By Amanda Vilanova
The stage is low, the backdrop sparse and the lights bright. They shine on a horseshoe of instruments and their players. Voices rise: ‘They say that kissing’s a sin…’ All voices but one stop, leaving a clear and powerful voice: ‘…but I think it’s least of all.’ The pattern repeats: ‘For kissing has wandered this world, ever since there were two.’ A black and white banner hangs behind the players, picturing a landscape with a shovel thrust into the earth. They are a compelling and unique group of people engrossed in this statement and the music that accompanies it. The whole thing captures you instantly.
The voices belong to nine musicians who play some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. They play folk music rooted in the British and Irish tradition, one so far removed from my native land’s drum-heavy salsa that I am impressed at being so moved. When I think of folk music, I think of banjos, and men in plaid shirts, but Shovel Dance Collective is something else: made up of members of varying backgrounds (Guyanese, Indian, Irish and English) as well as non-binary and queer individuals, it is a long way from what the inexperienced folk music listener is expecting. However, if you’re into plaid shirts and fiddles, you’ll probably like them too.
The group started in 2019 with three members, playing tunes that oscillated between folk and free improvisation. They then, through friends of friends and Facebook callouts, created the current nine-piece collective who truly gelled during a gig two days after the Prime Minister announced his commitment to ‘get Brexit done’. The band view playing music as a political act. ‘Everything we play is political, which is really a consequence of folk music being the music of the working people, expressing their hopes, anxieties, love and anger through song… Much of folk song deals with charged subjects and we don’t shy away from that,’ says the vocalist Nick Granata when I ask about the band’s ethos and their outlook on the music they bring to life. These views don’t stop there. As a collective, they organise themselves and work in a horizontal system where all members bring tunes and ideas to develop, and finally agree, usually silently and instinctively, when a piece is ready to be shared. They source their material from existing tunes, field recordings and archives, research that follows a long folk tradition, but the nature of who they are, how they work, and their commitment to storytelling makes them unique.
In one of my favourite tunes, ‘The Foggy Dew’, a man reminisces in describing the events of a misty night in which a woman approached his bedside. Granata’s vocals create the various tones the tale requires, strong in the moments this man is a young virile bachelor and almost whisperingly loving when describing the woman. Accompanying vocalist Mataio Austin Dean’s deep and gravelly voice harmonises as the guitar strums in tandem with the story’s unfolding. The strings, wind and percussion join in, and the air is filled with the sensation of bodies encountering one another. According to the band, there are many versions of this tune, but they chose the one in which the roles are reversed, the woman visiting the man and deciding the terms on which they are to love. This interest in subversion is present in a lot of what they play. Mataio leads the vocals of another dramatic and deliciously feminist tune, ‘My husband’s got no courage in him’. The story of a woman who warns others to choose a man wisely, because sometimes they just cannot give you what you want.
The collective also plays instrumental tunes that offer sublime moments, taking us through rural landscapes and open seas. The music rises and falls, with instants in which the trombone announces epic events to come and others in which the strings and flute shine. There are upbeat melodies in which the strings on the harp are plucked quickly, and when violin notes are fast-paced to match the infectious beating of the bodhrán. The playing is skilful, beautiful and playful, its makers respecting and rejoicing in the tradition they are a part of. Their commitment is apparent in the music, their practice, and in the symbols they present to us as part of the live experience – the banner backdrop a homage to union banners waved on a picket line.
Their work has garnered positive attention, including a 4-star review in The Times and a place in the renowned South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas as part of British Underground’s Music Showcase. They will record their first album in summer 2022, and hope to play everything from festivals to picket lines while telling even more interesting tales through song. I highly recommend gifting yourself the experience of seeing them play, if not for an existing love of folk music, then just for the pleasure of hearing gorgeous music and voices chanting the stories of people who looked up to the heavens and asked, ‘Why can I not love my love? Why can my love not love me? Why can we not together roam, if love to all is free?’
Photo by Jake Ollet
The Shovel Dance Collective are:
Alex Mckenzie: Whistle, Flute, Accordion
Daniel S. Evans: Bouzouki, Cittern, Guitar
Fidelma Hanrahan: Harp
Jacken Elswyth: Banjo, Shruti Box
Joshua Barfoot: Bodhrán, Percussion, Accordion, Clarinet
Mataio Austin Dean: Vocals, Shruti Box
Nick Granata: Vocals
Oliver Hamilton: Violin
Tom Hardwick-Allan: Trombone
Listen to their music: https://shoveldancecollective.bandcamp.com/