Aug. 05, 2009 - Issue #720: The Season 2009
Edmonton Folk Music Festival
Global folk: The Edmonton Folk Music Festival brings a world of artists to our ears
Every August, a hilly basin in central Edmonton becomes a giant aural
melting pot. The djembe lays down with the banjo; the fiddle with the koto.
The drawl of the American South mingles with Caribbean sing-song, pan-African
French and British slang. Even the multicultural food fair that springs up
annually in Gallagher Park reinforces the global nature of the Edmonton Folk
This year, the Folk Fest brings together musicians from far-flung lands like Mali, China, Israel, Jamaica and the Danish Faroe Islands, and draws from different North American traditions to weave a diverse program. The music encompasses not only different cultures, but also a variety of textures and moods, from the reflective to the celebratory, delivered by solo songwriters or sprawling ensembles, and everything in between.
A program this rich doesn’t happen by accident, and certainly not one with an abundance of international artists. The Folk Fest has become a cultural institution over its three decades in existence, fuelled by $3 million annually (according to Alberta Venture, in 2005) and experienced staff deploying over 2000 volunteers.
Festival Producer Terry Wickham describes his role with the pithy encapsulation characteristic of those with oddball occupations that attract curiosity and envy. “I get to plan the party and I get to pick the music,” he laughs. “At the core, we’re very strongly folk, but we’re not afraid to bend around the edges. The biggest thing for us is quality, and after that we look for balance between regions, styles, energy and new and older artists, and who’s been here before or not been here yet.”
Wickham’s international wishlist is limited by pragmatic concerns. “A lot depends on who’s touring and their schedule,” he explains. “It has to be part of a whole tour because it’s expensive to tour globally. They can’t just come for a couple dates. Fortunately, we have the budget to pay them well, but not enough to cover a whole tour. There are artists we’d love to have, regions we’d like to represent better, but it doesn’t always work out.”
Visa issues can also arise. “We can sometimes phone ministers in the government to get a permit taken care of, but sometimes they get pulled out of line at the airport and there’s not much we can do.” Wickham points out this happens rarely. “These artists are usually big in their own country, and are well-travelled. They are prepared.”
Still, why would established artists go through the expense and hassle to
share their music with an audience in a Canadian prairie city?
“Artists love playing our festival,” Wickham contends. “We have 20 000 to 25 000 music fans on hand who may have never heard you, and we put on the best show we can. We treat our artists well: good-quality free food and drinks, a nice hotel, massages in the backstage area, hospitality volunteers. They’re taken care of. Also, musicians pick up vibes very quickly, and we welcome them—we’re a friendly festival in a friendly city in a friendly country.”
There are less tangible gifts, too. Wickham adds, “I don’t know exactly what sharing music does, but I know it’s beneficial. One of my joys is seeing a six-year-old beside the main stage dancing to music he’s never heard before. He’s enjoying it, pure and simple, in the moment. But who knows what that moment will mean someday?”
Even if they are part of a solidly defined tradition, artists are individuals, with their own relationships with music. Vue asked six of this year’s Folk Fest artists to tell us about the motivations and philosophy behind their music and the reasons they play to audiences near and far.
Thu, Aug 6 – Sun, Aug 9
Edmonton Folk Music Festival
Complete schedule at efmf.ab.ca
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