Rob Smaling Today, a selfportrait.FolkWorld article by Eelco Schilder :

Traditional music from the Netherlands Part V:


For this edition of traditional music in the Netherlands I talked to Rob Smaling. He came to my attention when I found out that he was part of the Dutch folkscene, not only during the revival in the seventies, but also before this period. Besides that he was a member of one of the first bands who recorded traditional Dutch material called; Wargaren. For a whole afternoon we sat down and he told me his story, showed me old pictures and we listened to some unique recordings. This article is just a small reflection of an intriguing afternoon of Dutch folkrevival history.

Why folk?
Already in the sixties Rob showed an interest in folkmusic. First by listening to the heroes of that period, later as a musician himself.
Rob: 'I got interested in folk music by listening to artists such as Dylan and Baez. Reading about Dylan led me to Woody Guthrie and other aspects of traditional American folkmusic. It was an early lp by Alex Campbell called Way out West, with American folksongs that got my attention and I found out he had recorded English songs as well. It was the way he arranged old songs; with respect but also in his own natural way. It's hard to explain why this was the music that I liked, it must have something to do with emotion. I mean, you like a certain style or you don't like it. I might as well have liked classical music. When I got interested in folkmusic the researcher in me came to life. I kept on searching for backgrounds and connections and slowly but surely I discovered the richness of folkmusic. For instance finding out that many American songs could be traced back to the British Isles made me become aware of all these wonderful mechanisms in traditional culture.
Rob in his Robert Johnson look trying to win the TalenthuntIt was also Dylan who made me decide to be a musician myself I started of with the blues, mainly bottleneck style. The inspiration came from a American Folkblues Festival concert, I attended one day in Amsterdam in 1967. It featured heroes like Bukka White, Skip James and most of all Son House. A short time after , that same year, there was a folk-talenthunt in Utrecht, my hometown, and I took my chance. I started off with a blues. There was a lot of mumbling in the audience and among jury members after this first song and I thought they didn't like it at all. So I decided to do an Alex Campbell song instead of a second blues. Afterwards I found out I didn't win the contest because of that second choice. The mumbling jury appeared to have been very impressed by the blues performance.
This folk-talenthunt had produced a lot of new unknown musicians and some people took the initiative to start a club where they could perform about once each two weeks. This must have been about 1966, Folk Centre Utrecht (FCU) was born. In the beginning I took part as musician, later on I started to do some soundengineering. At the end of the sixties we even released an lp with all musicians who regularly played at the club. The lp was recorded in a small office, cables under the door and the musicians in another room, almost like the old field-recordings. Gradually I started participating in the organisation of the club. In the years that followed we started setting up festivals, this happened in 1970, 74 and 76. One of those festivals had Scottish music (amongst others with the McCalmans and researcher Hamish Henderson) as central theme. I already had an interest in Dutch traditional music. So when at one of these festivals musicians asked us if we didn't have Dutch material because we always copied English songs, for me that was the final push to dig deeper into our own traditional music culture.'

Already on the FCU lp Rob plays with his group Pitchwheel English songs. This group would later turn into Wargaren and record one of the first and one of the best, Dutch acoustic folk records.

Rob Smaling in wargaren
Rob: ' Pitchwheel was the first attempt to start a folkgroup although at that time we concentrated on non-Dutch material. I started this with Gert-Jan Smidt and we used to play at my small room in the attic. One day we heard Rina de Heus, who sang songs of Odetta with a unique voice, at a club and although we were a bit shy we dared to ask her if she wanted to sing with us and she said yes, although she was as shy about the offer as we where at the time. Shortly after Kees van der Poel and fiddler Jurek Willig joined the group while Gert-Jan left. One way or another all of us had an interest in Dutch traditional music and we decided to change the name from Pitchwheel into Wargaren and concentrate on Dutch music. This formation didn't last very long. By the time the lp Met stille trom (With Silent Drum) was recorded in 1976, the group really didn't exist anymore. We were a group of people with very strong personalities and Kees went to join Wolverlei, I think that are the two main reasons we quit. At that time I was working for several organisations that had something to do with Dutch Traditional Culture and I also started to work for Folk live, the only radio program on folkmusic in the Netherlands at that time. My next project as a musician came in the early eighties. This time once more with Gert-Jan. The project was called Deining (meaning Backwash but also Stirr). We searched for good musicians and singers, their background was not important. We wanted to make electric folk, but take it a bit further than Steeley and Fairport, more into the eighties. More extreme using amplified instruments to underline the emotional content of the material, not just to lay down a rhythm. For some months we improvised and experimented with the traditional material. To show the sources and the results we included a compilation of the original fieldrecordings on the LP. Rob Samling solo in the seventies.
I'm still proud of the result, although our own demo's had more edge to it. But that's what happens if you get the opportunity to work for a year in spare time of a professional studio with ditto soundengineer and studio musicians participating! After Deining I did one more project for a EBU radiofestival in Hamburg with a group of traditional musicians of my choice. When I returned from the trip to Germany, I put my guitar in its case, hardly ever touching it again. For some years I lost my interest in folkmusic and it's only since a while that I'm taking time to rediscover today's folkscene. In particular I like the experimental, creative approach of groups like Hedningarna from Sweden and the North African/European mix of Orchestre National de Barbes from France. It seems to me there's sort of a second folkrevival emerging, with a whole new generation appreciating this kind of music.
One of these days I'll probably write an article about the early days of "the first" folkrevival in the Netherlands.
Especially the Folk Centre Utrecht period is not very well documented, but very interesting. That first movement was a very broad one, consisting of working people as well as students. I collected a lot of newspaper clippings and pictures at that time. Would be nice to share this part of history with the folkcommunity of today.'

Recommended recordings by Rob Smaling
Rob Smaling also choose some Dutch/Belgian records that in his opinion were highlights in the Dutch folk scene.

Informations to the photos:
(1) Resting his case: Rob Smaling Today, a selfportrait.
(2) 1967 talentcontest picture: Rob in his Robert Johnson look trying to win the Talenthunt.
(3) Rob Smaling in wargaren.
(4) Rob Samling solo in the seventies.
(5) Rob smaling in Deining


The series "Traditional Music in The Netherlands" tries to provide an overview of Dutch traditional music from both the past and the present, presenting musicians or groups who represent some of the most important trends or movements in Dutch folk music. The first four parts of the series were:

Do you have any questions about the article? Do you want more information? Are you interested in one of the albums mentioned above? Feel free to contact me any time; also with suggestions for future articles etc or comments on this article. Eelco Schilder

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