Since starting out as an optional extra for students at the Birmingham Conservatoire in 1997 the Folk Ensemble has grown to a mighty beast.
Fiddle player, arranger, tutor and ensemble founder Joe Broughton explains: ‘When we tour, we do it all as day trips. We only take a cut-down line-up of 50 to each gig – I know that sounds crazy, but it varies each year. There’s currently 77 in the full line-up, but we only use that when we play here in Birmingham. When you get into the realms of two coaches, that might be a bit over the top, even for me…’
Despite its name, the group draws on any influences that takes its collective fancy – from folk, to funk, classical, ska, reggae, jazz and hip-hop.
And with a rolling membership drawn from the conservatoire’s student body, to hear Joe talk, it has become almost a living entity of its own.
‘It’s a project that’s evolved, and as the numbers have got bigger it’s developed and things have been passed on to the next person. It’s kind of a weird real folk-art thing – the music gets passed on but so does the way of life and the way it functions.
‘It’s kind of ridiculous to say, but some of the things I’m proudest about with the Folk Ensemble have nothing to do with the music on stage.
‘The vast majority of the band weren’t even born when I started this, which makes me feel very old, actually! But it is very nice how things get passed on.’
And that original course from 1997 is still on the books.
‘It started as a little option that they could do in 1997 - you’d go for a couple of hours a week and do a bit of folk alongside your classical or jazz studies and now of course, it’s got a little bit out of hand.
‘We still meet at the same time for those two hours every Tuesday and we literally just get together in a room and make things up. There’s no scores and no written music.
‘Although you see 50 people in a room playing together, the feel of it is not so much like an orchestra - there’s no written parts, everybody’s looking at each other and there’s an amazing amount of energy and interaction.
‘When we’re putting the music together, we take it very seriously – but just so we can enjoy it later.’
While the ensemble does have a regular turnover in its membership, there are a few other longstanding senior players alongside Joe to make sure the shows maintain the high quality paying punters expect.
‘It’s important to have that, because it is students and it is a very professional show, as it has to be if you’re taking it on the road and expecting people to pay money, so we keep the quality by having some people in year-in,year-out, and they pass on the way of doing things to the new ones.’
When it comes to their repertoire, it can come from anywhere. Some trad, some Joe composes, but as he says: ‘The ones I really like is when someone comes in with something – we still arrange it ourselves, but they come with an idea.
‘In a lot of folk groups, I think people say something like: “I’d like to do a Bulgarian song”, and they do their version of a Bulgarian song.
‘But in this band because we have people coming in from all over the world, a few years ago we actually had two women from Bulgaria to study on the course who brought their own songs which we then adapted – so it was bizarrely authentic, as well as ours.’
While the group may have ‘folk’ as part of their name, Joe insists they don’t let any notions of genre or worries about what folk ‘purists’ might think about what they do get in their way.
‘‘For a lot of people, they’re talking about a ’60s revival version of English folk music, or they’re talking about doing a version of a specific music from a time.
If people don’t want to call it folk music, I don’t really care. Without wanting to sound pompous, I’m not going to concern myself with that particularly.
‘Everything we do is in a folk tradition of learning by ear and passing it on, the outcome is music that the people who are playing it, really absolutely 100 per cent own, and it’s the music they really want to play and express their emotions in. To me that’s folk music – there’s 100 other definitions, but we don’t have to worry about that, do we?’
So what can people expect from a CFE show?
‘We’ll do a few pieces with all 50 people, then you might have a trio or whatever, and some of those smaller groups have gone to great things in folk and other sorts of music, through experimenting with it here. It’s like a little training ground where you get to see the up and coming stars just starting out and doing those sets for the first time.
‘You know you’re going to get that big impressive sound of whatever we’ve got on that night, like five cellos, 10-piece horn section, six percussionists, five electric guitar players – that whole array of players.
‘But there’ll also bethose numbers in between that they’re going to break down into across the show, and they’re going to be really different each time.’
And while the ensemble clearly flourishes in a festival setting on a big stage – checkout their videos – how do they manage when crammed into, say, an arts centre?
‘We will make it work somehow. We might have to sit on the knees of the people in the front row,’ Joe laughs.
‘But some of those really close-up venues, you really get the proper power of the ensemble, they’re my favourite gigs, really.’
Given the cynicism of much of the music biz, it’s nice to come across something where the love of the music is clearly what keeps driving the ensemble. Joe’s enthusiasm is infectious.
‘I absolutely love it, apart from the fact that it’s completely impractical and financially unviable it’s a great project!
‘It’s really nice to do something in the music business that is really very genuine.
‘We go to gigs, the ticket money will pay for our coach to get there, and when we get home in the middle of the night, it pays to get everybody home safely, and some food and drink. Nobody’s getting rich on it, it’s a genuine sharing of music that all those young people want to share with the audiences, and that’s why it keeps going.
‘It’s about making great music, and for some of them it’s their first experience of touring and playing to real audiences.’
Away from the ensemble Joe is renowned performer in his own right. A former musical child prodigy he has had numerous projects and appeared on about 100 albums.
For the past decade has been one quarter of the Urban Folk Quartet. And when he’s not busy with the ensemble, he’ll be touring with them to mark their 10th anniversary.
‘We’ll have a special eight-piece line-up with a horn section. And we’re using members of folk ensemble from over the years for that, so it’s wonderful to have them involved.
‘I’m incredibly excited about that. They just blew me away. You never know with those things how they’re going to work out – they might feel like a bit of an add-on, but they’re brilliant.’
CONSERVATOIRE FOLK ENSEMBLE
The Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham
Thursday, June 6