All Folked Up

Good Times at the Edmonton Folk Festival

For the last three years, there has been something I often think about throughout the year, an added highlight to my summers, something that I used to hear from afar, or sometimes from right outside, but never was serious enough about going in. Now that I’ve had a part, the whole thing seems to pass way too quickly. Once more I am here craving more, wishing that all weekends could be that fantastic. I’m referring, of course, to the weekend of August 5-8, 2004, when the Edmonton Folk Festival rocked Gallagher Park. I wuz there!!

If you are one who is open minded and piqued by unusual and eclectic world music that may teeter between folk and tradition, this place is for you. If you are socially and politically aware and/or concerned — which is not limited to “tree huggers” and “granolas” — you’ve got to take a listen to some of the outspoken artists who have come through every year. If you rock and roll to the gospel and soul, you shall dig on what is most usually in store. You like jazz? You just might find it here! What about a bunch of world class international musicians having a live (needless to say, spontaneous) jam session, giving birth to new music right there for YOU the people? Could you ask for anything more?

A wide spectrum of musical genres is consistently offered at this festival. Every year you can be certain that you’ll discover a rare and fantastic artist, or several, and enjoy a needed break from the typical mainstream crap that is being passed off as music these days. A creatively charged weekend such as this one has stayed alive because of “the people” and, of course, the musicians. But there is another essential element to this mixture: the volunteers.

Three years ago, I was happy to accept a position as a volunteer, which has brought me a new experience of the festival. The volunteers are the heart and nerves of this event and the team effort, coupled with tireless energy, is inspiring. It takes several weeks to prepare the grounds, starting with a fence to secure the area, and then such things as sewage systems, electrical wiring, and mapping the site for construction. There are seven smaller stages, the main stage, media/first aid tents, and crafts tents to be erected. Anticipation builds as a new tent pops up everyday and the hill gradually transforms into a whole new world. Once almost everything is in place, the concessionaires bring in their treat-mobiles and set up shop, along with the beer gardens, the outhouses, and other important facilities. After many hours of tweaking, final adjustments are made and a sound check is in order. Everything is connected and it works!

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Edmonton Folk Festival’s inception. A big crowd was expected, but not dreaded. Some of the other major music festivals that occur in Alberta during the summer have gained bad reps because of the type of crowds they attract. It seems that for some of these events there are people whose musical experience includes getting wasted and creating havoc; therefore theft and violence is becoming more common. A music festival where you have to watch out for your neighbor and your possessions can undoubtedly diminish the whole point of the event. This is far from what the Edmonton Folk Festival is. Through the years, the loyal folkies have proven to be respectful of their neighbors. There’s no need to bring up the elbows here because no one is in a hurry, and it is understood that there will be no pushing or shoving if a person wants to get in and stay in.

It’s 4:25pm on Thursday, the opening evening headlining with Jaojoby at 6pm. As is new policy, ticket holders will enter in groups of 25, at one minute intervals. The first group is escorted and led down the hill by a bagpipe player. In previous years, once the gates were opened everyone was let in for a wild, free-for-all scramble for the best piece of grass (I’m talking about the hill here people!). Although this was the extent of any sort of mayhem, it wasn’t the safest way to get everyone seated. This year’s goal; walk, don’t run. This became the pace for the weekend. What a thrilling moment it always is — watching from the bottom as the hill goes from green to pure human in about fifteen minutes.

Jaojoby, a group of approximately eight from Madagascar, was impressively jubilant with a really upbeat mix of drums, great percussive rhythms, and voices that accomplished exactly what was intended; to get the people to dance! The urge was unbeatable. One thing that gives me such reverie, is to see people so moved by music that they groove with no reservations. At the folk festival you will always see young and old in rare form; free and dancing like most only do in the privacy of their living rooms. This is a place where people from all walks of life have come to ground level with no other agendas for the weekend but to live and let live. And it’s a family affair!

The Dixie Hummingbirds followed Jaojoby, with a sweet and rich blend of harmonies that felt divinely inspired. This group recently marked their 75th anniversary, so you can imagine how much soul was coming through in their voices, and how tight their sound was. Then, Hawksley Workman projected a clear and beautiful sound, which I never realized he had. His true talent was revealed, as it usually is, in his live performance. This night was an awesome way to break into the weekend!

My favourite artists were on Sunday night. The group Lhasa, although not everyone’s delight, captivated this audience. The group features a beautiful singer named Lhasa de Sela, who is intense and intriguing. Singing songs in English, French and Spanish, the combination of instruments brings elements of gypsy and circus music to mind. This haunting and unusual sound is more than likely a reflection of her own life, as she traveled through Mexico, the United States, and Canada, and even joined a circus with her three sisters. To some she might seem strange, but to the dedicated and impartial crowd of the Folk fest, she seemed to feel right at home.

To (almost) wrap up my feel good weekend, the ever vibrant Ani Difranco rocked the mike. This was the second time I had seen her live and I certainly hope it’s not the last. Like Difranco, who has brought her charm to the festival more than once, many of the acts coming through are regularly invited back and gladly return. That speaks volumes for the success of this great festival from the organizers to the dedicated attendees.

The best part of my weekend as a volunteer was attending the volunteer parties, which makes all the work put in before, during, and after the festival more than worthwhile. Also, these parties combine three of my big loves; dancing, music, and people (you thought I was going to say beer didn’t you?). There are always bands from the festival that play inside the ballroom, which are usually the lively, highly danceable groups. This year Spirit of the West had the house shaking on Sunday at the wrap up party. Then there are the quiet rooms upstairs, which are often crowded and littered with festival musicians who happily jam with whoever is up to it. It’s fantastically refreshing to see all free to be themselves, as well-known and even famous musicians jam with the local Edmonton talent.

So here I am, several weeks later, still thinking about that great weekend and how I can get my fill next year. I hear there are folk festivals equally as fantastic in Vancouver, Canmore, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, and Montreal, to name a few. Since the musical lineups are different for each festival, one could attend all of them and not have it feel repetitive. I’ve been told there is a similar vibe or ambience among the Folk festivals across Canada, so it’s possible to be a part of this magical time more than once a year.

A home away and near to home. A brief pause from the hustle and bustle of 9 to 5. A place where you can trust that what you give you will get back in even better shape. A time to meet new people, reconnect with old friends, and discover new music. The perfect opportunity to get all folked up!