Traditions to tune in to

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Michael Burnett on useful groups to turn to when teaching folk music.

It's rehearsal time for the Liverpool Klezmer Group. The music they play is a scintillating mixture of elaborate melodic ornamentation, syncopated rhythms and incisive instrumental colours. And it stems from a longstanding folk music tradition.

Today's rehearsal is in preparation for a guest appearance at the Hexham Youth Folk Arts Festival, but the teenage group recently participated in a festival of Klezmer music in Israel, play regularly at community functions in the Liverpool area, and have performed in London, Manchester and Glasgow.

"When we play at weddings and barmitzvahs, the older people relate to the music", says Helen Greer. "It links us with the feelings of past generations", adds Michelle Robinson. "We've got something that they experienced."

All of which confirms how sensible it is that the teaching of folk music should be a national curriculum requirement. Although it does pose some questions. First, to what extent are other folk traditions being re-established? And, second, are the relevant curriculum materials available?

For answers, I turned to Carolyn Robson, education officer at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. "There has been an increase of interest in dance traditions nationally", she says. "And it's good news, thanks to the new PE curriculum, that all school children will now be learning British traditional dances. We've just recently published three cross-curricular resource packs. And we offer free workshops to schools joining the Society." EFDSS sells an extensive range of school resources and publishes a free catalogue.

Folk South-West promotes curriculum-related projects in schools throughout the region stretching from Avon to Cornwall. The agency plans to publish a report on folk music in the curriculum, in conjunction with the National Foundation for Arts Education, during 1996.

Gail Duff runs Trads with funding from South-East Arts and East and West Sussex county councils. "People in the South-East haven't cared for their traditions sufficiently", she says. "But I'm helping to revive some of these, such as wassailing, through working in schools".

Taps, based in Berkshire, is also active in schools. "We see ourselves as being creative, rather than merely reproductive, in our approach to folk music", says the agency's Gill Merry. "For us, folk music is a starting point for pupils' creativity".

The Hexham Festival is mounted by the Newcastle-based agency Folkworks. Inspired by the success of the 1994 Festival, which was sponsored by Sainsbury's, Folkworks has this year arranged informal concerts throughout Hexham, and is putting on two ceilidhs and a gala concert which together feature more than 15 local and national school, or youth, groups. "They're a great organisation", says the father of one of the participants. "They do so much for the kids".

Playing alongside the Liverpool Klezmer Group in the concert are Northumbrian piper Andrew May and the Riding Mill Fiddlers, a local teenage quartet. Afterwards, members of the Fiddlers are explicit about their enjoyment of folk music. "I like to be able to improvise", says Emma Reid. "Playing by ear helps my classical tuning", adds Tom Westgate.

For David Oliver, education officer at Folkworks, "It's often the kids who play both folk and classical who get on best with us. And we're not talking about anything trivial here. Pupils become involved in some very important learning processes when they tackle folk music performance."

The agency publishes two resource packs which facilitate such performance in the classroom. And their extensive educational programme has included projects on sea shanties in Whitehaven, and ballads in Sunderland schools.

So traditional music is undergoing a national revival and, at the same time, related curriculum projects and resources are being made available by enterprising agencies. Which is all to the good since, as Jennie Rosby of the Riding Mill Fiddlers says, "Folk music is really fun to play".

English Folk Dance and Song Society 0171 485 2206, Folk South-West 01935 822911, National Foundation for Arts Education 01993 868130, Trads 01622 858460, Taps 01344 302008, Folkworks 0191 222 17l7.

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