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The Independent Culture
"What you get from me is the real raw material," laughs storyteller Sheila Stewart. "I'm the roots of the tree, not the branches." A traveller from Blairgowrie, Scotland, Stewart learned her trove of stories the old way, sitting on the knee of her ballad-singer mother, Belle Stewart. "Ballads and folk stories were all just part of the package deal of our traveller culture, pumped into me from two days old," says Stewart. "There's no one else left now, though, so it's all on my shoulders."

Stewart once performed for President Ford in the White House, part of a long tradition of tale-telling in the Oval Office. On Friday, however, she joins a dozen other yarn-spinners from around the world, for the start of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon", a two-day storytelling festival to be held outside the National Theatre in a specially erected rug-lined nomadic tent called a yurt.

"My stories show travelling people have got something to offer apart from a dirty lay-by," says Stewart, who specialises in macabre murder ballads like "Tifty's Annie". Stewart wasn't allowed to perform while her parents were still alive, since they could better "give the stories justice". To earn her right to tell the traveller tales, she had to learn to locate the conyach - the ability to bring out sincere feeling from within yourself, and sing from the heart and soul rather than the head. "Learning the conyach, is like potty-training - you never forget it," says Stewart, "Why the hell use your soul when you're dead when you can use it when you're alive?"

Jan Blake (above) picked up her love of storytelling growing up in a Jamaican family in Manchester where proverbs and sayings were alive in the household. She has now developed a fondness for bawdy African and Caribbean stories about marital squabbles. "There's growing sectarianism all over the world," says Blake, "but go to any place, any culture, and everyone responds to a story, everyone understands sweat, love, fear, hate, revenge, all the things that make up the human condition. Everyone's on that same journey to be enthralled."

`East of the Sun, West of the Moon', Cottesloe Square, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-452 3000) 4 and 5 Sept: Friday 4pm, 5.30pm, 7pm, 9pm; Saturday 11am, 12.15pm, 2.30pm, 3.45pm, 5pm, 7.30pm, 9pm, 10.15pm; storytellers include: Edmund Lenehan, Hugh Lupton, Pomme Clayton, Abbi Patrix

Sheila Stewart: 4 Sept, 5.30pm; Jan Blake: 5 Sept, 12.15pm, 10.15pm, pounds 4 (pounds 3 concs)

Judith Palmer

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