I was invited to perform at Fanø Free Folk Festival (Fanø FFF) and so I thought I’d keep a short diary from the weekend. I was quite busy focusing on my own performance and artist talk, but I hope it gives anyone thinking of going an idea of the magical and inspiring nature of the festival.
I’d never been the Fanø FFF before, but had heard great things about it from the likes of Eric Chenaux and Daniel Merrill (Dead Rat Orchestra) who raved about it as being this really small, special festival that you have to get to by bus and ferry (the isle of Fanø is off the Danish west coast).
It was my second ever trip to Denmark, the first was only a month earlier performing at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse with my trio Oscilanz. I am now a big fan of Denmark and can’t wait to go back.
So after leaving home at 2.30am (where I saw my first badger in the back lanes of Suffolk) we fast forward several hours of travel and I arrived at the tiny Billund Airport with instructions to get a bus to a ferry. This all went to plan and I made friends with someone on the bus who was visiting friends on Fanø and who were looking after one of the two small art galleries in Sønderho, where it turned out I was giving a workshop the next day. It was one of those perfect chain of events.
When I arrived at the festival I went to the village hall, which was also the bar, ticket office, kitchen and it turns out the main venue. A village hall with a double bass hanging on the wall has got to be a good indicator of the musical nature of a place.
The music was programmed one after another so there were no clashes. It was relaxed but there was always something about to start. I was performing in the church on the Friday night so everyone moved over from the village hall (a 5 minute walk) to the beautiful church.
Dinner is also programmed into the schedule, everyone stops to eat a very wholesome communal meal together cooked by the festival team. There are other places to eat, a couple of restaurants, a bakery, an ice-cream parlour and a village shop, but it’s a festival in a village, so when things are closed that’s it.
Okay, so, onto the music. The line-up features experimental and traditional folk music from several different countries. One of the first things I heard then saw was a brass swing band lead by a sousaphone player wondering down the lane.
This playlist gives you a real taste of the variety of music at this year’s festival:
On Friday I met the American primitivist guitarist Marisa Anderson, (from Portland, Oregon), Marisa was the festival’s artist in residence so had been on the Island for a whole week before the festival started. Here’s a bit about Marisa…
With a deep reverence for American folk, blues and country music, Anderson’s work features improvisations and compositions inspired by Delta blues, West African guitar, Appalachian mountain music, vintage country and western, gospel, noise, rhythm, cycles, mortality, and praise. In performance, Anderson channels the history of the guitar and stretches the boundaries of tradition.
Marisa playing a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR (2014)
We were both staying with Sønderho’s vicar and her family. The vicarage is an enormous long low yellow house with a thatched roof within a stones throw of the church. One of the daughters Daniella (age 12) plays the fiddle with Fanø Fiddlers – Young Edition and on the Saturday morning at breakfast she taught me the first of a set of three traditional Sønderho bridal tunes which represent the three stages of marriage, ‘Sweet, Sour & Bitter’.
The vicar gave me the key to the church so I could go in and warm up, and even without the reminders of Island life hanging from the ceiling in the form of large wooden ships, the inside of the church feels like you are in the lower decks of a boat. Painted wooden pews, walls and ceiling in blues and greys, panelling and brass lanterns swinging overhead.
I enjoyed performing in the church, unamplified to around 150 people, pretty much the whole of the festival audience plus some holidaymakers and locals. After my gig I headed back to the village hall and saw Marisa Anderson play, the hall was crammed full and her set was phenomenal, with the right measure of raw and controlled. (Marisa amongst other things was Beth Ditto’s guitarist for her solo shows).
On Saturday I gave an artist talk/workshop, a few of the other performers and audience came along as well as the Island’s master fiddle player Peter Uhrbrand. I talked about the ‘overbowing’ technique that I use and some of the medieval and renaissance sources I use to inspire some of my music, and about the folk traditions of East Anglia where I’m based. (There’s a surprising similarity between the Sønderho tunes and the traditional East Anglian tunes. When I got home I looked on a map and saw the shipping route between Norfolk/Suffolk and Fanø, so perhaps not that strange a link, when considering that the Danes settled in Norfolk around 1011).
So after the talk the audience slowly disappeared and I spent a happy hour or so learning and swapping tunes and comparing bows, fiddles with Peter, (I use a baroque bow by Norwich based Luthier David Van Edwards). Peter regularly tours the world playing in various Danish folk and jazz bands as well as with UK artists including Chris Wood and Karen Tweed.
Peter studied under the well-known Danish fiddler and composer, Thomas Tomsen from Holstebro. In 1976 he moved to Sønderho on the Danish island of Fanø and his subsequent meeting with the legendary fiddler brothers, Frits and Søren L. Brinch, proved to be a turning point in his life. After Frits’ death, it was natural that Peter should continue the unique style and sound that he had inherited from the Brinch brothers and which is very much a living tradition today.
In the talk I also shared the Norfolk tune ‘Shave the Donkey’ (why was this the first thing that came into my head!) and the excellent 3/2 hornpipe ‘Northern Frisk’.
There were Swedish lullabys, some of the best free improv I’ve ever heard, American folk tunes, Drone and electronics, English traditional songs, Experimental Medieval music, fiddles, accordions, and some very ‘Free Folk’ all sharing space in the small artisan village of Sønderho (the population is about 300).
On the Saturday night I arrived back at the vicarage around midnight to find a very large toad sitting on the doorstep, he was either waiting for a kiss or to be let in through the painted stable door! In some ways it couldn’t get more folk than this, it’s folklore in the making! I immediately felt that I should write a song or a tune about the toad who was returning home, he was obviously a lost sailor who was last seen in 1715 and his curse had finally been lifted and he had made his way home to the vicarage where he once lived on the 6000 year old sandbank that is Fanø. It’s entirely possible that the 7% locally brewed festival beer had something to do with this thought, though the toad was real and quite persistent and there was definitely something more to his appearance.
I heard that there are only about 100 tickets available for the festival, so it really is very small. But because of this you get to know a lot of people and every gig is really well attended. There is also the benefit of little or no wi-fi except if you walk to the beach and hold your phone towards the mainland. It reminded me very much of last year’s Sin-Eater Festival which took place in and around a lovely pub in rural Shropshire and featured the likes of Richard Dawson, Alasdair Roberts, Cath & Phil Tylers Dark Northumbrian band and it’s where I did one of my first totally solo gigs.
This is not a conventional festival, and it really is all about the music. There are no frills, stalls, nothing extra, but it is family friendly, intimate and inspiring. And based in one of the most picturesque villages I’ve ever seen, pretty much every building is thatched, the lanes are small and the people are friendly. And everyone speaks English, which I am in awe of.
I highly recommend you get your Stanstead to Billund flights booked (it’s only an hour flight), and head over to Fanø for the next festival which has just been announced as 22nd – 24th July 2016. Tickets available from December 2015.
By: Laura Cannell
Thomas recently reviewed Laura Cannell’s latest album Beneath Swooping Talons. Read it here.
Laura performing at Tusk 2014
Blood on a Feather feat Helena Espvall (DK/US)
Cam Deas (UK)
Die Geister Beschwören (US)
Dora Bleu (CA)
Exquisite Russian Brides (DK)
F.E. Denning (DK)
Helena Espvall (US)
Ill Wicker (SE)
Kemper Norton (UK)
Kristina Jung (DE)
Lars Bech Pilgaard (DK)
Laura Cannell (UK)
Lil & Soma (DK)
Lyset i forsen (SE)
Mariam The Believer *solo* (SE)
Marisa Anderson (US)
Periklis Tsoukalas (GR)
Trappist Afterland (AU)