WITH Scottish folk music’s traditional “office Christmas party” a little under two months away, excitement is beginning to build ahead of “Na Trads”.

The MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, to give them their full title, take place at Aberdeen Music Hall on December 7 while online voting will reopen early next month once the shortlists have been decided upon following this month’s public vote.

The awards have become an increasingly important event in the folk music calendar, turning the spotlight on the musicians and their music and bringing the whole scene to the attention of the wider public thanks in part to their being broadcast live by BBC Alba.

For the founder of the awards, Simon Thoumire of Hands Up For Trad, the event’s ever-growing importance feels something akin to “mission accomplished” but, as he readily admits, his work promoting traditional music is never really done.

A virtuoso concertina player and winner of the BBC Radio 2 Young Tradition Award in 1989, Thoumire has found himself at the vanguard of the folk music industry, always pushing for wider recognition for artists and providing them with a platform via the awards which allows them to develop their marketing and thus to discover new listeners. How, though, did he find himself in that vanguard?

“In the 1990s, when I was doing quite a lot of playing, we somehow decided to start a record company – Foot Stompin’ Records,” explains Thoumire. “It was originally called Tartan Tapes and we made a few records mainly for the tourist industry. The idea was to make quality albums for tourists that weren’t the usual twee tartan stuff. So that was the concept, but of course we hadn’t done our research properly and we didn’t really succeed in tapping in to that market, so eventually we moved into Foot Stompin’ Records.

The National: Simon Thoumire has organised the Scottish Traditional Music Awards for the past decade and talks about the rise of the Scotland's traditional music scene.Simon Thoumire has organised the Scottish Traditional Music Awards for the past decade and talks about the rise of the Scotland's traditional music scene.

“And then me and my wife started the Young Scottish Traditional Musician Award, which is now the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award. Out of that, Hands Up For Trad grew. I was in my 30s, I was married, the kids were young – it definitely wasn’t a time for touring, so that’s how Hands Up For Trad became my main thing.

“It was the late 1990s so the likes of Greentrax were already doing an amazing job with Shooglenifty and others. And we were born out of that scene.

“That scene in Edinburgh was amazing. There was a burst of young people arriving and converging on the Tron pub and it was an amazing, energetic time. I was playing with jazz musicians, hanging around with DJs and chefs – anyone who worked unsociable hours. It just felt really buoyant.”

Thoumire has watched as that nascent new wave scene of the 1990s has grown and evolved into the eclectic, genre-hopping scene that we know today.

“I think the scene is amazing at the moment,” says Thoumire. “And I think it can be traced back to the Feisean movement kicking off big style. At the time we started the Young Scottish Traditional Musician Award, it was really quite a struggle to find young musicians to be a part of that. But as the Feis built, more and more young musicians were becoming part of it.

“Then in the 1990s, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, as it was then, started the traditional music course and all of a sudden there was a place for young traditional musicians to go and study, which there wasn’t before. I studied physics and maths at university because there was simply no option to study traditional music.

“After the RSAMD course, everybody started to move through to Glasgow, and the session scene there grew out of that. And it still continues to build.”

Thoumire, however, remains keenly aware that the scene’s success can at times be a double-edged sword. While there are more gigs, more opportunities and more musicians, there is a lot more competition for what remains a generally small and finite market.

“As with any creative scene it is not without its hardships,” says Thoumire. “As more and more young people come through, and people remain in the scene longer then there’s not so many gigs for everybody. And Scotland is of course a small market, there’s not masses of money in any area of culture, really, so it can be difficult. And then of course Brexit is a massive worry.”

THE impact on musicians and artists of the impending rupture as Scotland is dragged from the European Union has been touched upon but only after speaking with someone like Thoumire does the sense of dread pervading the musical community become wholly apparent.

“I just don’t know, I don’t think anyone knows,” says Thoumire when asked what the post-Brexit landscape will look like for musicians. “I’m supposed to be playing in Norway in February and I’ve no idea how that’s going to work. No-one seems to know anything.

“Musicians travel, musicians share, innately. Why would we ever want to break up something that allows us to do that? So many Scottish musicians travel in order to make a living, I just have no idea how it’s going to work.”

In the meantime, however, Thoumire will be getting on with the day job of promoting Scottish traditional music through the Trad Awards. It is getting to the business end now and planning is continuing apace for the ceremony itself and for the voting process that precedes it.

It is a labour of love that has been part of his life for almost 20 years now.

“We started the Young Trad award in 2000 and by 2003 I was thinking that we really had to do something to celebrate the whole of the scene and not just the up-and-coming young ones,” says Thoumire. “I understood that folk music didn’t have the best reputation among the wider public – there was still this perception that it was about Aran jumpers, warm beer and beards, which I have no issues with. But it gave the public an excuse to paint folk music in a slightly unfavourable light.

“I wanted to do something the public would recognise, something a bit glitzy like the Oscars, but which would give the public and the media something positive to talk about.

“So I got together with a few people – Scots singer Sheena Wellington, Ian Green of Greentrax, Iain McQueen of Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh – and we came up with the idea of the awards. The initial ceremony was held at The Queen’s Hall in September 2003 and I had really no idea what to expect but 400 people came along. I was like, ‘woah!’. It was a great time for it, and I just came along at the right time with the right idea.”

THE awards stayed at the Queen’s Hall for the next couple of years but after that began to tour the country.

“In 2006 we made the decision to move it around the country,” says Thoumire. “So we went to Fort William in 2006 and I guess the rest is history. In 2008, BBC Alba came on board and then in 2013 we went live on BBC from 9pm. And the interest across the globe has been phenomenal.

“A daily Google alert will always flag up a couple of bands who are using the awards worldwide – whether they’ve won an award or been nominated. It’s a great marketing tool for them.

“And that remains our main aim – to increase the visibility of the music and the artists. We can’t stop doing that – we’ve got to let the world know what we’ve got.”

For now, the work continues for Thoumire. He has the awards ceremony to finalise but before that, the business of picking the shortlist ahead of the public vote opening on November 4.

“This is the stage where we have to bring everything together,” says Thoumire. “It’s a 50-50 mixture of a public vote and the votes of a panel of industry experts. So we get the panel’s score and then we add that to the public vote and that’s how we get our winners.”

It’s a busy time of year for Thoumire but he insists he wouldn’t change it. It remains a labour of love.

“Scotland’s alway been a creative nation – and our artists have never been afraid of taking chances. I love it.”


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