Skip to main content

Festival 2013

ALASTAIR WHITE (BATTLEFIELD BAND) INTERVIEW

Alastair White (Battlefield Band)

Alasdair White was heading for an academic career at one Scottish institution when fate intervened and he was taken around the world by another.

At 18, he was considering studying languages and ethnology at Edinburgh University when he was offered the chance to join the Battlefield Band, already one of the country's most successful groups who had been playing for nearly 30 years.

Eleven years on White is now one of the elder statesmen in the band which is still going strong, albeit with a recently revised line-up, and this spring released their 28th album, Room Enough For All.

In July Stornoway-born White heads home when the Battlefield Band will play for the first time at the award-winning Hebridean Celtic Festival where White first appeared on stage as a talented 13-year-old fiddler.

"I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I was going to go to Edinburgh University but was saved from a life of academia", he said.

White, who grew up immersed in traditional music in Lewis, recalls that shortly after joining the band as a teenager he headed off to Germany for his first tour, quickly followed by tours of the UK and America.

"It was a whirlwind of new places and exciting things", said the musician who is now based part of the year in Brooklyn.

He said returning to Stornoway to play at this year's festival will be special: "HebCelt was always a great source of inspiration growing up, seeing top bands on your doorstep.

"I've played a number of times at the festival but this will be the first time there with the band. We're very proud to be playing a festival of the calibre of HebCelt and really looking forward to it."

Although he has been away from Lewis since he was a teenager, White, 29, retains strong links with his home island. While at the Hebridean festival he plans to carry out fiddle workshops, of the kind he attended at the festival as a teenager, and will also be tutoring at Gaelic festivals in South Uist and Lewis before and after HebCelt.

The native Gaelic speaker is also half way through a two-year distance learning spelling and grammar refresher course via Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Skye: "I've lived away from Stornoway for a long time now and I was not speaking Gaelic so I lost a lot of it, although I'm slowly clawing it back. I'm doing this course with varying degrees of success as perhaps I'm not the most conscientious pupil in the world."

Named after the Glasgow suburb of Battlefield, where the group was formed by four student friends in 1969, the band take their mix of traditional and new material to audiences in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the Middle East & Canada, as well as more than 60 cities annually in the United States.

Ever evolving, the current line-up - White, Mike Katz, Sean O'Donnell and Ewen Henderson - have been together for about two years and were named Scottish Folk Band of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards in 2011.

"I've now been with the band for 11 years and I'm the second longest serving member "(behind Katz who joined in 1996), said White. "Although we've now been together for a while it still has the sheen of a new line-up and with that has come a fresh impetus. We're playing a lot of new material and I'm sure people will be keen to hear what it sounds like.

"We do different types of gigs - you have to nowadays - which are tailored to the venue and the audience. The gigs in the US are in theatres or arts centres, then in the summer we have the festivals and perhaps fiestas in Spain where the pace and set list are different.

"In Lewis where there is a fantastic tradition of music, especially pipe music and Gaelic songs, the audience will be familiar with a lot of the stuff we play so they want us to bring out a few favourites. And our patter is a bit different on stage as we won't have to walk people through the finer points of Scottish music."

Interest in traditional music is growing all the time and the Battlefield Band are continuing to ride on the crest of audience demand: "There has been a massive explosion in traditional music in the last decade or so. It has become massively popular and there are a lot of great players around these days.

"It's the kind of music we love playing and listening to and that's really chiming with audiences. The word we hear a lot is 'authentic' and we are certainly that."

Catch the band live at HebCelt of Friday, 19th July.