Friday, July 09, 2010

Food for the Soul at Beyond the Border Storytelling

This weekend, I found a bright light in South Wales and had the finest feast of storytelling set in a castle by the sea. The festival is the ‘Beyond the Border’ Wales International Storytelling Festival, which took place 2nd to 4th July in St. Donats Castle in South Wales. Beyond the Border is a unique festival in that it is the only truly international storytelling festival in Britain, and one of the largest with up to 2,500 people attending it.

What is unique about the festival is the setting - a beautiful medieval castle set on a cliff top by the coast with terraced gardens leading down to the sea, with woodland all around, and where festival goers camp out in a large field above the cliff top. In every garden there is at tent, and in every tent there is a storyteller – there are around 75 to 80 performances in the course of the weekend, storytelling with traditional music from around the world, puppetry, craft stalls and a bar selling the widest range of organic real ale from Wales. It was a fabulous and precious weekend for individuals like me - passionate about storytelling.

For two days, I set aside thoughts of everyday life, and paid attention to the words of some of the finest storytellers, entering and living the world of traditional fairytales and folktales from across the globe.

The theme of the festival looks at the culture of traditional stories along the silk road, following the footsteps of Marco Polo from Italy to Turkey, Armenia and Georgia, and in 2012 the festival will move on to traditional stories from Iraq, Iran, Central Asian republics and China.

According to David Ambrose, director of the Beyond the Border Festival, there are three things one needs to do in order to become a storyteller: listen to as many storytellers as you can, find the stories, and every day find the opportunity to tell a story. Traditional stories can evoke a magical world where there is hope, possibility, potential for change and transformation. I hope that we continue to generate hope, peace and harmony by keeping alive the precious art of storytelling. Here in the West, we are all orphans to tradition – and re-igniting the vibrant tradition of storytelling gives us the opportunity to remake and relive our cultural traditions.

The world of traditional storytelling very nearly died out in northern Europe, but it has not died out in African cultures, in the Caribbean or in India, and it is alive but in a slightly diminished form in other countries around the world. In Wales, there was a strong tradition of ‘bardic’ storytelling, where storytellers were employed by the head of a noble family, in the courts of kings and nobility, to tell stories that reflect well on the patron. These storytellers told the genealogy of the king or patron, and the stories were not to be trusted as they were based on flattery. The stories were accompanied on musical instruments, such as the harp – the kora in Africa. In 1980s there was a revival of traditional storytelling across Europe where younger urbanised storytellers were re-discovering the great wonder tales and turning these into performances.

Britain has a rich representation of different cultures, some of the leading storytellers in Britain come from the Afro-Caribbean community, the Armenian community, from Wales and other cultural communities who are in touch with a vibrant living tradition of storytelling. I thank these wonderful storytellers who are remaking their traditions for a truly magical weekend: Vergine Gulbenkian (Armenia), Jan Blake (Afro-Caribbean), Daniel Morden (UK), Xanthe Gresham (UK), Paola Balbi (Italy), Ben Haggarty (UK), Mary-Anne Roberts (Afro-Caribbean), Hugh Lupton (UK). Michael Harvey (UK), Chirine Al Ansary (Egypt), Serap Guven (Turkey) and many more.

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