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The art of the guitar celebrated in style at international festival

Review and photography by JOHN WATSON

Tommy Emmanuel in performance at the Sava Centar, Belgrade, during the Guitar Art Festival. Photograph copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk


"Everybody in this room is a student,"  Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel told a crowd of more than 2,000 fans at Belgrade's huge Sava Centar concert hall. "Including me, of course."

His dynamic performance was one of the highlights of the 2017 Guitar Art Festival in the Serbian capital.  The master of fingerpicking guitar was one of many outstanding artists in the festival,  founded and managed by Bosko Radojkovic, and which this year chose 'Integration' as the theme of a week of string studies, concerts, exhibitions and talks.

The festival had more than 150 participants from 20 countries, with the emphasis on classical guitar but also embracing flamenco, folk, blues and rock. Tommy Emmanuel's astonishing technical prowess is matched by tremendous energy, a determination to entertain, and the creation of a joyful approach to music. His concert covered many styles, from folk fingerpicking to down-home raunchy blues, ragtime and rock and roll. Young children squatted on each side of the stage as he performed, and the look of wonder on their faces was quite something to behold, especially when he demonstrated his "band" - that is, walking bass lines with the left thumb, snare-brush like strokes on the body of the instrument, and a dazzling mixture of rhythm chords and melodies.

The final two days of the festival were held in the centre of the city at the excellent Dom Omladine concert hall, a smaller venue but quite well suited to solo classical guitar and other shows. On the Friday, Montenegran classical guitarist Rados Malidzan gave an impressive performance of works by Barrios, Coste, Regondi, Torroba, Paco de Lucia, Rodrigo and Alan Thomas. The last of these works, Evening Dance and Cradle Song, provided a stimulating contrast to the classics of the guitar repertoire, though my own personal favourite was de Lucia's Fuente y Caudal. His performance was followed by mainly modern solo works convincingly interpreted by Slovenian-born Mak Grgic, now a resident of Los Angeles. Particularly striking was his performance of the microtonal piece Through The Fog, by composer Sean Hayward, the subtly retuned instrument creating dazzling textures of sound, as though seen through a prism.

A fabulously dynamic show followed, with dancer Rosario Toledo demonstrating her expressive skills with the excellent group Ultra High Flamenco.

Competition between young guitarists has always been a key feature of the Guitar Art Festival, and after awards were presented on the final night to this year's winners the specially-assembled World Guitar Orchestra featuring the young performers in the festival took to the stage. The 2017 event wrapped up in style with performances by the outstanding Italian soloist and composer Carlo Domeniconi and the six-piece group Guitar Integration: Grgic, Malidzan, plus Sanel Redzic, Darko Bageksi, Srdan Bulat and Nemenja Ostojic.

Above: Mak Grgic in performance. Below: festival founder and manager

Bosko Radojkovic. Photographs copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Rosario Toledo. Photograph copyright John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

The World Guitar Orchestra at Dom Omladine concert hall. Photograph copyright John



The grassroots of folk

Why folk music sessions are vital to the music scene. CHRIS EDWARDS

tells the story behind a long-established get-together in an historic pub.

Rapper sword dancers at the Coopers Tavern folk session.

Photograph copyright John Watson

from the book 'A Pub Full Of Folk (blurb.com/bookstore)

In the backstreets of the English brewing town of Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, tucked under the glistening steel fermentation towers of the former Inde Coope and Bass Breweries, sits a remarkable two-storey house - a pub of enormous character.

The Coopers Tavern was built in the 19th century. When the brewery railways criss-crossed the streets of the town (as depicted in one of L S Lowry's oil paintings) the pub served malty ales, straight from  the cask and barrel, and produced home-cooked food. It still does. What is often not mentioned in the glowing website comments on the pub is that the Coopers Tavern (a cooper being a barrel maker) is also home to a thriving folk session. Traditional music has been played here, in the front parlour, every Tuesday night since 1994. Musicians of all ages and levels of ability in traditional music find a welcome in the Coopers, from a beginner to a real 'pro'. And the beer has always been of exceptional quality, as has the hospitality.

People drop in from many places and many backgrounds, and appreciate the session. The Coopers has hosted many parties, and has been stormed by "rapper" (traditional) dancers and even the occasional step-dancer. On some evenings there can be as few as four musiicans, and on others more than 20. 

I first visited the Coopers Tavern in the early 1980s when, as an architect working in the conservation and renewal of a nearby large grain warehouse, I got to meet local authority officers at lunchtime, for a chat and to enjoy some home-cooked food and a little real ale. The tiered seating at the end of the cask stillage racks fascinated me - there was, at the time, no bar,  just a corner counter, etched glass screens and mirrors, and a chalk board with the week's beers marked up. 

In the following years I took the band I was playing with, Caperceilidh, and we were made to feel very welcome by the landlord and the locals. It was the next best thing to playing round the kitchen table in a traditional bothy - better, because you could put on a bit of performance. Around about 1992 I was enthusing about fiddle playing to Chris Foster, the international singer and songwriter, who was at the time Arts Offier at the Burton Brewhouse Arts Centre, just at the other side of the fermentation towers.

I was becoming conscious of a growing interest in traditional music style, as contrasted to the general ebb and flow of 'folk' music as a social medium for gatherings and entertainment. There was an interest in playing good traditional tunes and a growing interest in fiddle playing. So I put it to Chris that we run a season of lessons in fiddle music and playing techniques to get more people into the loop - beginners, and others who wanted to benefit from an expert hand. I had in mind my very good friend Geoff Bowen, from Ilkley, Yorkshire. Geoff was in the middle of work on a book that he had asked me to collaborate on: 'How To Play The Folk Fiddle'. We had talked about this work during a morris dance tour of Sweden, and we subsequently travelled to France, Scotland, Shetland and Ireland as well as back to Sweden, where the fiddle playing tradition is almost hypnotic and very different from the styles of north-west Europe.

Geoff agreed to come down to Burton each week to give us all an inspired, gently methodical means of accessing and approaching the fiddle and its vast repertoire. The first season started in the Brewhouse in 1993. A few other musicians dropped by, but it didn't really gel. However, I remembered the Coopers Tavern just round the corner, to see if they would let us play there. The rest is history. Our next band, Apples In Winter, spent its formative years at the Coopers, using it as a testing ground for ideas, styles of playing, and combinations of instruments. Most importantly, we were having a brilliant time, sparking off each other and off the circle of players and listeners to produce good music, good vibes and sharing and enjoying the general banter. 

What is particularly pleasing to me is to see people grow their music, learning their listening skills and passing them on to others. I pay tribute to all the musicians, from the learners to the more experienced, who make this session so much greater than the sum of its parts. Keep coming, keep playing, drinking, laughing and learning.

From 'A Pub Full Of Folk' by John Watson (blurb.com/bookstore)

Open Music Photography Gallery

Classical, folk and world music artists, photographed by John Watson

All images copyright John Watson


The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Above and below: Leila Josefowicz in rehearsal, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London

Nigel Kennedy, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Sakari Oramo, conducting the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Andris Nelsons in rehearsal, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Ghanaian-born Nii Tagoe, with Osibsa, Colston Hall, Bristol

Ruhabi drummer from The Gambia, CBSO Centre, Birmingham


Bassekou Kouyate of Mali, playing the traditional ngoni, Cheltenham Arena 

Hungarian cymbalon virtuoso Miklos Lukacs at the Culture Centre, Pancevo, Serbia


Tunisian oud master Dhafar Youssef in concert,Lichfield Cathedral

Armenian Djivjan Gasparian on the duduk, Lichfield Cathedral

Irish harpist Maire Ni Chathasaigh, Guildhall, Lichfield

Chris Newman, Guildhall, Lichfield

Above and below: Fiddlers, Old School House Band, Guiidhall, Lichfield

American blues legend Taj Mahal, Cheltenham Town Hall


The Spectacular Bull Band, a UK group specialising in French folk music.

Publicity shoot near Blithbury, Staffordshire.