Dance and drone: Blowzabella mark 40 years as folk pioneers
PUBLISHED: 15:19 22 February 2018
Folk legends Blowzabella are celebrating 40 years of their inimitable, drone-based wall of sound with a new album, book about the history of the band, and a visit to Diss Corn Hall (one of their favourite venues).
“Despite the fact that we play a kind of music that is connected to the past, as a band we make a point of looking to the future and what we’re about to do next. However, as we celebrate 40 years, it’s interesting to look back at the story of the band,” says Paul James.
Folk legends Blowzabella, who Paul joined in 1980, is that rare thing a genuinely unique band. Their inimitable, drone-based wall-of-sound, played with a fabulous sense of melody, rhythmic expertise and feeling, is often cited as a major influence by those who experiment with folk music. Much loved and respected, there is no one else quite like them.
Having originally formed in Whitechapel, east London in 1978 by Bill O’Toole (bagpipes, flutes) from Sydney and Jon Swayne (bagpipes, flutes) from Glastonbury, who were both studying musical instrument making at the London College of Furniture, 2018 marks four decades. The band are celebrating with a new album, Two Score, a new book of tunes, More Scores, and gigs and festivals across Europe on an anniversary tour that brings them to the region this weekend.
Since they began Blowzabella’s music has evolved from simple performances of traditional English and European dance tunes to more complex arrangements of tunes composed by themselves.
Over the years the line-up of the band has changed, and the signature wall of sound has evolved too, while staying true to a set of basic principles that were there from the start — the use of drones and unusual instruments, memorable tunes, an emphasis on strong rhythmic playing and improvisation around the melody, harmonies and rhythms so that every piece can develop over time through live performance.
Paul, who plays bagpipes, saxophones and whistles, has been organising their activities ever since he joined. The line-up also includes fiddle player Dave Shepherd, who joined Blowzabella in 1982, clarinet and saxophone player Jo Freya, who joined in 1986, and multiple Radio 2 Folk Musician of the Year award winner Andy Cutting, who joined in 1988.
Relative new boys are French hurdy-gurdy player and composer Gregory Jolivet, who joined in 2004, and bass guitarist Barnaby Stradling, who has been playing with the band since 2006 after years of international touring with the Chipolatas and the Eliza Carthy Band.
Founder member Jon Swayne still plays bagpipes and saxophones. He has also subsequently founded the bagpipe trio Moebius and seven-piece bagpipe orchestra Zephyrus.
The name Blowzabella comes from an English jig tune from the late 17th century which is fitting as since 1978 the band have developed an enormous repertoire and can play for dancing continuously for hours and hours without repeating themselves.
The band’s first public performances in 1978 and 79 were at festivals and fairs with Blowzabella drawing attention as an energetic stilt walking dance band in bizarre costumes.
Bagpipes were very much to the fore playing the tune, with the hurdy-gurdy close behind and a driving rhythm being supplied by the bouzouki and percussion - usually a Balkan double-headed tapan or a side drum.
Despite making many albums, much of their earlier repertoire never made it onto record. In the early days the band borrowed traditional tunes from all over England, Europe and the Balkans and adapted them to their needs and instrumentation.
Soon though this wasn’t enough to keep them occupied and the ability to compose and arrange their own material grew in importance and started to define what the band was about.
The new album, Two Score, includes a mix a new compositions and re-working of traditional tunes. The Lark Descending, originally composed by Paul as a rant step dance, is played as a homage to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Uttoxeter Souling Song/Turner’s. Traditional is a great wassail song from the Staffordshire market town sung at seasonal celebrations for reward with money or food.
Blackberry Fold, a traditional tune with numerous versions, many from East Anglia, has been adapted and with extra lyrics by Jo Freya. Quintessentially English, the origin of the word ‘fold’ is ancient – probably referring to an animal enclosure or field.
“We’ve made a lot of albums - and are our own worst critics - and we’re confident that this is our best work for a long while,” said Paul. “We keep up our reputation for writing memorable tunes you can whistle, put our own stamp on some songs from the English folk tradition and meld that into our patented Blowzabella-wall-of-sound – using drones and a creative mix of instruments ancient and modern. It’s all lovingly crafted by producer/sound engineer Joe Garcia into an album that we’re really proud of.”
The song book has been a chance to look back at the history of the band.
“I collated it from the memories and diaries of most band members past and present,” said Paul. “It’s no more or less typical a story than any other band history. It’s been messy, joyous, complicated and sadly two members, Dave Roberts and Ian Luff, died too young.
“We’ve travelled around the world, played a zillion gigs and met a lot of wonderful people who we otherwise would never have met.
“The things that have been constant throughout are: great tunes, drone instruments, lots of dancing, an independent spirit and a DIY ethic. You make your own luck.”
• Blowzabella will perform at Diss Corn Hall on February 24, 8pm, £15, £5 under-25s, 01379 652241, disscornhall.co.uk
• The album Two Score and book More Scores are out now, available from blowzabella.co.uk