Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Confessions of a Festival Anarchist

It's getting near that time again where I plan my annual road-trip to the Wellington Folk Festival in the backhills of Wainuiomata. As usual it'll either be sunny and hot or a miserable, cold and drizzly sea of mud. It's called WellyFest and the double entendre is not lost on those who've forgotten to bring their gumboots.

I make myself useful by twiddling knobs at the sound desk as part of a highly social tech team that meets up there every year. Mostly I go to connect with my North Island music friends and play some tunes. I wrote in a previous post that I have a chequered history in this regard. As someone armed with an acoustic guitar and 50-plus years of popular song in my noodle I can keep a singing session going from sundown to sun-up if stamina serves. With great ability comes great responsibility. For many years I thought it was my responsibility to turn every gathering of four or more musicians into a raucous, full-throated Beatles singalong. To be fair, there was a considerable number of session-anarchists who supported me in this endeavour. All but the toughest and most resilient of the original musicians would pack up their instruments and slink away into the shadows. Job done.

In the last decade or so I've applied myself to playing the fiddle with murderous intent. It's been my observation that there's no skill that can't be replaced with great confidence. Witness the number of charlatans posing successfully as physicians, teachers, CEO's, airline pilots - only to be found out way down the line they have none of the qualifications they purport to have. So it can be with fiddle playing, I thought. I'll write more about the arcane nature of learning the fiddle in another post, after the psychoanalysis is complete.

Once I found out that small secret gatherings of musicians were hiding away in bunkrooms and kitchens around a given festival site; deliberately cramped in small spaces that made it impossible to wield a guitar; in tight little circles hunched inward to exclude the possibility of a singer penetrating the ring; once I found these gatherings, I would poke my elbow in with my fiddle in my fist and, oblivious to the sudden blanching of the incumbents, would assume the position. The shoe now firmly on the other foot, I did my penance.

These days as I walk around the campsites with a fiddle case, I swear I am looked upon with pity, nostalgia - even contempt - by those that still crave a good Beatles song. "He used to be one of us," I can hear them thinking.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to Anna Bowen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

RIANZ and the Folk Tui

It's nomination time again. The nomination form and conditions of entry are here. An undisclosed number of albums will be submitted by their makers (very few are on a label these days), 12 units, 10 to be distributed among secret judges who put them in preferential order from one - n (where n = the number of albums submitted). The top three (when collated) will become finalists - an accolade in its own right; and the artists they represent will make their way to the Auckland Folk Festival this coming January to perform a 20 minute set and await the announcement of the winner. The prize is called 'The Tui Award for Best Folk Album"

It is great that we have a celebration of our particular genre and its output but there are a number of interesting variables in the process.

Artists invariably nominate their own album, so the term 'nomination' should more rightly be called 'submission'. As such, the artist selects the category that they think best fits their style. It is a testament, I think, to the folk audience that a wide range of musical styles find their way in to this category: singer-songwriters, bluegrass, bush bands, Celtic combos, even rock, pop and light classical acts - probably on the reasoning that these are the people who will give their material the best listen.

In nominating an album the artist must undertake to, in the event of becoming a finalist, travel to the Auckland Folk Festival and perform. This would seem to be an odd filtering factor on the material, immediately excluding all those who cannot make this undertaking for whatever reason. No assistance is given by either RIANZ or the Auckland Folk Festival to the artists. Last year, for example, all three finalists (being 6 or 8 people) were from the South Island. Presumably every nominee had pro-forma travel plans in place until the finalists were announced.

Occasionally one might stumble across someone who admits to having been a judge (it's a different cohort every year) and get some feedback as to what they chose and why, but there is no formal feedback to artists from the judges or RIANZ. Your nominated album essentially goes into a black hole. We take it on good faith that RIANZ has made an appropriate personnel selection - they are not revealed. Judges don't know who the other judges are either and they are asked to keep their opinions to themselves until the job is done. Reasons for confidentiality are obvious and necessary but things we'd like to know after the award might include: how many entries there were, who they were, how they fared and some comments from the judges.

If one was to use the rarefied selection of the Folk Tui finalists over the years as a barometer of folk music in New Zealand, a truly eclectic picture might be gleaned. Occasionally, just occasionally, a truly awful album is chosen; times when, in my opinion and in the interests of the genre, an award was better not made.

All in all, the process is fair and the recognition is something that we can all be proud of. The small categories like folk, jazz and country do not have the sponsoring might of Vodafone behind them and, as Chris Caddick of RIANZ admitted to me when I raised some of these issues, they do this on a shoestring budget. But unless RIANZ gets some feedback from participants and observers, things won't improve on their own. We as a community need to own it and kick it around a bit more.
Mike Moroney

Disclaimer and conflict of interest: I've been a judge, nominee and finalist over the years and none of what I've written here is in any way a personal axe to grind about my own involvement, which has always been interesting and rewarding. My thanks goes to the Auckland Folk Festival people who have always treated the finalists like royalty!

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Prickly Problem of the Session

There's nothing so divisive among folk musicians and singers as "the session". I remember a time when a session, whether it was late at night at a festival or a Sunday arvo in a pub, was an all-in kind of affair with songs and tunes and plenty banter, harmonies and guitars. The more modern trend to separate the "sing-around" from a hard-core tune session has seemed inexplicable to some and a complete necessity to others. In my observation this has developed commensurate with the increased uptake of repertoire-specific instruments like the uilleann (Irish) pipes or the open-backed banjo. Not only is the apartheid of singing in evidence, but also a further refinement into Scottish, Irish, English and American tune sessions is also occurring. Indeed, most listed "open" sessions come complete with their modifiers which might include level of expertise, banned instruments, protocols for joining in, who gets free beer, number of bodhrans permitted, unsuitable tunes and more.

Sometimes, of course, this is all left to chance. In these instances, it is not uncommon for one or two dominant players to either kill a session or build it into a tour-de-force. I know because I have done both in my time.

My travels in Ireland, Scotland and Europe have revealed a different approach to the session in many bars. One or two key musicians (usually singer-guitarists) are paid, either with money or free beer, to "make" a session. They sit at a table, invite a few friends and play songs and tunes to seed the session. There may well be a few of these in New Zealand too, but I've not found them. There's always something faux about these sessions, but the singing is often good and occasionally there is a standout musician. It's also a place where visiting musicians can engage - which may, in turn, lead to an invitation to the secret session of the old hands elsewhere in the village. If not, it's best just to assume there isn't one.

There a list of open session in New Zealand here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kiwifolk on Facebook

There are some things just not worth fighting. In this case it's the popularity of Facebook and its usefulness in broadcasting to a target audience. There is the legacy nz-folk listserv. that has been running for nearly two decades (!) and has a population of around 400 interested kiwi-folkies. About twice a year there's a lively discussion, but mostly it's artists and clubs promoting events and others posting interesting links and resources. A recent survey of the nz-folk listers indicated that this is the way they like it and did not see a social media alternative as a suitable replacement. However, the Kiwifolk page on Facebook has found another, perhaps younger, audience that is receptive and constructive.