The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble is the UK’s biggest folk band with getting on for 100 members. David Johns caught up with its director and driving force, Joe Broughton
Folk music and Birmingham aren’t words you’d necessarily put together in the same sentence. We all know our city has produced some of the greatest names in classical, rock, pop and jazz music, as well as more recently hip-hop and rap. But folk?
The time to reassess Brum’s importance in producing and performing great folk music is long overdue. For starters, we boast the UK’s biggest folk band – the 80-strong Conservatoire Folk Ensemble which plays live sets that are a sight to behold, featuring an 18-piece horn section, five cellists, seven percussionists and five electric guitarists, plus fiddles, flutes, clarinets, euphonium, and accordions! They also all sing, too.
Formed in 1997 at Birmingham’s prestigious Conservatoire (now Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) by fiddle player, arranger and tutor Joe Broughton, the Ensemble has established a reputation for creating energetic and powerful shows. Their increasingly popular live appearances include several dates at the Royal Albert Hall as well as at a host of leading folk festivals such as Shambala, Cropredy and Kendal Calling.
This summer’s schedule featured the Ensemble staging a special two-set show at their Conservatoire HQ. Due to the logistical challenges of performing with such a large company, this was the first time the entire ensemble has played a complete live set on home turf in several years. Other highlights include a debut appearance in a cathedral at Lichfield and the prestigious Festival Finale spot at Towersey Festival, one of the UK’s oldest music festivals.
Though rooted in traditional folk tunes, the personal influences of each individual member of the Ensemble steers the set, pulling in everything from full-on rock grooves, to funk, jazz, hip-hop and reggae, to sounds from Eastern Europe and Asia. It’s a sound that’s been dubbed ‘Power Folk’. The group has also released a number of albums.
Joe recalls the early days of the Ensemble when he says the number of members rose rapidly from just seven, to 15, then 35, then in no time at all to 90. “It all got out of hand and we decided to start doing some gigs so we could develop as well as grow.” Normally, the Ensemble is capped at 50 at any one performance, though the personnel is constantly switching around.
Everyone in the group is studying at the Conservatoire – but not necessarily folk music! “We have everything from technology students to opera singers, composers and harpists, some on classical courses, or the jazz degree – they come from everywhere,” said Joe, who directs the whole thing. “It’s one of the reasons it works so well. Birmingham Conservatoire attracts an inventive and original type of musician who often has an interest in all kinds of music making.
“Without that bedrock of talent, keeping such a large line-up together for so many years just wouldn’t be possible. And the music has really developed as we’ve gone along – we’re folk music people based in Birmingham and we feed off the influences of the city. Folk, rock, funk… it’s all in there somewhere and when it comes together it produces a colossal amount of energy.”
The personal influences of each member shape the set-list, as traditional English and Celtic reels slide into full-on rock grooves, funk, jazz, hip-hop, ska and reggae. Members come together for two hours a week, on a Tuesday. “I normally bring in a melody and a riff and teach it to everyone by ear then ask for suggestions on the arrangement where everyone gets involved in developing, evolving and rehearsing the piece, “ said Joe. “Our music is entirely unique, you won’t see or hear anything like it anywhere in the world. We know from the feedback we get that our music has real impact on people.”
The group stages up to 20 performances a year, but Rob is keen to expand further if possible. “Looking further ahead we have plans for another full album – but I really want to do a live album, because I love live albums. There’s also a rumour that we’ll be making our first trip abroad…”