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Lockdowns led to musician Ewen's music idea chosen to premiere at Blas

By Margaret Chrystall

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Ewen Henderson has created this year's commission for the Blas Festival – and talks about that and his career in music.

Ewen Henderson's music is a core part of this year's Blas Festival.
Ewen Henderson's music is a core part of this year's Blas Festival.

Q Back to the beginning, if that is OK. What was it like to grow up in such a musical family as a youngster – and now as an adult to have fantastic family musicians to call on and be able to play music with?

A Ewen: Well, it meant we had a fairly noisy house growing up, as you can well imagine! I'm the second youngest in the family so my five older siblings were all playing lots of music by the time I started school. I suppose that made it seem completely natural for me to start learning instruments – I think I maybe assumed it was something everyone did! We don't manage to get together for a tune all that often but it is nice when opportunities come along to do gigs together. There's a built-in level of musical understanding already there that might take years to build up with someone else.

Q You learned fiddle from Aonghas Grant Sr so I imagine you carry on the tradition and the music of earlier times alongside your own music and contemporary influences?

A Yes, maintaining and preserving the music and stories of the tradition is very important to me, as is playing my own part in its continued evolution.

Q You were in at the start of Mànran, that must have been an exciting time? I wondered if it might have been like the moment Bruce MacGregor decided Blazin' Fiddles had to be born to highlight the young Highland and Islands fiddle talent that was rather being ignored at the time the band started about 25 years ago. Was there anything similar behind the timing of Mànran getting going?

A When you start a new band, it's very hard to picture how things might turn out 13 years down the road. Of course you have hopes, dreams and aspirations at the time – even if you only keep them to yourself – but life inevitably likes have its own say. Better to look forward with a willingness to embrace the twists, turns and adventures to come! I believe Blazin' Fiddles started as a one-off showcase featuring Scotland's different fiddle but they've now been going longer than the majority of Scottish acts still gigging! Mànran actually started off the back of a conversation myself and Gary Innes had in the wave pool of the Inverness Aquadome - there's a bit of trivia for you.

Q Up to Blas 2023 now! How did you feel when your were commissioned to create a work, and that was Leirsinn, that would be a core performance of this year's festival, performed in three locations?

A I was over the moon when Lèirsinn was chosen as this year's Blas Festival Commission. The basis of the music had been floating around my head for the last two or three years so it's great to have an opportunity to share it with people now.

Q What inspired Leirsinn?

A Lèirsinn initially stemmed from some music I started writing in the early stages of the 2020 lockdowns. Back when we weren't able to travel anywhere beyond our local areas, I started going on imaginary journeys to places beyond the four walls of our flat in Glasgow, for my own amusement as much as anything else, really. I'd study maps, pictures, human and natural histories, songs, stories and anything else that'd help me immerse myself in a place and feel something like the thrill of visiting somewhere different at a time when the real thing just wasn't possible. Some of these "imagined journeys" were so vivid (and, let's face it, a good deal more exciting than your average day in lockdown!) they inspired me to write songs and pieces of music based on them.

Q I think it is also part of your UHI Masters - how do the two things marry up (Masters and Leirsinn) - and has doing the Masters changed your outlook/ way you work?

A Yes, I did the UHI Masters course "Music & the Environment" through 2020-22 and I found a lot of what I was studying related quite closely to these imagined journeys I'd been going on earlier in lockdown so I decided to develop the idea further. When restrictions lifted a bit and we were allowed to travel further afield, I visited some of these places for real and wrote pieces of music based on these "real" trips. This formed the focus of my final project for the Masters where I compared the pairs of compositions in a bid to understand the role the imagine plays in how we experience the places around us. I'd say the biggest change the Masters brought to my way of working was to encourage me to dig a bit deeper into subjects and to think a bit more deeply about music and the world in general.

Q Have you played all the Blas venues you will play Leirsinn in (Nairn, Plockton and Newtonmore) before, possibly with other line-ups such as Battlefield Band and Afro Celt?

A These are all venues I know reasonably well and, indeed, I think the last time I played in each of them would have been for as part of the Blas Festival!

Q Video footage will be part of the show - was that important to you, and a challenge to get together or straightforward?

A The pieces of music in the concert will be performed in pairs: a piece inspired by the "imagined" journey followed by a piece inspired by the "real" journey to each of the locations chosen. To give the audience a heightened sense of the difference between the two experiences, the "real" pieces will be performed to a video backdrop featuring beautiful shots of the places concerned (captured by Hamish MacLeod), in order to create a more immersive experience.

Q What is important about Blas to you?

A Blas is a really important opportunity to celebrate the unique culture of the Highlands and Islands in-situ. I spend a lot of the rest of the year playing tunes and singing songs inspired by the culture, landscape and people of the Highlands in venues all over the world - it always feels good and makes a lot of sense to take that music "home".

Q Things are quietening down a wee bit after Blas - thankfully! A A couple more Mànran festivals and then we're taking a break from band gigs until December when it'll be full-steam ahead for another "Hoolie in the Hydro". In the meantime, myself and Gary Innes will be doing a few solo gigs around the Highlands and Islands and I'm also looking forward to a visit to the Glenties Fiddle Weekend in Donegal.

Lèirsinn plus Làirig and Òigridh Fèis Inbhir Narainn play Nairn Community & Arts Centre on Monday, September 4 at 7.30pm; Lèirsinn plus Malin Lewis on September 5 at Plockton High School, 7.30pm; Lèirsinn plus James Bauld and Fèis Spè on September 6 at Newtonmore Village Hall at 7.30pm. More on Blas:

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