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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Will 2014 be the Year of the Third Dutch Folk-Revival?

Happy new year.

I have taken a sort of semi-sabbatical those past few months, I now realize. I wrote less regularly than I used to do, I simply did not find the time, the energy, or the right topic. But I'll get back to the normal once-a-week rhythm in 2014, I hope.

Let me start with an intriguing question: will 2014 become the year of the third Dutch folk revival in the guise of a revival of the shanty - the seafaring songs of our nautical forefathers? I ask this question because a group called Ancora (meaning 'anchor' in Latin) is - in certain circles - hugely successful. They released a CD plus DVD called "Vrij als de wind" ('Free as the wind') last September, which immediately became the number 1 in the Dutch-language CD album charts. I saw the documentary of the DVD just two days ago on the regional TV station TV Oost, and it has also been broadcast on national TV. There is a definite link to the Volendam music scene, Jan Keizer (from BZN) acting as a a sort of Godfather for the group - whose members were well-known in a previous musical life as "De Piratentoppers" (pirates not referring to sea pirates but to illegal radio stations playing Dutch-language music called 'pirate stations' in the Netherlands).

I could already write a book about the Ancora phenomenon. About the way they represent themselves on and off screen; and about the gender and race issues in it. About the music; the puzzling relationship between Irish folk and sea shanties, for example (my own shanty choir sings Irish repertoire as well, but I am still not sure what the relationship is). About the repertoire - about their version of "Allen die willen te kaap'ren varen" and how that connects to for example the version of Fungus. Related to that: about the question whether this is the beginning of a third Dutch folk revival, about its relationship to the first (pre-second world war) and the second (1970s/1980s) revivals. Et cetera et cetera. I will write an article about it soon; the material is too rich to leave it aside.

What I would like to share with you here is Ancona'sown narrative about the birth of Ancora. On their website as well as in the documentary the members of Ancora claim that they were secret shanty lovers for some time, singing shanties in the car together, until there came a moment they had to 'follow their heart' and become Ancora in order to revive the shanty repertoire, on the brink of being lost, by modernizing it and thus making it acceptable for a broad audience. They even on their website quote John Sheahan (ex-Dubliner; plays the fiddle on 3 of Ancora's songs) who says that it is fantastic that a younger generation now continues singing the music of the sea.

No word, however, about the German group Santiano. But Ancora is simply a Dutch copy of Santiano, who became very popular in Germany in 2012 after releasing a mainly German-language CD with a mixture of pop, shanty and Irish folk. Actually, nearly the complete repertoire of Ancora is a duplicate of Santiano, and most of the songs are recent compositions rather than 'age-old shanties' in need of revival. And of course, Santiano also tells a story about how they were born not as a commercial enterprise but as a heartfelt continuation of an informal jam-session. Looking a bit further I will no doubt find the model for Santiano in yet another country, of course also claiming that they are a heartfelt et cetera et cetera, ad infinitum.

If I would be an ethnomusicologist from the 1930s, I would probably write about Ancona's repertoire, pointing out the un-authenticity of it all. If I would be an ethnomusicologist from the 1970s I would probably focus on the machinations of the music industry, indicating how we live in times where music has become merchandise.

But what interests me now is not all that. What interests me is the role-playing and the storytelling going on. Obviously, the people behind Ancora - whoever they are - believe that there is an audience out there waiting to buy the dreams Ancora is made off. What kind of dreams are they? What do they tell us about our times? How do the people behind Ancora know there is a need 'out there' - to which perceived needs are they answering, and whose needs are they? And are the audiences indeed buying the dreams Ancora fabricates, or are they building their own dreams, using Ancora as part of the bricks and mortar?

It is, to me, still all incredibly complicated. As I pointed out earlier, questions of taste in general, of good taste, and of my personal taste, are not relevant here. I am not a big fan of Ancora's music for reasons related to my personal musical biography, but that's hardly interesting for anyone but myself. What I do admire is the conscious effort that has gone into the creation of the Ancora dream - including the hiring of John Sheahan and the not-referring to Santiano, all part of it.

And mind you: this story-telling is not just part of the entertainment industry. It is not so that some of us are telling stories and others are leading real lives. Life is a story; storytelling is what we do always, everywhere, when musicking. Looking at Ancora makes you realize which stories are told and enacted by others: by André Hazes and by Lavinia Meijer, by André Rieu and by Gustav Leonhardt, by Lou Reed and by José Feliciano, by you and by me.


  1. Dear Evert,

    You know how much I appreciate your view on music in general. But this sounds a bit steep for me. A third Dutch Folkrevival. There wasn't even a second one. I'll explain this later on.
    Just the fact that more and more people like seashanty's doesn't say anything about an upcomining folkrevival. Folk, as you know, is much more than just shanty's. In my opinion it only shows an increase of bad taste! The mere fact that 1.5 million people watched 'Utopia' shows evidence for this. What makes it even stranger is the fact (as you stated in an earlier blog) that a lot of people from Holland go to Germany to attent a Shantychoir ''concert or show' whatever you call it. So this Dutch folkrevival is actually taking place in Germany?
    If people are watching a Shantychoir does this automatically mean they like Shantychoirs? I must admit I myself have watched shantychoirs myself now and then but just in utter amazement: Adult men singing songs they don't truly understand in a lanquage they dont'master. Men who have never been to sea, never sailed a cippler or whatever.
    It takes more to evoke a third folkrevival.
    About the second folk revival: Folk as an exportproduct from the Celtic Tiger. For most people folk had just a strong association with alcohol.
    For this people Folk didn't mean rousing instrumentals, nice songtext, history etc. but just the idea: folkmusic? Where's the beer?
    In my opinion a second (there wasn't a second, there will be no third for a long time) folkrevival would mean a renewed interest in Irish, Schottisch, English, American, Swedish etc. etc. Folk.
    Meanwhile you can sing your shanty's of course. But keep in mind that real sailors would have drowned the accordionist (if they ever had one onboard). The sea herself would take care of the electric bassplayer, no doubt.

  2. A long reaction deserves a long answer. But I'll try to keep the long answer short.

    Folk music doesn't exist. Folk music is a label, attached to certain music for various reasons in various times. I am not really interested in what folk music is, objectively (there is no answer to that) nor in the quality of folk music or its revivals. I am interested in the phenomenon that people in some times apparently feel the need to label something as 'folk music'.

    In the Netherlands this happened for a fact at least in the interbellum as well as in the 1970s/1980s (and this is something else than Irish music being popular around the same time. That is not what I mean by the second Dutch folk revival - there is a relation, of course, but the Dutch folk revival was carried by groups like Fungus or De Perelaar). And maybe we are on the brink of this happening again: a bunch of people claiming that some music is 'really Dutch music' and that it needs to be revived. That seems to be Ancora's position. Whether it really will get a hold on many people and will be taken up by other musicians is still to be awaited. Personally I don't think it will - but one never knows.

    I don't believe the high number of an audience is an indicator of bad taste - or, reversely, that music played for near-empty concert-halls must be excellent because nobody listens to it (and therefore should be subsidized, as some people tend to think). Actually, I don't believe in good and bad taste, only in taste, as you know. And I think music is made to be listened to, so if many people listen to something, that's great.

    The Germany thing is remarkable, indeed. I am not claiming that singing German shanties are part of a Dutch folk revival. But it may well be that the German element stands for a longing for an idealized Dutchness. "I wish we were like them".

    If singing songs you don't understand dismisses you as a musician, or bad pronunciation of a foreign language, there is little true musicking going on. I, for a start, sing in DInglish, and my Frisian is worse - and I sing quite some songs in Dutch I don't really understand, but nevertheless like.

    Shanty choirs, of course, do not consist of singing sailors. Their members know that very well, they're not stupid. They are not sailing, they are performing music (sometimes they do that on a boat; often they then become seasick). The question what real sailors would do with shanty choirs is therefore - although lovely to imagine - hardly relevant.

    Finally: the 'never been sailing'-argument is always lovely. I wonder what spectators must conclude from the fact that you and I take part in singing New York Girls (for the uninformed reader: check Bellowhead on YouTube)...

    1. About the last part of your reply: I may not have been there but I know what is going on at Noordpolderzijl. It's a pool of sin! :)