Project Smok’s utterly joyous concert of Scottish neo-trad music at the Hub

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2023 [6] – Traditional music played by Project Smok: Project Smok (Ali Levack [piper], Ewan Baird [bodhran] and Pablo Lafuente [guitar]). The Hub, Edinburgh, 12.8.2023. (SRT)

Project Smok

Traditional and original music including Arisaig, Wee Smoky, Struan’s, Mountain

And now for something completely different! Last weekend I wrote about the first of the Edinburgh International Festival’s late-night sessions at the Hub (review here), probably still my most memorable experience from the first week of the EIF. They are relaxed, accessible, and an explicit attempt to break down barriers and welcome audiences.

And that is not just for classical music. They have extended that to other genres of music, too, including Scottish traditional music. And the relaxed environment of the Hub sessions seemed to suit the three musicians of Project Smok down to the ground.

When most people think of Scottish trad, they imagine a guitar and some pipes in a highland pub, but groups like Project Smok have done a huge amount to expand the genre’s horizons in recent years. In fact, they are part of a new sub-genre known as neo-trad. Their basic work as a trio could be recognised by anyone with even the faintest familiarity with Scottish trad, but they shoot a lightning bolt of electricity through the form so as to both energise and enrich it for contemporary audiences.

That is partly because of their subtle use of electronics and amplification, but it is mostly down to their choice of instruments. Pablo Lafuente on guitar and Ewan Baird on bodhran are the group’s foundation, but the star is Ali Levack, whose virtuosity on the whistle has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. His fingers fly across its holes with such speed that the notes seem to be fighting to get out all at once, and his breathing is so focused that he seems never to have to pause.

Put the three of them together and the effect is explosive. The sense of rhythm is what keeps their music driving forwards, and there is an evocative Celtic lilt to their melodies that is often bittersweet. Most of the tunes they played in their Hub set, however, were fast and furious. Reels, jigs, gallops, it was impossible to sit still through them, and after a while the crowd stopped trying. Levack encouraged the crowd to get up and dance with an offer of a (fictitious) prize, and by halfway through the set the audience was up and jumping in the aisles. When he picked up his pipes the room almost literally went wild.

Their music is defiantly tuneful, relentlessly upbeat, and an utter joy to be a part of, but that is as much a part of the way they used the venue as the music in itself, and the intentionally relaxed atmosphere definitely helped. In fact, the event made me reflect on what a good job the festival has done in opening up the music programme to include events like this. Not long ago traditional music would have been confined to the Fringe or to a different time of year, but throwing open the doors of the EIF’s headquarters to a performance like this is a powerful statement about breaking down barriers and welcoming in anybody. And who knows whether someone in an audience for this sort of music might be tempted to try something else in the programme that they wouldn’t otherwise go near? It is a long time since I have been part of an audience for music that has been so completely, viscerally joyous. You don’t tend to get that in the Queen’s Hall!

Simon Thompson

The Edinburgh International Festival runs at venues across the city until Sunday 27th August click here for details.

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