AS Easter and the National Folk Festival draw near, that perennial debate swings into action: just how closely is our idea of folk music tied to Celtic traditions?
With more than 200 international and national artists across 18 venues, artistic director Pam Merrigan has put together a cross-cultural feast of real-life art by everyone from Finnish tango king Pekka Mikkola to the Djaadjawan Dancers from the far south coast of NSW.
And yet it’s a fair bet that the first thing anyone hitting Exhibition Park will hear will probably be Irish or Scottish fiddling.
I’m talking by phone to New York with Ailie Robertson, harpist for one of the top Celtic acts in the world, The Outside Track, which is one of the international headline acts at the festival.
Ailie started piano when she was eight and the clarsach or harp when she was 11.
“Harp normally has a beautiful, heavenly connotation, but our band is completely different – it’s almost like rock at times,” she says.
“Our music is very lively, very energising, not the old Irish drinking songs or the classics, we are interested in finding much rarer modern expressions.”
To that end, she is completing a Ph.D. at Trinity in London on the modalities of the harp, fitting it in with a gruelling tour of the US, Canada, Germany, Denmark, the UK, South Korea and Australia, dashing back to her home base in Edinburgh whenever she can.
South Korea? Surely there the group won’t be inundated with people who claim Irish heritage, the way she found during an earlier visit to Melbourne and Tasmania?
She expects not. But she doesn’t mind the fact that Scots and Irish heritage is so far reaching. “It’s always interesting to hear the stories,” she says.
The Outside Track is playing at the National Folk Festival, Exhibition Park, April 3,4 and 6; full program at folkfestival.org.au