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Canberra Today 8°/13° | Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Hairy Man’s ‘convict punk’ to fire up folk festival

Folk festival attraction Hairy Man (aka Dale Fullard)… the singer-songwriter lives in the Tasmanian wilderness and hasn’t been to a city in five years. Photo: Rob Willis

The triumvirate of artistic directors for the 2024 National Folk Festival is obviously composed of three people – but they speak with one voice.

All of them graduates of the ANU School of Music, they are composer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Sollis, bass player Holly Downes and fiddler-composer Chris Stone.

All have been part of the Griffyn Ensemble, which Sollis founded. Downes and Stone founded the folk act The String Contingent. Stone is the artistic director of the music camp Stringmania. Downes was programmer of the Majors Creek Festival. And Sollis was, for several years, artistic director of education for Music Viva Australia.

Collectively, their vision for the Folk Festival is one “where individuals become part of something bigger than themselves”.

They also see the festival as a tree – “our roots are firmly set in our traditions, cultures and histories, we celebrate the strength of the trunk and the present and foster new growth for the future through diversity, creativity, risk-taking and youth”.

Youth is a significant word, for though their student days are long gone, all three live in the world of young people, with Sollis the father of two lively young sons. 

Having hung around the event since they were teenagers, they see the need to reinvigorate a festival that has sometimes been accused of being crusty and old-fashioned.

Together with a super-enthusiastic general manager in Heidi Pritchard, they’ve engaged with the ANU School of Music to provide First Nations performances, enhanced by local singer Alinta Barlow, Kamilaroi and Tongan singer Radical Son, and WA artists Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse.

When I catch up with Sollis, I find that to him the festival is going swimmingly, and he has no time to reflect on past mistakes.

They’re definitely thinking left of field, away from the star line-up approach, so what has him really excited is the imminent arrival of a singer-songwriter simply known as Hairy Man who lives in the wilderness of Tasmania off-grid, and hasn’t been to a city in five years. 

Somehow, with the help of folk historian Rob Willis, Sollis has got him to appear at the National Folk Festival.

Hairy Man’s real name is Dale Fullard. Though born in Hobart, he spent some of his youth living on Bruny Island, developing a sense of comfort with the bush and his father, a fossicker who also collected Huon Pine, taught him bush skills and snaring.

Trained as an electrician, he worked with Environmental Air for a time before moving on to a remote property 22 years ago, where his instruments, artwork, books and much of the bush were destroyed in the 2019 Tasmanian bushfires.

With music and poetry in his family, he likes putting his poems into song form to comment on corruption and the power of money. Songs include Digging Deep for Coal, 8 x 4 Cell (a song about Port Arthur) and songs about shipwrecks and whaling – all are based on real characters and events.

“He has an incredible voice, he sings convict-punk songs,” Sollis says. “We’re so thrilled that the folk festival can bring these voices to be heard.

“Ours is a community with diverse views and perspectives and that’s why we decided to do it as a trio, engaging with groups from the community who’d sometimes never been involved in the National Folk Festival.”

Examples leap to mind, such as the project of Alfira O’Sullivan, director of Suara Indonesia Dance, with the help of two dancers from Aceh, is teaching local Canberra dancers traditional Acehnese body-percussion style moves. 

They’ve even got in a Melbourne community orchestra for Balinese music called Gamelan DanAnda, a pun on the Indonesian for “and you” and “Downunder”. 

Another initiative is the “kids-run céilí” spearheaded by Melbourne group Ceoltóirí Naarm, who provide a space for children and teens to learn and play Irish music, bringing new players into the folk game.

Sollis welcomes Harry Manx with his Indian-inspired take on the blues, but equally English folk singer-songwriter and guitarist Grace Petrie from Leicester, and bouzouki player Con Kalamaras from Brunswick, who’s behind a Rembetika (Greek blues) night at the festival. 

There is nothing purist about their approach and a successful result would be if audiences could interact with the players, hear them, talk to them, sometimes maybe even play with them.

As for directing as a trio, he says: “We’ve worked together for many years, especially with the Griffyn Ensemble. 

“What’s really special is that all three of us have an approach to artistic leadership so that it’s not just a single person with a grand vision, it’s something coming from the collective dreaming of the community and from talking to wonderful artists – it’s a very privileged position we are in.”

The National Folk Festival, EPIC, March 28-April 1.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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