Edinburgh Tradfest 2024: The Report

Tradfest 2024 showcases the best of parallel folk traditions, the evolution of genres over time, and the face of the new party-loving trad audience

Feature by Laurie Presswood | 23 May 2024
  • Valtos

Much has been made of the shifting demographic of trad audiences (by me, in this magazine), but after ten days of Edinburgh Tradfest that observation feels pleasingly redundant. The stomper of an opening night from Valtos proves the perfect opportunity to demonstrate this, with the auditorium of The Queen’s Hall packed from the moment the doors open. The crowd is rowdy, but varied. 

The stalls are occupied by serious-looking mothers with sensibly cropped hair, pregnant women, and octogenarians taking tactical snoozes. In the central chamber the air is thick with Lynx Africa (or whatever teenage boys wear nowadays). There are fanatics in crisp white Valtos merch, glamorous young women and men whose eyes say “I have known the interminable depth of a K-hole”. A girl wearing Urban Outfitters cargo trousers twerks along to a lively reel; a physiotherapist from Keighley shuffles his hips. 

One thing everyone has in common is that they are smiling – I don’t think I’ve experienced such a truly happy crowd in my life. They’re everything we want to believe Scottish audiences are: full of love for the acts and for each other, and rowdy without being arseholes. It's 9.42pm – Valtos should have been on the stage two minutes ago, and already someone to my right is drunkenly vaping. 

Valtos have introduced gaelic song to a population it wouldn’t have reached otherwise, and in return they have earned a great deal of respect and loyalty. When their system completely cuts out 20 seconds after running onstage (an occurrence that, with their love for stunts and stagecraft, at first feels like it might be a bit), the crowd obediently stands in the silence for ten minutes while they fix it.

Valtos capture the live experience amazingly – you get so much more out of witnessing the club-adjacent atmosphere than you would from just listening to their recordings. This is key to Scottish trad music, and other genres with movement at their core, and is a thread that runs through all of Tradfest’s programming.

Photograph of Malin Lewis and band on stage at Tradfest. They sit on chairs holding their instruments.

Malin Lewis is another perfect example of a performer whose music is transfigured in a live setting. Their sellout performance in Traverse 2 is a masterclass; tight and polished yet textured and interesting, with softly delivered chat between sets that is funny and engaging, weaving their own story into the mix.

They’re not just an incredible performer but such a scholar of the genre – performing and composing across multiple instruments, and knowledgeable about tunes from Scotland to Finland to Spain. This too is typical of Tradfest – showcasing Scottish folk alongside parallel folk traditions, to demonstrate how all of those other traditions have fed into our own and made it richer.

The film strand of Tradfest is run in conjunction with Folk Film Gathering – another opportunity to demonstrate similarities between folk traditions. This year films hail from such places as Gaza, South Africa, Ukraine and Edinburgh. They explore the aftermath of imperialism and colonialism, and the squashing of unique cultures – whether by design, or through the inevitable pull of big cities and monolingualism.

Itu Ninu (2023) – roughly translated to ‘where the cornfields are' – is a sci-fi film directed by Edinburgh-based Itandehui Jansen. It explores the migrant experience and state surveillance, but above all is a moving love letter to Mixtec, one of many endangered languages indigenous to Mexico. The language is predicted to be extinct within the next hundred years – so to create characters that are still speaking it in 2084 is a rebellious act.

Both Itu Ninu and Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Earth use nature as a love language. In Dovzhenko’s film the rural people of his native Ukraine are elevated to a sort of divine stature alongside the plants and animals they tend. A newly commissioned score by Scottish musicians Luke Sutherland and Semay Lu is beautiful and stylistically wide-ranging and, when performed live in the main screen at the Cameo, a feat of endurance. It’s thrilling that both organisations are keen to programme complex works and engage the audience in discussion about them – Earth was after all originally intended to be Soviet propaganda.

Photo of two members of Birdvox performing. A woman plays an accordion and sings, while a second woman plays guitar in the background.

Perhaps the standout event of the whole festival is the debut gig for Birdvox – an evolution of the Northern Flyway project made up of Sarah Hayes, Charlotte Printer, Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thomson. Boxed in behind their many instruments, clad in Irregular Sleep Pattern pyjamas, their set is exciting and energetic. Spots of trad appear, sometimes with accordion and flute melodies atop Gary Numan-esque basslines; so too do a track co-written with Sacred Paws’ Ray Aggs and a cover of The Big Sky by Kate Bush. You feel like you’re listening to something just at the intersection of boundary-pushing art and extremely listenable, melody-based pop.

There's a real sense of community that exists around Tradfest – co-organisers Douglas Robertson and Jane-Ann Purdy camp out in the bar of the Traverse for its 10-day duration, and Robertson is up at the beginning and end of every gig to welcome and thank the crowd. It’s no small thing to make events like this feel welcoming and familiar, but their dedication really pays off. One attendee rocks up 75 minutes into a 90 minute fiddle workshop and still receives a warm welcome; Robertson pulls them up a chair and tells them to get stuck in, without so much as a smirk.

At the end of every gig Douglas gets up to promote the cause of Medical Aid for Palestinians and ask attendees to donate on the way out. Tradfest is now over for the year, but if you’d like to support the essential work that MAP do whilst exploring more of the gigs Soundhouse programmes and helps to promote, you can buy a ticket to see Shooglenifty at the Traverse Theatre on Friday 24 May, or the Soundhouse Choir at St Giles Cathedral on Saturday 29 June

Tradfest will return in 2025 from 2-12 May / edinburghtradfest.com

Malin Lewis photo by Christina Webber; Birdvox photo by Douglas Robertson