Every country has its own type of traditional music, developed from the history, culture and lifestyle of the land. This year's Festival features artists from across the world bringing their own traditional music to Edinburgh. From Scotland to the Silk routes, we've selected seven types of traditional music in our 2023 programme to explore.
Irish folk instruments include the fiddle, Celtic harp, Irish flute, penny whistle, uilleann pipes and bodhrán, or Celtic drums. Modern Irish folk music may also include the Irish bouzouki (similar to a lute), acoustic guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo and harmonium. Historians believe the Celtic harp is a modified version of the Egyptian harp, brought to Europe thousands of years ago via the Silk Routes (more on that later). Like Scottish trad music, Irish folk music began as an oral tradition. Irish folk music travelled with the Irish population over to the United States after the Great Famine caused mass migration, influencing the American bluegrass folk music (more on that later too).
Lankum, hailing from Dublin, Ireland, are continuing the legacy of Irish folk, creating contemporary melodies grounded in the history of the genre. Brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, along with Carmac MacDiarmada and Radie Peat were named Best Folk Group at the RTÉ Folk Music Awards in 2018. Their latest album False Lankum (2023) is critically acclaimed, with The Guardian praising the band for ‘allowing their gentler sides a bold voice in the mix, while managing not to dilute their power or compromise their ambition’. In an interview with The Quietus the band members how much their album was inspired by the sea, a popular influence in traditional Irish folk lyrics.
Bluegrass has its roots in Irish, Scottish and English music from the 1600s, bought to the American south by European settlers. The settlers created music about daily life on farms and in the hills, leading it to be known as hillbilly and mountain music. This tie to the land is still seen in the name bluegrass, named after the long grass found in Kentucky and Virginia. Over a couple of centuries, the music morphed into old-time string-band music, blending elements of gospel and blues from African American communities, before becoming known as bluegrass in the 1940s. Bluegrass is typified by its use of string instruments – primarily the banjo, fiddle and mandolin – syncopated rhythms, high-pitched vocals and the strong jazz and blues influence.
Nickel Creek have continued, and redefined, the legacy of this genre, weaving in celtic, jazz and classical influences. Siblings Sara and Sean Watkins and friend Chris Thile started playing together when Sean was 12 and Sara and Chris were just eight. They're credited with a lot of the progression of the genre in the 21st century – as NPR puts it, they ‘[spent] their youth literally rewriting roots music’, and were hailed by MTV as the ‘future of bluegrass’.
Their latest album, Celebrants, marks another step forward in their musical experimentation. The album has been compared to a song cycle, with interconnected songs forming a listening experience that makes ‘you feel like you're inside of a little world’. Despite its experimentation, the album is still true to its bluegrass roots, being directly inspired by daily life. As Sara Watkins puts it: ‘it’s the bulk of life. That’s what we wanted to capture.’
Affectionately referred to as ‘Portugal’s blues’, fado originated on the streets of Alfama in Lisbon, born from a sense of saudade, meaning melancholy or longing. In the early 1900’s the area was a hub for communities from Brazil, Portugal and across Africa, each with distinct dance and music traditions. These music styles merged to form fado.
Fado is traditionally performed with a singer accompanied by at least two guitar-like instruments, a typical Spanish acoustic guitar and a guitarra portuguesa, or Portuguese guitar. The guitarra portuguesa is often used in a call and response with the singer, replying with intricate melodies. Fado lyrics focus on the realities of everyday life and move between feelings of resignation and hope.
Portuguese artist Mariza was raised in the same streets of Lisbon where the artform developed. She learnt from other legends of fado, including Maria Amélia Proençe. In a documentary on the Story of Fado, Mariza says ‘Yes, fado is melancholic. But I prefer to call it melancholic happiness, a magical melancholic feeling.’ Critics praise how much ‘how much joy and sensuality resides’ in Mariza’s fado, despite it being a genre typically seen as melancholic. Mariza also incorporates gospel, soul and jazz with traditional fado to create her own distinct sound.
Central Asia, the Middle East and the Silk Routes: Aga Khan Master Musicians Programme 1 and Programme 2
The Silk Routes refers to ancient trade routes used by merchants and travellers moving across East and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and Europe. Spanning over 6,400 km (or 4,000 miles), the routes were used from 100 BCE to the mid 15th century to transport goods, services and explorers. Music was integral to the people throughout this region, providing entertainment, teachings, customs and history. Musicians travelling the Silk Routes blended different musical styles, influenced by new regions and genres. Historians have been able to use paintings to track the movement of musical instruments across the Silk Routes. This reveals how the Egyptian harp travelled to Europe and morphed into the Celtic harp, used in Irish folk music.
The Aga Khan Master Musicians, brought together by the Aga Khan Music project, work to explore how musical innovation can revitalise cultural heritage. The Master Musicians create music inspired by their own deep roots in cultures from the Middle East and Asia. Each musician has achieved artistic mastery within a rigorous musical tradition, and contributes to an original body of work composed, arranged and performed by the Master Musicians.
Palestinian folk: Nai Barghouti
In the early 20th century, Palestinian Arab farmers sang work songs for entertainment, history, safety and instruction during tasks like fishing, shepherding, harvest and making olive oil. Nomadic storytellers and musicians, known as zajaleen, also travelled with epic musical tales for entertainment and teachings. The turbulent history of the region has caused songs and traditions to be lost. In recent years, a resurgence to reclaim lost heritage has led to Palestinian folk music being revived. Lyrics and melodies of folk songs are now being updated to include recent history and appeal to young Palestinians.
Nai Barghouti is an award-winning Palestinian composer and singer. Her recent works infuse her heritage with new influences from jazz and roots sounds. In a review of a performance when she was just 14 years old, Ahram Online commended ‘her refreshing take on timeless classics [that] left the audience in a musical trance’. Her latest project is a single, ‘Xena’, which was created in collaboration with electronic dance music artist, Skrillex. The song incorporates traditional Palestinian instruments, melodies and lyrics, alongside typical Skrillex beats.
Traditional Chinese: Buddha Passion
Archaeological evidence indicates that music culture developed in China over 9,000 years ago. Twelve-tone music scales were created based on the pitches of bamboo pipes of different sizes. Conversely, typical Western music uses seven note scales. Traditional music in China is played on solo instruments or in small ensembles of plucked and bowed stringed instruments, flutes, and various cymbals, gongs, and drums. In Ancient Chinese the word music (樂, yue) also refers to dance (舞, wu), and vice versa, with each dance having a specific piece of music associated with it.
Chinese-American composer Tan Dan links back to this ancient concept in his composition Buddha Passion. The concert features a dancer, Chen Yining, performing alongside the musicians and singers. Tan Dun was born in the Hunan province of China, where he learnt to play traditional Chinese string instruments, before studying at Columbia University, New York. His compositions are critically acclaimed, including a BAFTA, Academy Award and a Grammy® Award for his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film score. At this year’s Festival he conducts his original composition Buddha Passion, which fuses his Chinese heritage and Western influences. The grand performance will feature the acclaimed Royal Scottish National Orchestra, two choirs and seven soloists, as well as elements from traditional Chinese music including Tibetan singing bowls, Chinese cymbals, water basins and stones, and the very rare dunhuang xiqin, a tall string instrument.
The first record of Hungarian music dates to 11th century Gregorian chants. European classical composer greats, Romanian-born Bartók, Hungarian-born Koldály, and Austrian-born Liszt conducted some of the first musicology, going out to rural regions to record Hungarian folk musicians in the 19th century. The melodies and lyrical tales inspired all three composers and helped popularise Hungarian art and music across Europe in the early 19th century. The distinctive sound of Hungarian Gypsy folk music comes from the use of minor keys and pentatonic, or five note, scales. Western music typically uses seven note scales.
Hungarian violinist Géza Hosszu-Legocky is continuing the Gypsy violin tradition of his heritage. Born in Switzerland as a direct descendent of Hungarian Gypsy folk musicians, he won his first prize at the International ‘Prima la Musica’ competition, aged nine. Performing with his group, the Five DeViLs, he combines traditional Eastern European classical and folk music, creating lively melodies. Geza and the 5 DeViLs have performed on premier concert hall stages in over 30 countries, bringing Hungarian Gypsy sounds and stories around the world.
Scottish traditional music: Project Smok
Traditional Scottish folk primarily features fiddles, whistles, bodhrán (Celtic drums) and, of course, the iconic Highland bagpipes. These bellowing instruments were originally used by the military during battles to rally soldiers.
Scottish trad music is an oral tradition, passed down by listening and playing by ear without writing anything down. However, in the 18th century musicologists began recording Scottish songs to prevent them being lost to history. Scottish trad music also gained popularity as songs and lyrics were referenced in popular publications, including writings by Robert Burns.
Scottish trad music remains popular today, with pubs and venues across the country hosting musicians for gigs and community jam sessions. The genre is constantly evolving, as new generations of artists bring different perspectives. Project Smok, a trio from Scotland, bring a nonconformist and progressive approach to Scottish trad music. Ali Levack, winner of the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year award in 2020, along with Ewan Baird and Pablo Lafuente incorporate modern indie pop into traditional Scottish music to create a neo-trad sound that is uniquely theirs.
See the full contemporary, classical and traditional music programme and book your tickets here. Let us know which traditional music concerts you're most excited for on Twitter and Instagram at @edintfest or by using the hashtag #EdIntFest.