Sophie Stephenson was successful in her application to the HYAH Creative in Your Community fund to deliver a weekend of music and dance on the Isle of Skye. 'Tradbeats' has now been developed into a regular programme of events - read on to find our more...
Using our bodies to create sound and rhythm has been intrinsic to oral cultures across the globe for generations. In the case of Gaelic and Scots culture, there is a long tradition of work songs, playground rhymes, vocal dance tunes and audible percussive movement which is driven by a human impulse to create and experience rhythm.
In communities which have a rich repertoire of lullabies and mouth music such as in Scotland, the close relationship between voice and movement is enacted from the very moment we are first cradled in our mother’s arms as she sings a song. I remember as a toddler being bounced on my mother’s knee whilst she diddled tunes. In this manner we are exposed to music and dance simultaneously from birth. Modern society likes to categorise culture and genre and to define music and dance as separate disciplines, however they are very much interlinked. Particularly in percussive movement such as in step dance which is more akin to a percussive instrument and can be both a response to the music and also provide the rhythmic impetus behind the melody. With TradBeats I wanted to tap into this groove which is so innate to our very beings whilst drawing from a rich repertoire of songs and steps in Scotland. I hoped to showcase the rhythmical connection between the Gaelic language and the song and dance traditions, whilst also encompassing beatboxing and body percussion to establish links across genres and create a new context for traditional dance. Many dance tunes commonly known today were passed down as puirt-à-beul (mouth music) and come from an oral tradition which dates back further than the instruments they are now played on.
The concept behind TradBeats comes from this idea of creating music without instruments. It is a tuition festival which brings together voice and movement in an organic way within the context of aural, oral and visual cultural transmission. Participants are introduced to puirt-à-beul, diddling and lilting alongside step dance, body percussion and beat-boxing. These elements are then brought together through group collaboration which allows for improvisation. The format of TradBeats differs from typical music tuition. The workshops all take place in one room without tables or chairs or music stands or white boards – just a big space with everyone together. Within the circle it is hoped that we create a relaxed and informal environment and a feeling of togetherness in which participants are free to experiment with rhythm and harmony. This is important to the ethos of TradBeats which is to be inclusive regardless of experience or ability.
One of the best things about TradBeats is that it offers people access to traditional music without requiring them to have any previous experience. They can turn up just as they are – no equipment, no prescribed footwear – and get involved right away. TradBeat’s ethos of inclusion and collaboration means it is open to everyone, especially those who have been unable to afford an instrument or to access music lessons until now. At the same time, however, TradBeats can be of great benefit to accomplished and technically skilled musicians and dancers, challenging them to approach rhythm and melody in a new way.
I was able to run the first TradBeats weekend on Skye thanks to support from the Time to Shine Fund from the Highland Youth Arts Hub and also from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig who provided a venue for the workshops and Seall who hosted a concert as part of the weekend and helped to promote the event. We had a great turnout for the workshops and concert with positive responses from participants and tutors.
“I loved all the separate activities and the way everyone got to work together and incorporate the different skills to create something cool. It was also great being able to bring along friends who didn’t have much knowledge before that of playing trad instruments but they could still join in with everyone and have a fun time because everyone was learning new skills. I’d never really done any beat boxing before. And that was a whole new experience. Also it was fab to learn some new Gàidhlig songs and get more in depth help with step dancing and body percussion”
– Frieda, Age 16 (participant).
“The workshops differed significantly from most others I have taught mainly because instead of splitting off into groups to work on different subjects or parts we kept the group of participants and tutors together throughout the weekend. Everybody (including the tutors) participated in all the different subjects and the process was entirely collaborative which I really enjoyed and appreciated. I really enjoyed the way we cooperated and balanced the teaching together, the way we were happy to learn from each other and were excited to go an a creative journey along with the participants instead of it being a strictly teacher-pupil arrangement. I think that willingness to learn and push our own boundaries was picked up on and appreciated by the participants and helped them to lose some of their own inhibitions. Participants were free to move from beatboxing to step dancing to singing to body percussion as they felt the urge and I feel this creative freedom was an important factor of why the weekend was successful. Through encouraging everyone to both find and step out of their comfort zone we opened up a space which hopefully allowed people to discover untapped talents or new attitudes to learning which will continue to be helpful to them on their creative journeys. I found it an enjoyable challenge to literally think on my feet when teaching as due to the improvisational nature of the whole weekend we had to change and adapt the teaching material and approaches more than one would normally do in most other teaching scenarios. The ‘home and away’ exercise worked particularly well for this – thanks to Mairi Campbell for introducing it to us! – as it provided a flexible structure to guide both the teaching and learning. Sophie deserves massive kudos for having the vision and drive to plan and organise such a successful weekend!”
– Màiri Britton (tutor).
It was great to work with such a fab bunch of tutors over weekend. There was Màiri Britton and Eilidh Munro leading the Gaelic song workshops, Lewis MacRae (beatbox), Griogair Labruidh (Gaelic song/rap), myself teaching the step dance and body percussion and then we also had wonderful Shooglenifty who led a special Riffs & Rhythms workshop. A huge thank you to HYAH and also to the tutors for making the weekend such a success! Here are a few videos from the weekend:
I am extremely excited for the future development of TradBeats. Since the first weekend in Skye we have subsequently had the opportunity to run TradBeats at TradFest in Edinburgh and at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, all with great feedback. Also as a result of the first festival we have been invited to teach at Sgoil Chiùil na Gàidhealtachd (Plockton School of Excellence in Traditional Music) in September this year. There will be two days of workshops (Saturday 3rd & Sunday 4th September) which will be open to the public as well as a concert with the TradBeats tutors and pupils from the music school. For more information about this or other TradBeats events visit www.sophabulous.co.uk. I would also love to hear from any festivals, arts organisations or educational institutions who would be interested in bringing TradBeats to their communities. Please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.