The Artists Bringing LGBT+ Narratives into Scottish Folk Music
We hung out with the musicians in Bogha-frois, a new collective pulling trad folk out of its strict hetero boundaries.
All images by Tommy Ga Ken Wan
“Just follow the music,” the smiling receptionist at Edinburgh’s Storytelling Centre advises, nodding to the door behind her. Hang on, that sounds like an instruction from a fairytale. But I walk towards the trail of chords floating along the corridor anyway, ending up watching a scene as idyllic as her directions. It’s a high-ceilinged room, all light and air, with tall windows looking out on autumnal trees and orange leaves. Musicians sit on chairs assembled in a circle, chatting, tuning up and twanging on fiddles and guitars.
They’re all part of Bogha-frois (loose Gaelic-to-English translation: rainbow), an LGBTQ+ music project funded by Creative Scotland. Pedro Cameron, 29, who makes folk music as Man of the Minch started it up. As a queer artist who blends traditional folk with modern pop and electronic vibes, his focus is on telling old stories in fresh ways. Bogha-frois aims to do the same thing by bringing together LGBTQ+ folk artists.
“I always felt like an island as a gay folk musician,” Pedro had told me over a pint in a Glasgow bar, back when his vision was just beginning to take shape. “I wasn't aware of any openly gay folk musicians who were telling stories about their experience.” Unsurprisingly, there turned out to be no shortage of like-minded LGBTQ+ artists hiding in plain sight. “Initially I just wanted to put a band together, but it just seemed to spiral and get lots of interest, so I thought it was a good idea to widen the scope and make it something that as many LGBTQ+ folkies as possible could be involved in.”
If the last few years in politics have taught us anything, it’s that the idea of a simpler time, of some hazily-defined golden past, holds powerful appeal. It’s a sentiment which Traditional Folk music, with its nostalgic songs of virtuous maidens and rolling hills, is a natural fit for. In its tendency to gaze longingly backwards, it continues to exclude those who have historically been denied a voice. Such is the nature of tradition – we do things this way because we always have; too bad if that doesn’t work for you.
But the Bogha-frois musicians represent a broad spectrum of personal experience. In one room, they put together lyrics drawn from self-harm scars. In another, the mood is lighter, focused on building new friendships rather than only processing past trauma. The point is that, whatever your story, this a place where you can tell it safely. For people like Finn, a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, the need for a place like this wasn’t apparent until he got there.
“It wasn’t until last night, singing a song about an ex-boyfriend at a traditional session in a pub in Edinburgh, I realised that normally I would look around the room and wonder whether there was a couple of old men there that might not want to hear this,” he says, referring to a session put on by Bogha-frois for LGBTQ+ folk artists the night before. “I feel safe in Scotland; I don’t usually feel like I’ve been repressed in any way. But then, being here in this open space has made me realise how ‘not open’ those other spaces are. It’s almost more dangerous, the fact that that’s there and you don’t even know it.”
With ages ranging from 18 to 40, though mostly in their twenties, the Bogha-frois group represent the future of what’s considered ‘traditional folk’. By this point, it has been made clear that the trad world is not going to freely offer them a place for their voices, for their stories. They will have to demand it. Over the next few days, they plan to workshop a collection of songs that forefront LGBTQ+ voices and experiences. Come February, they will perform them as part of Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival – one of the UK’s biggest celebrations of Celtic music. It’s the perfect place to make a statement, to announce that “Scottish” and “queer” aren’t somehow separate categories.
Once the warm-ups turn into workshops, Pedro doesn’t try to dictate proceedings. Though he’s happy to lean in when a decision has to be made, mostly he embraces his role as another musician contributing where he can, eager to learn wherever possible. At a glance, you’d struggle to tell who was in charge, with decisions seeming to occur spontaneously and democratically. Some voices are more prominent than others but there is never a battle for control.
It’s not just Pedro who ‘runs’ the project, though. He has help from other folk musicians: Rachel Sermanni, Josie Duncan, Grant McFarlane, Marit Fält and Laura Wilkie. In her own music, Rachel strays between traditional folk sounds and more modern indie folk/rock ones. Josie performs as part of Inyal, a band combining Gaelic song with electronic beats – sort of what you'd imagine someone would sound like trying to conjur up ancient spirits through shimmering modern instruments. Pedro similarly sets the sounds of the old country (his name is taken from the Scottish legend of the Blue Men of the Minch) to the pulsating, electro rhythms of the modern city. They all lean towards genre-busting, as Rachel says at one point during the group’s discussion: “Genre is like a veneer that’s preventing people from hearing. They hear something and immediately attach it to something they already know. Sometimes, you should just stop and listen.”
That sentiment is what holds the whole thing together. Artist MJ talks about pushing beyond the boundaries of traditional folk. “I quite like people like Seth Lakeman who do new and interesting stuff with folk. It’s cool because people who would not necessarily be into folk are like ‘Oh this is really cool’ and so it draws in a bigger crowd, while still being folk.” Singer-songwriter Finn admits he isn’t bothered whether he is classified as a folk artist at all. “That’s for other people to decide” he says, “I try to get away from genre, I find it quite limiting.”
It would be easy to see the February Celtic Connections gig as a sort of crowning achievement but, as far as Pedro is concerned, Bogha-frois has already been a complete success. “I've already achieved what I wanted. The workshops provided a safe space for people from all over Scotland to meet other LGBTQ+ folk musicians and make music together. Everything else is the icing on the cake. I am so grateful to Celtic Connections for providing us with a platform to show the work that we created and tell our stories to a big audience, but just being in a room with all these wonderful musicians was enough for me.”