible - singers, teachers, storytellers, collectors, listeners, dancers. The more there are involved, the more we can promote.

"The traditional scene has always been run by volunteers and I think that's why it's been seen as a lesser art form. Some people equate voluntary with amateur. The TMSA has company directors who are volunteer workers. Do people think they leave their brain-cells behind them after work?" Promotion of traditional music in schools is vital to Ms Cowie's vision, because she argues that only the lucky few are brought up in a traditional singing or playing environment and so most are not exposed from an early age to the music.

"We have individual memberships, affiliated organisations and family memberships. The last are very important as traditional music is as much a family affair as it is an individual pursuit. And I place a similar importance on schools' involvement. I'd be delighted to go and meet any people in schools to work out their needs and see how we could help fulfil them."

Festivals include Stonehaven (July 11- 13), Bute (July 17-21), Aberdour (July 26-August 2), Skye (July 28-August 2), Strathearn (July 31-August 4), Auchtermuchty (August 8-10), Kirriemuir (September 5-7), Easterhouse (September 15-21), Dunbar (September 26-28).

Further information: Elspeth Cowie, TMSA, 17-23 Calton Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8DL. Tel: 0131 557 8484.

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Raymond Ross

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