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Song and protest: Festival of Voice returns to Wales’ Music City

With an ever growing push on women's rights, workplace equality and the relentless tide of revelations from the #metoo movement, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Festival of Voice 2018 is a knee-jerk reaction. In fact, they got there first, as Karen Stretch discovers.

With an ever-growing push on women’s rights, workplace equality and the relentless tide of revelations from the #metoo movement, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cardiff’s Festival of Voice 2018 is a knee-jerk reaction. In fact, they got there first, as Karen Stretch discovers.

It must be with trepidation that the team behind Cardiff’s Festival of Voice considered its second instalment. Launched in 2016, the biennial festival was a veritable success on its first outing with a small, carefully nurtured programme which was innovative and focussed. This time around, the challenge is on to retain the original audiences, attract new ones and continue to build on the warm reception and acclaim garnered first time around.

Laura Veirs’ portrait for her 2018 album, ‘The Lookout’ © Jason Quigley
Laura Veirs’ portrait for her 2018 album, ‘The Lookout’ © Jason Quigley

One glance at the initial wave of programme announcements is enough to convince anyone that the Festival of Voice 2018 means business. Singer-songwriter, Patti Smith, headlines with Nadine Shah, Laura Veirs and Karine Polwart all bringing their own strikingly diverse styles to the city. Then there’s Processions – a living artwork where women and girls are invited to march through the streets of Cardiff, tying in with UK-wide celebrations of the centenary of women’s suffrage.

‘Our decision to focus on female art preceded the #metoo movement,’ says the festival’s Artistic Director, Graeme Farrow. ‘We were conscious that it was the hundredth anniversary of suffrage and also that a lot of music festivals tend to have a predominance of male artists in the headline slots, particularly the greenfield ones. Some of it was by design and some by luck.

Graeme Farrow
Graeme Farrow

‘Because it is a Festival of Voice, it’s not about who is the best singer but about this one instrument we all share and the quality and power of voices, which includes voices of protest and fear.’

The natural development of the festival was to make it more discursive, he adds, and issues of the day were sure to be involved. Inevitably, events coincided with what’s happening globally with the women’s movement. ‘We thought, let’s go with this and have a really strong female programme.’

That’s not to say it’s a women-only artistic zone. Billy Bragg performs with Nadine Shah in Voices of Protest on the opening night (7 June, Wales Millennium Centre), Gruff Rhys will be with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (10 June, WMC) and the Ivor-Novello award-winning singer-songwriter, Mike Rosenberg, brings his act, Passenger, to the party on 14 June (WMC).

But it’s a competitive, risky landscape in music festival territory and 24 months on from the buzz of the first outing, organisers are hoping audiences will return, new audiences will investigate and the careful niche carved into the buzzy atmosphere of UK music festivals will continue to grow.

‘It is the difficult second album,’ concedes Farrow. ‘With the first one out there, it was new and nobody had heard of it and to some extent you’re launching it onto an unsuspecting public. But it did very well and people really liked the strength of the concept. It’s also very Welsh because Wales has this rich history of choral singing but also a strong history of public speaking and protest and rabble rousing so we wanted to really have something that was of Wales.’

Gruff Rhys © Kirsten Mcternan
Gruff Rhys © Kirsten Mcternan

Keeping the festival’s unique character is undoubtedly boosted by its location. Cardiff may be a capital city but its relatively compact size makes it feasible to get around from one venue to another. This has allowed the programming team to make bold choices with venues. Patti Smith’s first outing will be in the beautiful 200-year-old St John’s Church in Canton (11 June, tickets sold out within an hour), The Tiger Lillies will perform at the Sherman Theatre (15 & 16 June) and Karine Polwart is at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (15-17 June) plus acts yet to be announced will use Chapter Arts Centre and the New Theatre.

There will also be use of unusual spaces in the nine-acre Wales Millennium Centre (Farrow has been Artistic Director there since 2014) and there are plans for a secret bar and a festival village with street food, allowing visitors to plan their visits around a literal feast of experiences.

‘It’s a city festival and not a greenfield festival – that market is flooded in the Summer,’ shrugs Farrow. ‘You go to camp and stand in a field and listen to music. This is a more artistic construct, I suppose, and a lot of the time the best environment for a pure, beautiful voice is not always in a field surrounded by 5,000 other people.

‘We know that for either of the weekends of the festival you can come and have a cracking weekend in Cardiff because we’ve organised it like that. You’ll be able to take in things that aren’t happening elsewhere. We are providing an experience that you can’t get elsewhere.’

Billy Bragg © Murdo McLeod
Billy Bragg © Murdo McLeod

It all ties in beautifully with Cardiff recently being crowned the first Music City by global music agency, Sound Diplomacy – a status which will seek to protect the city’s live music venues and boost its national and international profile.

‘It’s an exciting time,’ adds Farrow. ‘The impact on this year’s festival might not be like that of future years but initiatives that are going to be born out of that project dovetail with our aims and objectives which are ultimately putting Cardiff on the map as a music city and developing talent within it.’

Developing talent and looking to the future is clearly integral to the Festival of Voice’s ethos. A learning programme at the Wales Millennium Centre focusses on the festival and four new community choirs in Cardiff have been started by the scheme. There is also a radio station run by young people which is part of an accredited radio training programme and will broadcast throughout the festival.

‘Because of some of the cuts to music education and provision, some opportunities are going to be missed and as the national cultural centre of Wales we have to address that in some way,’ says Farrow. ‘We can’t pour millions into the education system because that’s not our goal but we can give opportunities for people to express themselves within the festival and have a voice and see really great happenings and concerts that might inspire them to think about creating music, culture and art in a different way.’

He is troubled by the ongoing disinvestment in music services in the education sector and the gradual erosion of creativity in curriculums right around the UK.

‘I think people are thinking differently about that now just because from a skills point of view there are very few employers who wouldn’t like to employ creative people – be that singing in a choir, playing in an orchestra, making radio, writing… They are important things that give young people ways to express themselves and stand them in good stead for whatever they do in life.

‘Being part of a band isn’t necessarily important because you want to be in a band, it’s actually really good for the soul and mind and body and the development of rounded human beings.’

Patti Smith © Ferial
Patti Smith © Ferial

As a teenager himself, Farrow was inspired by the music around him and there is a sense of real thrill about the upcoming programme. ‘So far, I’m most excited about Patti Smith because I remember very vividly as a teenager walking into a record store, picking out the cover of Horses and then getting home and putting it on and it being so unexpected because I was expecting it to be a proper punk album,’ he recalls. ‘Those first lines came out about ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…’ and launching into Gloria and I was actually quite scared. It was so powerful.’

At the time, he says, the record was maybe 10 years old but it doesn’t sound any less powerful now in 2018 than it did in 1975. ‘She is an artist and a remarkable human being,’ he says of Smith. ‘I think to be able to have her read and play music in a small church in Cardiff, we’ve got something really special here.’

Farrow is keeping shtum about the remaining acts due to be announced on 6 March, only giving away tantalising hints about a New Orleans soul band and a Nordic singer – both favourites of his.

‘The diversity of the voices is the important thing in all of this,’ he reiterates. ‘I’m delighted with the breadth and how the concept is developing and seems to have grown in strength. People have latched on to the fact that we’re going to this festival to listen to people with all these wonderful voices to share and what’s more lovely than that?

‘Singing and speaking is something which binds us all together and it’s a very deep, human thing we’re celebrating here. There’s something about the human voice which is democratic – there are no barriers and we can all use our voices in beautiful ways. Even if you can’t hold a note, why should that hold you back?’

He contemplates the programme and sums up the essence of the Festival of Voice. ‘If you want to be part of Processions and use your voice as a woman who has something to say, you don’t need to worry about what it sounds like. Just go out and use it. This is an opportunity to speak and be heard.’

Festival of Voice 2018 runs from 7-17 June in Cardiff, Wales.

Header photo: Nadine Shah © Anna Victoria Best

About the author

After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.

Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.

Email: karen@1hub.co