As folk singer Georgia Ruth Williams prepares to perform at a Folk Nations gig at London’s Southbank Centre on 19 May, she shares her thoughts on musical influences, collaborations and her experience at the Folk Nations Kolkata Residency.
The universality of music
It’s an old cliché, but music really does help to break down linguistic barriers. The bonds the musicians made at the Kolkata residency were often forged on a musical level, and sometimes I think that we would never have been able to express those feelings without the help of the songs. That sort of interaction was at the very heart of what the Folk Nations project hoped to achieve, so we were very lucky.
The evolution of techniques and influences
I’ve been playing the harp for 19 years now, and my technique has definitely morphed and shifted since I first began learning. I started off with a very rigorous classical training (the harp within an orchestral, Western-Classical context as opposed to a folk one) but gradually those restrictions fell away and I began to teach myself to play the sounds I’d heard in other music. When I first played with Indian musicians, I again found myself needing to adapt my technique to the new sounds and structures I was learning. By today, my ‘technique’ is a bit of a mish-mash of everything; my influences change daily. But at the moment, I’m listening to a lot of Dorothy Ashby records. She and Alice Coltrane really pushed the boundaries of how the harp was perceived in the 60s and 70s. They made it a fluid, adaptable thing. They took it from the rigidity of the concert hall and made it a dynamic instrument. ‘Afro Harping’ from 1968 – with its breakbeats and jazz influences – is a prototype of the hip-hop production styles which developed years later.
Kindred spirits through collaboration
The Kolkata Residency was such an intense experience. We all bonded really quickly, and when I left Kolkata I knew that wouldn’t be the end of things. What was fascinating for me was the breadth of different styles and influences – Bangladeshi, Welsh, Indian, Scottish, Pakistani and English music: all at once. We started to collaborate quite tentatively at first; everyone was so new to each other. But what began as a show-and-tell of songs quickly became a noticing of patterns, and a growing excitement as we started to see the similarities in places we’d never expected. I’ve learned to always be open, share everything you have because you might find a kindred spirit (or song) where you didn’t expect to.
UK and Indian folk music: familiarity amongst the differences
It is the idiosyncrasies of each nation’s folk songs that make them unique; there are things which are universally human in the traditions. In the UK, Welsh traditional music differs quite significantly from the English, which differs significantly from the Scottish etc. And that’s before we even begin to think about the Indian classical music. But I was amazed when I heard Saurav Moni’s Bengali river songs. They reminded me so much of some agricultural songs from Glamorganshire in Wales (songs about driving cattle forward across fields, along rivers) and it was so incredibly moving to hear him sing his songs – they felt so familiar.
Advice for young people who want to forge a career in music
Don’t hesitate, ever! You will thank yourself. Collaborations are the best way to know yourself as a musician, because you are constantly having to re-evaluate things you’d taken for granted.
Read more about what the other Folk Nations musicians have to say
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