Bringing it all back Home
Kate Luxmoore is a West Country girl – but her travels and musical exploration have taken her far and wide – through classical, jazz, and world music before bringing her back to her roots. The Somerset Songbook Revisted gives voice to her unique take on English folk tunes. Music with a sense of Englishness at its heart – but with a shared world vision.
When Kate and I meet on a beautiful late summers day in Frome she tells me about Cecil Sharp, the man behind the original ‘Somerset Songbook’ that she and her band will revisit in her up-coming Cheese and Grain concert in mid October. ‘We used to be known as ‘the singing English’, because everyone sang as they worked – weaving cloth or spinning wool, or working the land,’ says Kate. All that wonderful sound was drowned out by the noise of factories and the arrival of mechanisation in the early 1800’s. English musical heritage was largely ignored by the Victorians in their rush to embrace German ‘classical’ music in the same way that ‘dialect’ in spoken English was also stamped out in schools of that era – usually with a cane.
Cecil Sharp, born in 1859, was remarkable for his fascination with the music of English working people, the kind of songs that were never written down, but which survived mostly in the back rooms of pubs. In the early 1900’s he arrived in Somerset on the invitation of the Rev John Marson who had been seeking out this music and requested Sharp to notate it – preserving it for all time – and in doing so giving rise to the ‘English’ sound that would later emerge in the compositions of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Brittain. A sound steeped in the English folk tradition of pre-industrial Britain.
“This is a project I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time,” Kate explains, ‘some of the music I’ve written myself, other tunes were chosen because their melodies are so strong. I sing on two or three of these songs and they are the ones where the words are the most important thing.’ They are all songs of human experience – with a West Country twist. She continues, ‘I gave my love a cherry’ is Anglo Saxon – they loved riddles – but it’s also a love song which we have re-imagined, with Yoruba grooves, tabla, accordion and bass guitar.” Lekan Babalola, the man behind the grooves, learned his musical craft at the knee of the late, great Fela Kuti and understands the power of musical tradition. Much of their work together celebrates the fusion of English and Nigerian musical heritage, a musical meeting of minds across continents. Another of the songs celebrates the ancient tradition of wassailing. Kate tells me, ‘wassailing is very ‘Somerset’, and part of the ancient culture of this land.
The way you lived your life – relying on the land to provide. That took a lot of faith. I feel that we don’t particularly connect with what’s under our feet anymore. The wassail connected people much more to the spirit world around them. There’s a sheep-shearing song too – which is also a love song.”
Kate’s choice of instrumentation and musicians tells much about her world view – a need to re-connect with her musical heritage – but to look outward, to other musical traditions to achieve that. Kate and Lekan will be joined by long term collaborators, Pritam Singh on tabla, Colin Peters on bass guitar and by Mirek Salmon on accordion. Kate herself will play clarinet and bass clarinet and Lekan an array of percussion. ‘We combine our musical heritage to breathe new life into old songs. Folk music has a sense of connection to people’s everyday lives that is universal – themes of love, loss and longing. The way we play together is about exchange – the exchange of musical ideas.” Kate describes how Pritam completely turned a piece around at one rehearsal, ‘he completely turned the song on its head. Keeping it fresh. It’s such a creative way of working – allowing ideas to bubble up and catching them before they disappear. Its all about intuition and creativity.’
Kate has been playing with these musicians for over fifteen years now. Her musical family include Colin Peters –‘an extremely versatile and funky bass player of Jamaican heritage.’ Pritam Singh on tabla she describes as ‘very academic, very firmly rooted in his musical tradition, a philosopher.’ Lekan is steeped in the Yoruba tradition and a Grammy award winning percussionist. They are joined by a new acquaintance, Mirek Salmon, an accordionist who brings an Eastern European sensibility to the mix. Kate herself had a Dorset childhood and took the straight-down-the-line classical route for her early musical education – Royal Northern College of Music, followed by a post graduate diploma at the Guildhall in London. It was there she began exploring other traditions – klezmer, jazz – especially the sound of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and French clarinet playing of the thirties and fifties, plus an interest in folk clarinet as played in Indian and Greek traditional music. She still teaches an annual course at the Royal College of Music alongside her performing career.
‘For me it’s all about finding the sound that you want. There’s nothing purist about it.” When you hear Kate play you quickly realise that it comes from the heart. It’s an instinctive, emotional response to music making, grounded in years of practice and performance, which gives her the fluidity and suppleness of her sound – and the depth of feeling. She continues, ‘I love jazz and klezmer – but I didn’t grow up surrounded by it. Perhaps I needed to explore something that felt a bit more personal… For me it’s been a long musical journey – feeling my way, finding my place. In many ways ‘Somerset Stories’ has brought me back to the place I began. It’s about real life, but in a positive, light-hearted way. A fun take on that. There’s nothing po-faced about our sound. It’s a reaction, maybe, to that beautiful, controlled, perfect classical sound that I hear in so many classical students. I think that’s a shame. And it’s brilliant to see conductors like Gustavo Dudamel working with the young musicians of his Simon Bolivar Orchestra and ‘il sistema’ – less fear, more joy!’
Kate made her leap from classical to folk and jazz via gigs with Fairport Convention and Anna Ryder amongst others. Meeting Lekan too turned her musical life around and taught her a freedom of musical expression that is often missing from conventional musical education. This summer Kate performed with Lekan’s Afrobeat Messengers supporting the legendary Malian musician, Salif Keita of Les Ambassadeurs’ at the Barbican. ‘What an honour and a privilege it was to be part of an evening like that. Sometimes as a musician everything comes together in a most incredible way.’’
And with that Kate is off to practice and hone her Somerset Songbook Revisited – bringing Cecil Sharp’s folk tunes back to life here in Somerset – looking back to a long and sometimes neglected English musical heritage, and re-shaping and re-imagining it for a 21st century audience – where the world is a much smaller place and all music is ultimately world music and we are all the richer for it.