Jazz, Old Norse and ‘troll tunes’: the strange and breathtaking music of Shetland | Music
FFive hundred and fifty years ago, the following month, the King of Norway lost a deposit he had deposited to settle a debt: more than a hundred wild and treeless islands in the subarctic North Sea. The Scottish king, James III, had wanted Rhenish florins, but he had to settle for Shetland instead.
The archipelago eventually became part of the United Kingdom and has since developed a diverse and distinctive musical culture. This weekend, at the annual Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Shetland 550 concerts will celebrate it, bringing together experimental composers, jazz performers, poets and players of traditional tunes. The series is co-hosted by award-winning violinist Chris Stout, who was born in the three-mile-long Fair Isle (population: 68) before moving to the mainland at age eight (population: 18,765). “Although even there you are still only five kilometers from the sea,” he says.
Scottish influence on Shetland “was a very slow thing to happen”, he says; the English language did not have an impact until the end of the 18th century. “And when I say English, a very, very Scottish language would have been used at the time.” Coming from such a place often gives “an amazing feeling. It’s so small; you know your story so well because for so much of it no one moved or got out. Its bare, craggy landscape is also very beautiful, with “mirrie dancers” (aurora borealis) across winter and summer skies that never darken. “But it’s not for the faint-hearted,” he warns. “There is nowhere to run and there is nowhere to hide. If you try, you’ll probably fall off a cliff.
The intensity of being a Shetlander is a factor, he believes, in his passionate music. This includes the Shetland fiddle repertoire of 340 tunes, strong with shimmering resonance and layers of tones, like Norwegian fiddle music, but with danceable rhythms from Scottish pipe tunes. “It’s a hell of a cacophony, but there’s a space for you to lean into it and feel your own emotion. It says a lot about who we are. »
The popularity of fiddle music also shows how the islands are absorbing and loving influences from overseas. The fiddle was not indigenous, but introduced to the islanders in the 18th century by Hanseatic maritime traders from northern Germany who played tunes to pass dull hours on the waves. Over the centuries, Shetland has been a hub of international trade for whaling, fishing and more recently oil, so ideas from other cultures have always travelled. These days, the National Trust, renewable energy, satellite launch research (on Unst), tourism and working from home online bring jobs and curious foreigners.
Born out of this mix, music “has been a part of everyday Shetlander life forever,” says Inge Thomson, who played accordion tunes every day growing up in Fair Isle with her lighthouse keeper father. A seasoned collaborator of Karine Polwart and the folk collective Modern Fairies, she loves the “trowie tunes” – tunes of trolls – from the small island of Fetlar, comparing their short and repetitive passages to the music of Scandinavia.
At Shetland 550 she will premiere her piece Myrkabod Mynta, a 2019 commissioned work by KLF’s Bill Drummond as part of a series of compositions in Britain’s dead languages. It is written in Norn, the language spoken in Shetland before Scots and later English settled, which is derived from Old Norse and still peppers the Shetland dialect – the title translates to The Hill Mist Endeavors to Form Shape.
Using ancient language with music to try to describe the land has been fascinating, Thomson says. She regularly experiments with electronics to try to reproduce the sounds of Shetland. “Having grown up in Fair Isle, I love the sound of static, the whirl of windmills, the high-end shimmering sound of pebbles, the sub-bass of rough seas. Living in these islands, you can’t not not hearing the elements. They become musical too.
Other unique musicians have thrived in Shetland. They understand the late “Peerie” (Little) Willie Johnson, a guitarist from the Yell who developed his own style of folk and jazz fusion, influenced by western swing and gypsy tunes he first heard on the radio and then learned from himself. Today, jazz saxophonist Norman Willmore improvises around Shetland tunes in cross-genre collaborations – even trying to bend and shape his breaths to echo different techniques on string instruments.
He was born on a kitchen floor in Shetland and spent his childhood disliking Scottish folk tunes “at all”, leaving home at 18 to study jazz. Hundreds of miles away in Wales, he realized the uniqueness of his home culture; he engaged in “massive jams” after school “with people of all generations, which I now know was unusual”. The biggest lesson he learned in early adulthood is that “music brings so much community to ordinary people” – something that is also reinforced by people leaving the islands to gather ideas, adds Stout. , before their return.
There are other bands to talk about: rockabilly band Isaac Webb Trio signed to Wild Records in Los Angeles; four-piece girl group Herkja recently reimagined Wicked Game as a spooky piece of subtle indie; and beloved party band The Revelers cut folk with the clamor of metal and the rough edges of punk.
Stout credits their dramatic and shared birthplace with something that has helped them along. “If you know where you’re from, you can have a [musical] idea, to watch the world safely, and that’s fantastic. That’s what Shetland has given so many of us: a solid platform to jump from.
The Celtic Connections festival starts on January 20 in Glasgow. Shetland-focused gigs are Norn Voices, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 22 January; and A Peerie Foy, Old Fruitmarket, 23 January. Both are being filmed for the festival’s digital program, available January 26.