Cambridge Folk Festival 2019: Saturday review and interview with guest curator Nick Mulvey
Saturday at the Cambridge Folk Festival rolled in with beautiful blue skies and baking sunshine for what promised to be another perfect day.
I brought along my children - aged ten and 12 - for their first ever festival experience. Walking through the gates, they exchanged broad smiles at the sight of dozens of trinkets and clothes stalls, people wearing brightly coloured clothes, bug-eye glasses and even one man sporting a full pirate ship made from a box, bearing the slogan “The Pirates of Menzpantz”.
When they spotted the giant fox sculpture at the centre of the site they were enthralled. We agreed to meet in his shadow, should we get separated.
The grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall had yet to fill up and so we spread our picnic rug on the grass and began listening to the last strains of the Tea Pad Orchestra. It seemed as though we were going to have a very laid back time.
We had followed advice to bring our own water bottles and I was pleasantly surprised at how little litter there was as a result. Everyone was filling up at the water stations and there was none of the usual plastic debris kicking around on the floor.
We grabbed some lunch from the excellent array of food stalls and then settled down to listen to Chartwell Dutiro, the Zimbabwean mbira master who was one of the acts invited by the festival’s guest curator Nick Mulvey.
Nick introduced him to the audience, explaining Chartwell had been an inspiration for him ever since he visited the singer’s school. “I met him at seven, and again at 14 and then at 21,” he said. “He has been a huge influence on me.”
Chartwell grew up taking part in sacred musical rituals in his village, before joining Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. He is now based in the UK where he teaches and aims to build bridges between musical cultures.
On stage, he took up some melodic yodelling, which sounded impressive and beautiful, and then urged the audience to join in. This was met with near silence. So he tried again, but people were still confused. Either it was too early in the day or people were too self conscious to let rip with their own full throated version.
He was an amusing host, though. He introduced his instrument, the mbira, which is a kind of thumb harp with metal tines on a wooden board inside a large, round orange casing.
Chartwell joked that someone had written on Facebook that he was ‘playing a cheese’ and had a tape recorder hidden inside it.
I had the opportunity to speak with festival guest curator and Cambridge singer songwriter Nick Mulvey that morning for an interview backstage before he set off to watch some of the bands he had cosen to play at the event and to host his own songwriting workshop.
Nick was in good spirits as we sat down to chat. Looking remarkably bright for someone who had already spent two days at the festival, he said: “It's been a fun process working with the bookers here to come up with my contribution to the line up. There wasn't an overarching theme or aim, only to offer music I loved. It's my first time involved in creating a festival and these choices reflect my musical upbringing it's more about where I have come from musically.”
He added that as well as choosing music that meant a lot to him, he also wanted speakers who would discuss themes close to his heart.
"It was important for me to make some of my contribution as a curator be about activism in these times The weekend is bookended with Mac Macartney talking about re enchantment and the awakening of the sleeping giant, which is the millions of good people who might do nothing.
Then on Sunday Extinction Rebellion are coming in. I didn't want them to give their talk about the science behind what they are doing because I wanted people to actively choose that themselves because it ain't pretty.”
The singer explained he had played to crowds of protestors at Marble Arch and worked with local activists to find a way of discussing the movement at the festival. He said: “We have designed XR stories, which is local Cambridge members giving their own personal stories about joining the rebellion. I have been involved in offering my music in the gatherings in London at Marble Arch.”
He went on to explain what it meant to him playing to his home crowd at the Cambridge Folk Festival.
“It's been lovely,” he said. “We are all having a lot of fun - at my mum and dad's house every bed is full, they have set a tent up in the garden. My cousins are here, friends, family, nephews and nieces. We've all been looking at the festival line up deciding who to catch next.”
However, when you have some important messages to share it’s not always easy playing to a crowd that knows you so well.
Nick said: “It's really interesting. Of course it's great, but it brings up a lot of stuff as well. It’s easier to go out to crowds elsewhere and deliver this message and be this performer and then you come back (to Cambridge) and there is your chemistry teacher and your mum watching.
"The author Charles Eisenstein said, have you ever noticed that when you go back to your mum and dad and you tell them that you want to live as though every moment is sacred and you want to live in line with the universal consciousness, have you ever noticed it doesn't go down that well?
“And I laughed at that. I thought, that’s so true. There’s two reasons. If you are our generation your parents are likely to have lived in the middle of the 20th century with a lot of conditioning about how life is to be controlled and you need to get a job and have security and when the kid comes home and says I’m just going to give myself to the wind they get a bit nervous. With some good reason, no one's saying you shouldn't get a job. But there’s a second reason - the innocence of that kid talking to his parents puts them uncomfortably in touch with the tragedy of the severing of their contact with the sacred.
“My parents love what I do and the challenge isn't really for me and when I get over it in my head then I can deliver this message with a sense of humour.”
I left Nick then to speak with other journalists and headed off to catch some of the music at Stage Two, where the packed tent was listening to a session from The Once. Singing close harmonies acapella, the trio said they were ‘here representing Canada’ and would be singing cover versions from their favourite Canadian artists, including Leonard Cohen. They promised in their next set they would be singing their own songs, but their musical talent was clear.
For a change of pace, we then decided to explore the flower garden, which was a lush, overgrown wildflower meadow and then head to The Den, a circus-style tent with a more laid back atmosphere and some room to sit down and listen to the music.
There we enjoyed Calum Gilligan and then the beginning of Masta T’s set. His songs were very danceable, but the folk festival audience are not the type to get moving this early in the day. It would be a very brave person who started dancing there as everyone else was resolutely supine, some actually doing the newspaper crossword and sipping from a flask while he sang his heart out.
We had left our picnic rug back at Stage One, and thought we should check back in to see Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. However, the sight that met us was something I had never seen before at Glastonbury, or Reading or Womad. The entire field had filled up with row upon row upon row of camping chairs. They were so tightly packed it was difficult to pick your way between them. When we found our way back to our picnic rug there was no chance of seeing the stage from our low position, but we couldn’t stand either in the sea of chairs. We eventually picked our way to the sides and stood nearer the front.
Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita showed off their impressive musicianship with an instrumental set. It began with their piece Clarach, which Catrin explained was about the osprey population in Wales which had been persecuted to extinction in the 17th century but had recently returned, migrating from West Africa, and that the first Welsh-born sprey was called Clarach. This gently soaring song was for her.
Later we caught Nancy Kerr, James Fagan, and friends (including Maddie Prior) on Stage One with a set that sounded like the kind of folk music I had been expecting - deft fiddle, danceable tunes and songs of pirates, northern life and even one about the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.
Gruff Rhys, of Super Furry Animals fame, followed with some songs celebrating the Welsh language. Then Nick Mulvey came on to lots of applause and started with a couple of his hits, ‘We are Never Apart’ and ‘Cucurucu’.
He interspersed his songs with talk about the climate emergency and ‘waking the sleeping giant’ of the population who should rise up to tackle the planet’s problems.
He finished with his new song ‘In the Anthropocene’ about humans’ impact on the earth.
Lucinda Williams returned to the festival this year with her gutsy 12 bar blues and was welcomed with rapturous applause. Her cracked vocals brought a raw emotion to the often autobiographical songs.
And Scottish trio Talisk, winners of the Young Folk Award at the 2015 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, ended the evening with a barnstorming performance. If there had been a roof, they would have raised it.
More by this authorAlex Spencer