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Celtic & Balfolk festival: folk back on the big stage at Rotterdam's Doelen

Barcelona, the old medieval Barriò at midnight, in the square where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella welcomed Columbus after his return from his travels to America. In the Netherlands at the time, it was Queen's Day 2010. Four generations of people were dancing to the cheerful notes of a clarinet, a whistle, a violin and a simple drum. Until the small hours, a crowd of 5- to 600 people went completely wild, dancing to this relatively simple folk.

Folk, wasn't that that stale music by and for alternates, wearers of goat wool socks and beards, guitar loosely in hand, Trappist beer within reach? Hadn't that already been moved to the museum of the outcast arts?

Yep, and in September 1982. Then, after the last folk festival held in the Netherlands, in the Rotterdam Doelen, folk was stored in the darkest depot of that museum. In the subsequent period, all sorts of clubs and venues that had folk on the programme disappeared: the Kulleke in Leek, 't Kontje van Hofwijck in Honselersdijk, the Matrix in Rotterdam, the Bolk in Delft - one after the other closed their doors. The why of this sudden turnaround remains a mystery. Was it the punk explosion of 1978, which tore apart the so optimistic worldview of the folk years (mid-50s to early 80s), in favour of the pessimism of perpetual unemployment? UB40 was already an omen, Joy Division completely slammed the door on more optimism. A curious contradiction, given that folk dates back to the mid-18th century, where it was mainly sung of poverty, lack of work, illness and woes - alongside, of course, the necessary portions of heartbreak. Folk then merged into world music, only to play a supporting role there for three decades.

Anyway, on Saturday 21 February, the Doelen is hosting its third Celtic & Balfolk Night already. Balfolk, that is dancing to ancient, mostly French dances that spread across Europe via classical music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The great Johann Sebastian Bach also wrote suites containing bourées, gigues, sarabandes and minuets. Exactly these types of dances have been brought back to their essence by Balfolk bands. As for previous editions, the programme management of the country's largest concert hall has managed to enlist bands from the French-Celtic cultural area. Not only for dancers, but also for listeners it is a party, the furious music of Didier Laloy and Bruno Le Tron on the diatonic accordion, the hypnotic repetitive music of the trio Ballsy Swing or the now exotic, then pure classical-looking dance music of the Naragonia Quartet. Cian Boom comes from the Poitou, near Brittany, the birthplace of the minuet. Not unimportant as the minuet has developed from folk dance to a full-fledged part of the classical 19th-century symphony that still features on the programmes of orchestras.

The festival formula has expanded a little further, offering not only Balfolk workshops but also Ceilidh dancing. This Scottish communal dance is as alive as anything, it may just happen that in a restaurant in the heart of Edinburgh the tables and chairs move aside and a 'caller', a kind of dance master, conducts and turns things upside down. Gary Sutherland leads the ball with his Ceilidh Band - perhaps a bit corny in our eyes but beware, ceilidh is taken extremely seriously in Scotland. Irish dance also comes up again, although like ceilidh, it is a bit of a sidetrack compared to Balfolk.

The pure listener will also find plenty to enjoy, with one of the greatest imaginable signposts in folk and folk rock. Steeleye Span has been around since 1969, with Maddy Prior still in the frontline. Hits like 'Gaudete' and 'All Around My Hat' took folk from the pub to the big concert stage. Award-winning Irish singer Méav does what Irish people love to do: hang out against the sweet and sentimental and get away with it. Besides big names, there is also room for local music and new discoveries. Red Herring is from Rotterdam and plays a mix of bluegrass, country and other Americana. British Georgie Ruth is a big unknown; she made a big impression in 2013 with her CD debut.

Folk is now what it was then: small-scale. The reasons why the breadth of folk has returned to prominence in programming are many. Programmer Hans de Lange of de Doelen points to the film industry, among others, as the cause. Besides the music of The Lord of the Rings, in which composer Howard Shore gave ample space to Celtic folk, he also sees the political developments of the last decade as an underlying reason.

Big names like Moya Brennan, and the Dubliners have been around, but in this day and age, interest in more exotic forms of world music is waning. You can no longer come up with Arabic or Moroccan music without seeing trouble looming. Besides: "the musicians of today's folk generation have become so darn good". Last year's performance by French band Malicorne, surely for many an icon from folk's glory years, went through on two wheels. It was just not good enough anymore, where the youngsters - now often conservatory-trained - were playing the stars from heaven. De Lange also wants to shape the connection with classical music more, but that will be for next year's edition. The obvious option is to give a composer ample space for branles, minuets and gigues, to be played by an orchestra in front of a dancing audience.

Good to know
Saturday 21 February, Rotterdam, de Doelen. In different venues: Celtic & Balfok Festival; workshops, concerts, dance party. Among others: Steeleye Span, Méav, Ialma, Gary Sutherland Ceilidh Band, Didier Laloy & Bruno Le Tron. Opening hours: 14:00


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