As an advocate for culture and creativity being a catalyst for change, its been really interesting to evaluate Shrewsbury Folk Festival’s new ‘Room for All’ project in 2017. The festival has been taking place in Shrewsbury for 20 years and always delivers an excellent line up of folk, world music and traditional dance. This summer not only did I have my first experience of the festival, but I also had the opportunity to meet some of the musicians involved in Room for All in the run up, during and just recently following the festival.
Room for All is a programme of activities that includes workshops giving young people an introduction to folk music, dance workshops with diverse artists, performances by culturally diverse artists at the festival, and the most exciting element is a new commission of collaborative music ‘The Passerine’, an ensemble of diverse and refugee artists.
The idea for Room for All came about in response to the political upheaval that occurred following the Brexit referendum, and in the world generally. Refugees continue to escape war and persecution, and it is clear that many people do not want to welcome refugees here in Britain. There are complications, and fear is understandable, but feelings of negativity, division, prejudice and racial hatred on display are disturbing and dangerous. Shrewsbury Folk Festival wanted to bring some decency and optimism to the plight of refugees, albeit in a small way at their annual festival in rural England. Music alone cannot change the world, but can celebrate different cultures and break down barriers through education and outreach programmes.
The Passerine has been brought together by two lead artists Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, an English folk duo from Yorkshire. Following months of research they selected 6 exceptional artists from Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, India, Jamaica and Cypus. I had the opportunity to interview some of the artists and hear their stories of struggle, not just in the countries that they had left behind, but the experiences they had when arriving here; both good and bad. The experience for some of them working on this project has been life changing and cathartic. They have valued working with musicians from different cultures immensely and this is a great step in their career development as creative and performing artists. The hour long performance at the festival was well received and touched the hearts of everyone in the audience. Each song and performer was introduced with a story, and huge screens displayed photographs illustrating the journeys and experiences they chose to share quite poignantly.
Room for All continues in 2018, and promises to deliver another collection of soulful music at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August. Not ordinarily an English folk music fan but always a lover of ‘world music’, this experience has definitely opened up my ears to some new bands, voices, lyrics and melodies that I now love.