Kevin Henderson is a dynamic young fiddler on the world stage, and will be performing with The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc at the Forde Festival of Traditional and World Music in Forde, Norway, July 5-8. He has appeared on television and radio programs including the BBC and National Public Radio in the US.
Henderson is a native of the Shetland Islands, home of rich fiddling traditions. At the age of 14, he co-founded the Shetland ensemble, Fiddlers’ Bid. Henderson joins us in this exclusive interview where he shares the joy and richness of playing fiddle music, collaborating with artistes from other musical traditions, and the challenges of music careers in a time of economic recession.
What was the vision behind the founding of your music group?
It was Swedish fiddler Anders Hall who had the idea of having a trio of fiddlers playing the music of Sweden, Norway and Shetland. Anders and Norwegian fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva played together already in the group Sver, and I had met Anders at various festivals and we had jammed together quite a lot. He thought it would be a unique group in sound and instrumentation and also repertoire. We are all very proud of our own traditions and its great to be able to present them in the way do. As far as I am aware there has not really been any other group playing traditional fiddle music from Sweden, Norway and Shetland together and arranging it in the way we do.
I would say we do not make a conscious effort to pass on any particular message in our music. We just love playing the music we do and want the audiences to enjoy the mix of styles and the way we present it!
Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
For me personally, my fiddle teacher, the late Willie Hunter from Shetland was a huge influence. He was a fantastic teacher and also arguably the finest fiddler to come from Shetland. His playing was incredible and he had the ability to make grown men cry with his slow-air playing. Also Aly Bain was a big inspiration. He was touring the world and playing a lot on TV, so for young fiddlers growing up on Shetland he was doing what we all dreamed of doing one day. He is also a fantastic fiddler and has done a lot of work in making Shetland fiddle music popular throughout the world. My grandfather was also a huge inspiration. He was the reason I wanted to learn the fiddle. He was a huge fan of fiddle music and also played a bit. I think I probably would not have played at all if it were not for him. I also believe all the musicians and music I hear influences me in some way or another.
Tell us about the instruments you have in your trio.
One of the instruments in the group is the Hardanger fiddle that Olav plays. It is the national instrument of Norway and is an incredibly beautiful instrument. There is a big Hardanger tradition in Norway and the instrument has started to become more and more popular further afield. It is also a very beautiful instrument to look at with fantastic art work and mother of pearl inlay and a carved dragons head. The fiddle has sympathetic strings that are not actually played directly, they lie underneath the strings that are played and they resonate away to produce this beautiful unique sound. It is a very magical sound in my opinion!
Olav also plays an octave fiddle that is not very common, and is a fairly recent addition to the fiddle world. I believe it was first experimented with in the US. It gives a great additional sound to the group. It is like a normal fiddle but with special strings that are an octave below the normal fiddle tuning.
The setting we love playing around with the most I think is fiddle, hardanger fiddle and viola. The sounds and range of those instruments together constitute a very special sound. It just seems to sit really well together as you get the depth from the viola and the highs from the hardanger and the fiddle just sits in the middle of them! Many have commented on the sound from that combination of instruments.
How do you blend different musical influences and genres in your trio?
We just do what we do, I think! We basically just all come with tunes/ideas that we would like to try out and we just sit and fire ideas at each other. Anders and Olav are really great at coming up with fantastic harmonies.
I think the fact we all come from different traditions adds a lot to the sound because of the very different styles we have individually. I suppose some might say that could be a recipe for disaster but it seems to work really well for us I think! We all really respect each other’s traditions and styles so we make sure it is sounding acceptable before we take it to the stage! 🙂
It is a lot of fun coming up with the arrangements with just having fiddles and viola. For me, I was so used to having a guitar or piano for example to come up with the accompaniment side of things, so it was a whole new thing for me. It has been a really enjoyable trio to be a part of.
What musical traditions do your trio members come from?
Anders and Olav play in a fantastic group called Sver who are very popular now in Scandinavia. They are a high-energy band playing traditional music from Norway and Sweden and also a lot of material they have composed themselves. Anders also performs with a fantastic Norwegian artist called Sigrid Moldestad who is very well known now. Sigrid actually invited us to perform on her latest album so that was a lot of fun playing on that!
Olav plays with another Norwegian artist called Uni Boksasp who is also very popular. It is a great band! I play in a Shetland group called Fiddlers’ Bid and we have been performing for over 20 years now. It has been an adventure and we have been to places we never would have dreamed of when we started out all those years ago. It is a great band to be part of and I feel lucky to be involved in it. I am also lucky to play in Boys of the Lough who are one of folk music’s best-known groups. They actually started to perform before I was born!! I was asked to guest on an album about ten and a half years ago when they needed a new fiddle player and I joined the band after that. It has been great fun and I have learned a lot from playing with them. I also play in a Scottish group called Session A9 and have been involved with them for about 9 years I think. They are fantastic musicians and are great to play with.
How would you describe your musical journey?
For me I feel my playing has changed quite a bit over the years. I have been lucky enough to be involved in many different projects, each one being very different to the other so that has helped shape my sound, I think. I am much more open to different music now than I was when I was younger.
About six years ago I was asked to work on an event called Ethno in Sweden and that was a real eye and ear opener! We got to learn music from all over the world, including African, Arabic, Balkan, and Indian, to name a few, which was completely new for me and it was just amazing! It really changed the way I thought about music. At one stage I would have said I was not really into a lot of those types of music but getting to learn it up close and personal like that was just fantastic! It made me much more open to different music.
Also joining the Boys of the Lough was a real learning curve. I had been used to playing in a group of fiddlers just playing instrumental music but joining them I was more exposed as a performer and there was a good mix of tunes and songs. With them I was also doing month long tours in the US two or three times a year which was a new thing. I learned a lot about life on the road doing those tours.
I have spent a lot of time in Scandinavia in the past six years or so and I have really gotten into that music. I think it is just fantastic and love the different types of tunes they have compared to my own music and also their use of harmony. It is a challenge to learn the style as it is so different to my own but I love it. I think that the Scandinavian music has definitely been the biggest influence on my playing the past few years.
As far as albums go I think with the bands that I am involved, the albums have certainly changed from one to the next. Whether it be the direction we have taken when it comes to arrangements or the choice of material for example. It is always a learning curve being a musician I think. You can never stop learning and being inspired. There are so many bands out there from all over the world touring so you get far more access to different types of music and it is great to be able to sit and jam with musicians from other countries. All that type of thing is great for inspiration and learning different music.
What is your vision of what music can do in this day and age?
I think music is a very powerful thing in all walks of life. With respect to economical turmoil, in the UK for example it is difficult at the moment as there just is not the money around to support the arts and culture and also people do not have the money to go out and support the concerts and festivals as they did before. Venues are only really booking established acts who are certain to bring in a crowd. Not so long ago they were able to take a chance on a young unknown band for example, but that is not so common now, which is a shame.
A very positive thing about Norway is that they really support their arts and culture and realize it is a part of their identity, which I think is fantastic. It is hard to say what music can do but I think music plays an important part in most peoples’ lives whether they actually realize it or not.
There are so many negative things going on in the world and the news is just full of depressing things. Music brightens up peoples lives as far as I am concerned but I could be biased I suppose!! Most of the time you nearly always associate a time in your life with some piece of music.
I think it is important to have an outlet available where people can go and get away from the everyday stress life brings and relax, listen to music, have some food or a drink. A music concert is perfect for that but the way things are going I am worried a lot if these types of venues might have to close or cut back even more with the amount of music they present. It is going to take some time for things to improve economically so who knows what the future holds. I think it is really just a matter of persevering for the time being and hope that things improve.
Unfortunately I do think it may be the end of a lot of full time ‘touring’ bands as there just is not enough work around for everyone with all the cutbacks. It is easier to make a living in smaller constellations. At the end of the day, there will always be changes and I am sure it will become good again one day as the economic crisis recedes.
Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
Yes we all teach individually and also as a group. It is not something we do a lot of but we enjoy it when we do it. I enjoy passing on the music from where I am from and it is great to do that in different countries.
What music influences did your family have on you?
For me my grandfather and my uncle were my main influences musically in my family. I probably would not have played if it were not for my grandfather. He was a huge fan of fiddle music and played in the house so that was what got me hooked on it. I think he was delighted when I expressed an interest in playing the fiddle. I am indebted to him for getting me interested in it.
My uncle was a huge help in my learning. He used to take me to the lessons and kept me practicing and all that, which probably was not easy with me being of the age I was when computers and electronic things were becoming more popular!!
What can we expect to hear at your upcoming performance in Forde?
I think we will concentrate on the music from the album we released recently. We have not tired of performing that repertoire. You never know though maybe we will have some surprises in there too!
What have been your previous highlights in playing across Europe?
I think most gigs we do we love for different reasons. It is great to travel and get to play your music in other countries but it is also great to play it on your home patches also. We have toured in Norway the most I think and have also played in Sweden a few times and Shetland so that has been nice since we are all from those places. We have been lucky enough to have been invited to play in Romania, which was amazing: beautiful country with fantastic music and people! That is a place we would love to go back to. We would like to get to a few more places in Europe.
What new album or video are you working on now?
We are trying to get material together at the moment for the next album. We have a few ideas now but it is difficult to find time to work on it more fully as we are all very busy with different projects at the moment. We like the fact that we all love the traditional music from our respective regions as well as more contemporary music, so it makes for an interesting mix of music. I am looking forward to seeing what material we decide on for the next one. We are also going to be making a promotional video in Sweden next month so that should be an exciting thing to do. Many promoters and booking agents like to see you on video nowadays if they have not seen you live so we thought it was an important thing to do and make that available.
Author: Madanmohan Rao
Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.