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Festivals For Us Folks

Throat singers Melody Kuneluk and Evik Ayalik at Yellowknife’s Folks On the Rocks festival.

Chances are good Richard Davis will find himself in Edmonton’s Gallagher Park on Aug. 8-11. It’s where the confirmed folk festival lover has been most second weekends in August over the past decade.

There’s nowhere Davis would rather be–and not just because it’s his home town or because he helped run the Edmonton Folk Music Festival for years. Truth is, Davis has a pretty high opinion of folk festivals right across the country, and his work as a Canada Council for the Arts program officer only whets his appetite for more. He sees the country’s collective character idealized at these gatherings, and revels in the fact there’s a smorgasbord–“one for every taste.”

“There is something special that evolves at a Canadian folk festival…that has little to do with what’s happening on the stage,” he says. “It comes about because festivals are rooted in the community. They’re not commercial events.” Instead, Davis contends they’re places where neighbours meet and music fans look after one another. “(Folk festivals) are an expression of some of the best… of what we think of as Canadian. They’re very civil affairs…. There’s definitely a respect for tradition, but also a sense of inclusiveness that allows us to include presentations from many cultures.” Our festivals are well thought of internationally, often held up as models of what a folk festival should be, Davis notes.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians take part in an estimated 200 folk festivals each year. “Folk festivals are prospering,” trumpets Northern Journey Online, a Web site devoted to Canadian folk music. “Canada, a large land mass with a small population, generates an arresting amount of folk music.”

Ottawa Folk Festival artistic director Chris White comments: “To me, it’s the atmosphere and feeling of community that is created that makes folk festivals special, and different from other outdoor presentations…. It’s this tradition of blending things together and paying attention to the roots of where our culture comes from (that is the essence).”

Each festival has its own unique mix and identity, reflecting the tastes of the organizers, market considerations and the community. Yet all are places where you feel comfortable bringing the kids: Many schedule entertainment for young audiences, and feature children’s craft and play areas. Seniors are also welcomed–often with admission discounts. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival, for example, admits seniors free.

Performers love folk festivals, too. Listen to the sunny reflections of Karen Savoca, an American singer-songwriter-percussionist who goes out of her way to perform at Canadian festivals each summer because she thinks we do them so well. “What’s really beautiful about music is that the more you listen, the more you hear, and the more it brings us together…. When you see people dancing, enjoying the music and the sun…it celebrates what’s really good about life. It’s the world I want to live in.”

Quebec’s Danielle Martineau and British Columbia’s Shari Ulrich are veteran folk festival performers. Both women value the informal, smaller-stage workshops most festivals offer for their sense of exchange, open spontaneity and fun. Says Martineau: “As a musician, I’m very passionate about the many ways that we respond to music, and I look forward to meeting the musicians of the world.”

Ulrich calls her festival time “an oasis,” with workshops being the “heart and soul” of the experience, full of magic moments when artists connect and something new is born.

It’s a nice way to travel, too. From Yellowknife, N.W.T., to St. John’s, Nfld., to Duncan, B.C., folk festivals abound. They’re set in fields, beside lakes or rivers, beneath mountains and in scenic city parks. Many offer camping, such as the much-loved Blue Skies Music Festival that arises out of a farmer’s field near Clarendon, Ont., in August. It welcomes some 3,600 eager campers and day visitors over a single weekend with coveted campsites offered by lottery.

Festivals can vary from the huge crowds and eclectic music you’ll find at the Winnipeg Folk Festival to the locals of New Brunswick’s Miramichi region enjoying traditional music (in both official languages) at the Miramichi Folk Song Festival.

One thing’s certain: If you visit a Canadian folk festival it will be a rich, memorable experience. There’s a broad selection of cultures and influences offstage–in the vendors’ market, food court, family activity area or workshops that accompany the main event.

Festival devotee David Cadman of Vancouver says each is “a microcosm of how we’d like all communities to live and work.” You’ll encounter diverse cultures, he adds, which “makes the Canadian multicultural experience very real…and shows how harmonious we can be.”

The Miramichi festival, launched in 1958, is considered Canada’s oldest continuous folk festival, though folk music has been circulating in various forms since the earliest times. Today’s traditional folk reflects what immigrants and other early settlers were playing on fiddles, pipes, whistles, accordions and other instruments when they arrived here. Then there’s aboriginal roots music–drumming, throat singing and very different rhythms.

The Mariposa Folk Festival got things going on a bigger scale in 1961, attracting thousands over the years as it wandered gypsy-style from Orillia, Ont., to Toronto to Barrie. Capitalizing on the folk music-hootenanny craze sweeping North America, Mariposa soon outgrew Orillia, and in 1963–when some 20,000 fans outnumbered local residents almost 2:1–city council kicked the festival out. It was welcomed back in 1999, and is now a much more community-based event, says festival president Gerry Hawes.

Mariposa begat Regina which begat Winnipeg and Blue Skies, then Owen Sound, then festivals in St. John’s, Nfld., and Vancouver and Canmore, Alta. By 1980, Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife had joined. Today, we can enjoy many smaller music festivals barely known outside their locale.

While the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines folk music as “traditional music as made by the common people of a region, community, etc. and transmitted orally,” Vancouver festival executive producer Frances Wasserlein simplifies it to: “Music that people make and then perform themselves.”

People see performers they’ve never seen before, hear songs they’ve never heard, experience entirely new beats. In the book Celtic Women In Music: A Celebration of Beauty and Sovereignty by Mairead Sullivan, Cape Breton’s Mary Jane Lamond examines this role. Lamond is known for her stirring renditions of traditional Gaelic songs. “Tradition is such an important part of what the culture is. It’s something we all have to think about. I just don’t mean the dancing and playing and singing. I mean the whole culture,” Lamond is quoted as saying.

She says entertainers must make the traditions meaningful for a wider 21st century audience: “People relate to music that is strongly rooted in community. It gives people something you can’t get from a homogeneous culture.”

Canadians agree. In a Heritage Canada poll last year, some 60 per cent said their attachment to the country is greatly affected by “traditions, costumes, literature, language and everything that includes culture.”

Two men who have been watching the Canadian folk scene for decades agree folk festivals are enjoying a renaissance. “People are coming out in droves…. There are now three generations going to folk festivals,” observes Ottawa’s Chopper McKinnon, an emcee at the Ottawa festival and renowned host of “Canadian Spaces,” the 21-year-old CKCU radio program about folk music that is now broadcast internationally through cyberspace.

Festivals are “omnipresent,” says Gary Cristall, former Vancouver festival artistic director and a talent agent who is writing a book about Canadian folk music. But Cristall articulates a coming-of-age problem that most folk festivals have grappled with in recent years. It’s the question of losing that “alternative,” counterculture cachet that was typical in the past. Now, he says, festivals skirt closer to the mainstream in order to draw large crowds and raise money to stage expensive events.

Travel Canada says some of the half a million people who work in this country’s $54 billion tourism sector are probably employed by or associated with folk festivals. The Canada Council distributes about $400,000 a year to support folk festivals and performers.

Communities usually embrace festivals, because they’re feel-good events that many citizens love to attend–and for economic reasons. In Perth, Ont., no one can say exactly how much money the annual Stewart Park Festival brings in–but last July every bank machine in town ran dry over festival weekend. And every campsite and lodging was booked well before the Friday night kickoff.

The event is operated through the Downtown Heritage Perth Business Improvement Area to help keep the downtown core vital, explains BIA co-ordinator and festival producer Heather Hansgen. The family-oriented party began 12 years ago as a 175th anniversary present to the town. It is offered free of charge in an idyllic and spacious park, and has grown from some 10,000 visitors in the mid-1990s to more than 18,000 in 2001.

Public and private donations, corporate sponsorships, fundraising events and community support keep the $55,000 celebration afloat. The town provides setup and maintenance crews, free parking and security assistance because it’s “an asset to the community,” states Perth treasurer Maribeth Salter.

The Legion’s Perth-Upon-Tay, Branch has been involved most years, making its hall available at reduced rates for after-hours entertainment. “It’s such a good thing for the town,” says branch secretary-manager Shirley Hamilton. “The branch takes part because they asked us…and that’s what the Legion is all about, helping your town out.”

Folk festivals wouldn’t exist without hours of loving assistance from volunteers who number in the thousands, and do everything from hang signs and posters to nurture the performers. Many help raise funds throughout the year with auctions, concerts, dances and other special events.

Steve Tennant of Perth is on-site coordinator at the Stewart Park Festival. He says an abiding love of live music prompted him to get involved almost 10 years ago. Now, he’s hooked on the camaraderie that exists among performers, volunteers, technical crew and fans.

Many volunteers put in more hours than required, Tennant adds, and take personal pride in the quality of the presentation. Another satisfaction is watching a local band mature as it is exposed to new audiences at the annual festival.

And so the tradition continues.

Celtic Capers

The house lights are dimmed, the hall quiet except for fiddle and guitar notes tripping brightly from the stage. People are leaning slightly forward on hard chairs, eyes fixed and faces set. There’s hardly a pair of clapping hands or a smile in the place–but don’t think they’re unappreciative. Just the opposite, in fact. They’re listening hard, concentrating on every note and nuance of a musical form that’s distinctively theirs.

It’s ceilidh time, and a multitude of feet will soon tap out a rolling rhythm. If the listeners like what they hear, there’ll be an explosion of applause at the next break. Welcome to Celtic Colours International Festival, one of Canada’s most specialized musical highs, happening each October in beautiful Cape Breton.

Renowned fiddler Natalie MacMaster tells the home town crowd at the 2001 opening night that she’s always on her toes when she plays for them, because she knows they know all the tunes. “But that’s all right, I love it!”

Whether Celtic Colours is really a folk festival is open for debate. It certainly celebrates and aims to preserve the Celtic tradition that is the heart of Atlantic Canada, but producer Max MacDonald considers the event somewhat narrower in focus than a true folk festival. The format also differs from the standard out-in-the-park approach, with shows taking place in schools, halls and community centres all over the island. No matter, smiles are broad when a visiting Scottish singer praises organizers and tells the audience at one sold-out show that the old songs and traditions are faring better in Cape Breton than in some parts of his homeland. Ceilidh, by the way, is defined as a party featuring traditional Scottish or Irish music, dancing, songs and stories or a concert at which traditional Scottish music and dancing are performed.

Praise for the festival comes from many corners. The nine-day, $700,000 party was named the top cultural event in the country by Attractions Canada last summer, and the American Bus Association pronounced it the top event in Canada for 2001. Both homegrown and invited international entertainers are featured at events ranging from concerts and ceilidhs to workshops, storytelling sessions, lectures and demonstrations. If you’ve never tried step-dancing, this is the place to learn!

Now entering its sixth year, Celtic Colours brings in more than 8,000 visitors each year–almost half of them from “away”–and pumps about $5 million into the local economy. The festival has widespread support, from “gold sponsors” like the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture and the Royal Canadian Mint to some 600 volunteers who help make it happen.

Many of the visitors come from the United States, MacDonald notes, and those U.S. dollars do much to help maintain island businesses and culture–and create an ever-widening circle of fans. With the closing of the island’s last coal mine last December and the collapse of the cod fishery, traditional occupations have vanished, so anything that brings in money is considered a blessing. “It’s a good thing for us, because all we’ve got left is tourism and the artists,” declares native son and performing success J.P. Cormier.

One group eagerly watching the festival’s growth is the membership at the Legion’s Port Morien, N.S., Branch. It hosted a Celtic Colours concert for the first time in 2001, and branch treasurer-bar manager John Kennedy is pleased with the experience. “We just wanted to try it out to see if it would bring in some revenue” to the struggling, 43-member branch, Kennedy says. “We thought it went over really well.”

With a near-capacity crowd, the branch earned more than $650 through its 20 per cent of net revenue from ticket sales. In addition, bar receipts were good and its profile was raised. The branch would be happy to host again.

At another concert, local site organizer and dedicated festival volunteer Burton MacIntyre is beaming. His event has gone well, with lively performances and a responsive audience. This is his fifth year to help out, and he’s feeling proud. “You get the enjoyment of doing something to help keep the culture alive…particularly for the young people, and that’s important.”


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