Folk Carol Festival, December 2006
By David Burbidge
The story of how the language of music brings east and west together
The Folk Carols festival at the beginning of December had all the ingredients of another very fine Christmas story - wise men coming from the east; the protagonists staying in a lonely barn, and a lady on the verge of giving birth.
Of course there were some differences: not just three wise men, but 33 warm hearted Slovene singers from Zrece's Jurij Vodovnik choir as the stars of the show. And the lonely stable had been converted by Nigel Close into the luxurious Howgills bunk barn where they stayed with en suite bathrooms and underfloor heating.
And the pregnant lady? Maybe Lucia Marquart wasn't giving birth to our Saviour, but she did produce instead the savouring of huge delicious meals for all the singers - on some occasions over 80 people - despite being eight and half months pregnant.
We lost our opportunity for funding, but decided to go ahead anyway. By travelling down to Stansted airport with two other singers we were able to not just give our Slovene friends a warm singers' welcome but then drive them back to Sedbergh in some self drive mini buses (saving over £1000 on coach fares!).
En route we visited a community choir in Cambridge from the same network as Howgills Harmony in Sedbergh and they treated us to a wonderful three course meal and welcome to England - and some splendid singing together. Nigel Close's kind discounts on the fees for the Bunk Barn were also very gratefully received.
Singing at the Seaside
I will not forget Mrs. Rowena and her choir at Cambridge, where I saw a great appurtenance to music
The choir had asked to see the seaside, so we arranged a concert in St Peter's church in Heysham at high tide - a storm crashing huge waves over the sea wall into the graveyard while the choir sang their eclectic mix of songs to a packed church.
In her home at Cliff cottage, Mrs Carol Clayton (who sings with Howgills Harmony) plied the singers with mince pies and mulled wine while they sang round the open fire beside her christmas tree - and then, after the concert, treated them all to a three course Christmas dinner in the church hall - with crackers and party hats and more singing.
The English people really surprised us very much - we saw they are simple, kind and prepared to care for others voluntarily, and even spent all days to serve other ‘unknown’ people. In our country this was 40 years ago, but nowadays there is no such spontaneity anymore.
Then it was on to the caves at Rydal where they met up with 50 other singers from community choirs which I lead in Kendal and Sedbergh. After singing by candlelight and feasting on food brought by the singers, everyone walked down the hill with their lanterns like a river of light...and back to the Badger Bar where the night continued with some very fine individual and group singing from the assembled throng - with the singers buying our Slovene friends refreshments and mulled wine to warm them up as we sang round the roaring logs fires.
Concert in Dent
Friday saw the end of the storm and the choir had a rest day practicing for the concert in the evening, walking through Sedbergh and visiting the shops in unexpected sunshine.
After supper in the homes of various people around Sedbergh, the Slovenians met the choir which some of them had heard at the previous year's folk carol festival - The Gladly Solemn Sound West Gallery choir, who will themselves be on tour in Slovenia in 2007.
The concert was in Dent - a perfect location for what are often called Village carols, with pubs where more informal singing is welcomed after the concert, and very convenient for the youth hostel where many other singers were staying who came from other choirs around England including The Sheffield Socialist choir, the Leeds People's choir, the Silsden Singers - and most of the singers from the Harmonise choir in Edinburgh who had taken over the Sportsman's Inn in Cowgill for the weekend.
As in heaven; the angel's singing, dancing, people as angels and wonderful land who wouldn't go back?
The Dent Meditation Centre venue was packed - although everyone who came got a seat thanks to kind loans of chairs from the Dent Methodist chapel and Howgill Village hall. The choirs warmed up in the back room, meeting each other for the first time, and although of course it was all in the interest of international harmony, it was hard not to detect a mild strain of competition, similar to what famous gunfighters might have felt meeting across a saloon bar room. It is sometimes said there are two ways of singing West Gallery music - loud, and very loud. But our Slovene friends fairly blasted us through the back wall with one of their anthems. And that was just the warm up.
The singing was terrific - carols, love songs, work songs, songs of protest, the two choirs displaying qualities in their singing which made them appear like twins separated at birth. The last chord was sung and then just as we were about to break for the interval in walked the Slovenian Ambassador, His Excellency Iztok Mirošic.
It may be known to those who have visited the centre that one of it's charming idiosyncracies is the imperative by the trustees that all visitors should remove their shoes before entering. Underfloor heating makes this a not unpleasant experience - it's a very common sign of respect in many parts of the world, and practical in our wet and muddy shire, but it was still not easy to inform His Excellency of the situation.
Those who met the Ambassador on His last visit when he met with the Ljudski pevci iz Stranice and local folk musicians at the Middleton Head pub will remember what a great sport he is and His appealing sense of humour and charisma. On the shoe issue he eased our embarrassment with a joke: “I met with Her Majesty the Queen twice this week and neither time did I have to take my shoes off - but here in Dent I do it for you.” He then went on to congratulate us on our many exchanges and said that our's was the most successful of all the town twinning projects. He also spent some time addressing the Slovene choir in Slovene and sat with dignitaries from the Town Twining Committee.
The second half was even better, though such is their dedication to perfection that the Slovene singers cut the number of songs in their programme as they believed some of their singing hadn't reached the immaculate standard they were seeking. A good example of the maxim, “less is more.” We included a Thomas Hardy story with instrumental accommpaniment from Penny Legat and Paul Guppy and a translation into Slovene kindly provided by Darja Mihelj who had visited us in the summer for work experience. After presentations to His Excellency and those who had done most of the work, the singing continued in the pub.
I enjoyed the English and Slovene dances as well as the singing workshops very much and I would like to repeat this again.
Saturday saw all the singers in good form. We warmed up our voices together, sang some simple songs including the cheery Scottish wassail, “May your cup always be full,” (with a translation into Slovene from Darja's tutor Mojca Belak) and then gathered round the piano (kindly loaned by Garth Steadman) while Mojca Koban-Dobnik taught us some Slovene carols which we sang alongside the choir - our voices ringing out in the Sedbergh People's Hall making the cobwebs in the rafters shiver like ghosts.
In the afternoon, alongside about 50 English singers, the Slovenes learned English carols with Paul Guppy, some of them showing remarkable courage: although about half of them spoke at least some English, the rest spoke as little English as the English singers spoke Slovene, so struggling with the complexities of 19th century vernacular rural carols was a real achievment. Afternoon tea with Christmas cake and English and Slovene tea came very welcome!
Although the festival continued late into Saturday night with singing at the Sportmans Inn and more workshops at the Youth Hostel on Sunday, the last event for our Slovene friends was the Carols Ceilidh in the Dent Memorial Hall. With about 80 singers and dancers to feed, Lucia Marquart and Pat Walker did us marvellously with not just vegetarian food but also wheat free and meat dishes for those who needed them (creating many new fans of Garth Steadman's award winning meat) - all followed with mountains of Christmas pudding, mulled wine and as much wine as we could drink.
When I'm trying to collect all my impressions from England, I feel a pleasant feeling which is a combination of wonderful nature and original settlement. And of course the greatness and kindness of people living there is something unforgettable. It is so good to meet those people who are occupied with things which have simple and deep value in our lives.
Roger and Judith Bush and Penny Legat made a very fine band with accordian and fiddle and recorder, and together we led our Slovene friends through two familar British dances: I Want to Be Near You and The Dashing White Seargent. I had requested some written music from the Slovenes which our band had learned for the evening, giving a very lively feel as Mojca taught us 6 traditional Slovene dances, which were so energetic it was easy to see why there were no overweight singers in the Zrece choir!
Traditionally, ceilidhs had as much singing as dancing, sometimes even more - and what I enjoyed most about our own home grown entertainment was how much we found a common repertoire amongst all the singers from different parts of the world.
Led by local singers the Cautley Carollers we sang in English (including the fine old carols Dentdale, Pentonville and the Coventry Carol,) Slovene (including songs which over the past year have become well known with local community singers: Glej zvezdice Bozje, Bozje nam je Rojen Sin and Kolko Kaplic,) Russian (Tebe Poem,) Croation (Plovi Barko, a well known love song in Slovenia and amongst English community choirs) and even Swaheli (Nkosi Sikelel 'iAfrica, and Siya Hamba with some wonderful tenor solos from Marjan Hren, our friend from Zrece.) We finished the night with farewells and Auld Lang Syne - as we knew we wouldn't see each other till next year.
This was our eighth performance project and cultural exchange with English and Slovene singers, but I still feel a special tingle when I remember our singing together and the warm hearts of our Slovenian friends (Vreme je bilo slabo, toda srca ljudi iz Zrec je bila topla). It's not just the quality of singing which is so uplifting - it's the spirit of international harmony, the readiness to share our different cultures and find creative ways of making them accessible, and in our common hospitality: the manifestation of simple human values as old as the fells.
Dear friends from England!
First of all I would like to thank you for each minute which I spent with your company. Here are my impressions from your beautiful country:
Before we left our country I had some doubts whether to go on this trip or not. Today, my view of your world and people is completely different and everyone who wants to hear information about our trip from me I give him/her only the truth i.e. positive information about our feelings and experiences.
As I said, before I came I had a completely different view about English people and the country: your land is very different from ours, weather conditions are not the same, and I had an impression of a mournful land and not so opened people… But today I know that I'm back at home filled with new energy and full of wonderful experiences. Each person whom I was talking to has left a trace inside me, a desire to come back, and a feeling that we are friends forever.
The trip to the cave was for me a big experience. First, when I saw that I was completely inappropriately dressed, I wanted to quit out. I don't know where I got the power to go further. I just know that someone who did not go through this and feel the moment of blissfulness when we were singing together will never be so rich as we are now. It was not easy to rove in darkness, mud and water, but now I'm happy that I went though these obstacles.
You are always welcome in my country and I will do all the best to give you joy and happiness as you gave us, and hoping this will be soon.
This article is © David Burbidge of Lakeland Voice who has very kindly given us permission to reproduce the work.
Check out Davids other articles on the singing exchanges between Sedbergh & Zrece on the Sedbergh Town Twinning Group website.