BWW Review: VANCOUVER FOLK MUSIC FESTIVAL Inspirits at Jericho Beach Park

BWW Review: VANCOUVER FOLK MUSIC FESTIVAL Inspirits at Jericho Beach Park

Folk people are the People's People. Folk signify kith, kin, family, ancestry, and flesh and blood.

Besieged by ungodly wealth, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival called forth the remnants of the Folk and the saga of revolutionary folk culture in the Americas.

Supertankers amassed in the swirling tides of English Bay. The weight of the global fossil fuel economy bobbed in the shimmering Pacific like a pandemic of eyesores. From the south, yuppie academes and metaphysical nudists looked on from the ivory towers and overpriced cafes of Kitsilano.

To the east, Point Grey was a frenzy of furrowed brows, as millionaire residents stared at bejeweled wristwatches while the eleven p.m. festival curfew approached. The glaring chandeliers of West Vancouver mansions lit across the bay, with conservatives still wondering for the last thirty-eight years why the billowing of marijuana smoke and the sounds of the banjo haven't yet dissipated.

Down by the water, young women greeted festivalgoers, soliciting donations to support homeless victims of sexual abuse for the local women's shelter. They reminded Canadians, and visitors alike, of the appalling statistics, corroborated by the national government, showing that half of all women in Canada experience sexual abuse.

Sobered music lovers walked into the sand forests of Jericho Beach, where seven stages furnished the rare, oceanic ecology. Not a water bottle could be found, as the festival expressly banned the ubiquitous polymer commodity. An astute waste management team hovered over rubbish bins, with a discerning eye for compostable and recyclable waste.

Grant Lawrence, main stage host and CBC bon vivant, agreed that Vancouver, and truly all cities across the globe, should employ a similar task force to clear the way toward a cleaner world.

Outdoor festivals are a practice in spontaneous, communal solidarity. In an exceedingly individualistic society, everything is suddenly shared, from the human waste accumulating in the stands of porta-potties lined like rows of hardened servicemen, to the smell of body odor from attractive dancers, while the music is in full swing. It's unavoidable, and all part of the fun.

Such a phenomenon, crossing the boundaries of society, culture, and ecology can best be described in the concept of the "Temporary Autonomous Zone" (TAZ), espoused by the anarchist thinker Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey. In ancient days, such as in the festival round of the Pharaohs of Egypt, celebrations musical and ritualistic overlapped, intertwined and merged throughout the solar year.

In the microcosmic experiment of Jericho Beach, dedicated solely to live folk music, the people returned to life for three days. Meanwhile, an unsympathetic periphery cast icy shadows of power, exploitation and capital. In one of the most progressive examples of arts sponsorship in Canada, where so much of cultural production is corporatized, the festival teamed up with eight different trade unions to host its reputably superlative lineup of socially conscious artists.

Unlike the belligerently destructive capacities of national economic interest, and the classist privatization of wealth, the festival also sustains intergenerational community. Margaret Gallagher, the evening emcee and host of the longest running program on CBC radio, noticed how many past volunteers have handed down the volunteer shirt to their eager children.

For so many parallel reasons, folk music is integral to the cultural horizon of the planet. The music of the People, known most succinctly as folk music, is not only a mirror to reflect on the deepest and commonest of human yearnings and remembrances. The sound of folk music is also a window toward lands far and wide that have nourished and cultivated the diversity of human life on earth.

In this way, the Vancouver-based world music troupe Ivan Tucakov & Tambura Rasa began one of the first concerts of the festival. Tukacov, an acclaimed local guitarist and singer, looked out over the densely forested beachfront and patiently watched as a strong gust blew over the faces of infants, elders, and everyone in between of all faiths, origins and characters.

He began to play a song from afar, beyond the continental shore to the east, across the Atlantic Ocean, where a wind once blew through the window of a curious youth and inspired Portugal to sing.

The Pacific mountain winds were then suffused in the lungpower of flautist and saxophonist Colin Maskell, whose intricately precise dynamism artfully pronounced the rhythmic harmonies of the Mediterranean. Flamenco dancer Maria Avila and percussionist Robin Layne both swung to the flow dancing exuberantly onstage with an irresistible charm.

The Iberian wisdom of the troubadours has found a firm footing on the sandy West Coast soil of British Columbia. In fact, the Spanish influence runs deep in the shoreline of Vancouver, going back over two hundred years. The Musqueam people, descendants of the only local First Nation whose reservation is situated within Vancouver, once peacefully welcomed a fleet from Madrid. With matchless New World hospitality, they laid duck down on the earth for the weary European voyagers.

New World vibrations shook the very earth as Brazilian forro accordion resonated with a vigorous lust for new music that can only be found from the likes of Brooklyn, where the band Matuto calls home.

Recently back from West Africa, where the US government sent them as musical ambassadors, Matuto performed part of the recording that followed, "African Suite."

Matuto is Brazilian for "country boy," which, in the region where forro originates, essentially means, Afro-Brazilian.

Blending original music with Brazilian bluegrass and Ivory Coast inspirations, Matuto exhibited an impressive technical virtuosity and harmonic lyricism, as co-founder Clay Ross's electric guitar dazzled alongside Rob Curto's accordion magic. The core energies of American musical power, spiced with a bucolic Brazilian fusion, fix a classic taste in the subtle hands of stellar musicians, who simply rocked under the intercontinental atmosphere, calming the seaside winds to an astonishing stillness.

Northerly, along the Atlantic coast, from the Brazilian island of Recife, through the birthplace of jazz in the bayou of New Orleans, and into the Mississippi, the festival led on to St. Louis. The "Mound City" of pre-Columbian legend is home to a sterling pantheon of American cultural icons, such as Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry and Scott Joplin, to name only a few.

LaFarge has since become another name on the starry horizon. Curiously, the surname LaFarge speaks to the earliest roots in the contemporary popularization of folk music in America. A man now mostly unknown, Peter LaFarge, signed with Columbia Records to be the face of popular American folk music. That was before Bob Dylan.

Today, the song, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," lastingly attributed to the voice of Johnny Cash, is one of the only remaining legacies of Peter LaFarge. His music, largely recorded with Folkways, stood up for the dignity of Native people. Arguably, as explored in the fascinating literary treatment, "A Heartbeat and A Guitar" by Antonino D'Ambrosio, modern folk music is based on a testament to the Native struggle.

Pokey LaFarge, on the other hand, graced one of the stages at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival with the sheer brightness of homegrown Americana jazz. His lyrics cut deep, hitting the bone and striking the nerve, only to feel for a pulse with the saccharine warmth of a voice authentic to "The Big Muddy".

About LaFarge stood one of the hottest bands on the map, an absolute treasure trove of instrumental gems. The caliber of musicianship proved the most exacting in comparison with others who had shared the stage that day, as everyone in view rose to stomp and sway to the beat.

As far as the opening day of the festival, Pokey LaFarge stole the show, exuding all of the vibrant charms of early jazz, the smoking jacket style, and whisky snifter ease. Of special note were the fiery temptress, Chloe Feoranzo on clarinet and saxophone, and the ginger young'un, TJ Muller, on trumpet and vocals.

The first evening of main stage closers began with the sultry Mama Kin. She was one of three siblings performing at the festival, demonstrating how the family tradition is universal throughout the audience volunteers and performers alike. She opened for UK songwriting legend Richard Thompson, whose name evokes the old-timers to drool with memories of the time when folk music reigned.

The rain-soaked French kisses and listless Amsterdam strolls punctuated his mean-driven guitar with all the punchy strength of the real Anglophonic roots of acoustic folk tradition. Thompson is a man whose songs have the prestige of having been covered by Dylan himself, and from that solid ground he performed the only solo main stage act.

Going from solo singer-songwriter to the Melbourne Ska Orchestra is perhaps one of the most contrasting dynamics in the history of concert arrangement. It's not every group that gets to fly a horn bandstand across the greatest of oceans, not to mention an authentic Trinidadian steel drum virtuoso.

The Melbourne Ska Orchestra challenged the very definition of stage presence. They were as amusing musically as they were theatrically. Hilariously led by the percussive genius of Nicky Bomba, also spearheading another festival favorite, Bustamento, the Melbourne Ska Orchestra is, to use the Australian turn of phrase, "heaps" of fun.

When a saxophonist took a romantic solo, Bomba was there to cool him off. When the soloist hit the ground running with a hot rhythm, he made him sweat behind a moving microphone. When the horn section introduced a phrasing, Bomba instigated a test of volumes between the crowded field of voices and the amplified reeds and brass.

At the flick of his wrist, everyone froze as he called out the various embarrassing moments among all, who then were released to the needful laughter and dancing of a people who had waited a year for that night. Finally, when least expected, Bomba threw everyone offstage and kept the energy on the up and up with nothing but a simple drum kit and two sticks, which soon struck almost every audible surface in sight, and without missing a beat, of course.

The first full festival day began slower. Sunbaked sands glistened before the shaded spruce and cedar. Families moved in atop the tinder dry straw grass covered in a mosaic of blankets as colorfully diverse as Canada. The weekend would prove a summery perfection of the coastal skies, under which people sank into the gloriously swimmable liquid azure.

At a morning workshop, Turkish oud and the stunningly textural voice of Ismail Fencioglu mingled with Hungarian tamburas, West African koras and Midwestern banjos. The lovely musicality of Söndörgö, Sousou and Maher Cissoko, and The Lowest Pair, all played in harmony, and to the time of the global heartbeat. Songs emerged from jams, and vice versa, presenting to the audience that uniqueness lives within diversity.

Somewhere in the cornering thicket, a Celtic band breathed into bagpipes and tweaked violin, guitar and bass strings. Breabach soon began with a hauntingly exquisite chorus of jigs, gradually exploring the respective heritages of the band. Speaking to the audience in the husky Scottish accent, Megan Henderson introduced the band, all songwriters and multi-instrumentalists.

The lilt and step of Gaelic airs danced in the inner ear with a bittersweet majesty, as guitarist Ewan Robertson spoke of the postwar period in Scotland before singing out a poem by the Orcadian writer Edwin Muir. The song, about the desperate economic migration of jobless Scots, many who eventually settled in Canada, pointed to the inherent endurance of folk music in an age of globalization.

The land is a perennial inspiration for folk songwriters, and for all people. Rural heritage is integral to understanding the folk traditions of all people and places, albeit more often than not today hidden beneath opaque layers of metropolitan urbanization. Vancouver itself is home to an indigenous folk tradition masked by a shameful and ongoing legacy of genocide.

As part of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Henry Charles, one of only six remaining Musqueam speakers living today, gives a First Nations history walking tour together with ecologist Celia Brauer. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the festival, as it gives local flavor to the truths of folk heritage in music, as in life.

Over eight hundred years ago, the descendants of Henry Charles built a longhouse made of cedar trees that would dwarf the largest girth in today's preserved forests. He is a direct descendant of a famed warrior, who fought the Spanish in the late 18th century.

Conservation biology specialist Celia Brauer spoke about how his descendants would not recognize today's vegetation, as so much of the plant life has since been imported.

Blackberries from India compete for sunlight among herbivorous dinosaur food, as Brauer reminded the walkers that the ecology is part of the greater community, equally as important as the human family. Charles corroborated university-sanctioned historical evidence with the oral storytelling of his immediate bloodline. He ended by singing a song and beating a skinhead frame drum for the First Nations veterans of WWII.

The presence of Henry Charles, and the nature of his stories, is enough to send the body shivering with awe and remorse. That there are only six speakers left among the First People of the land, where one of the most successful Western cities sits, demonstrating, arguably, as among the starkest of examples, the continuing genocide at hand, as perpetrated by the socioeconomic inheritances of Western Europe. The destruction of the earliest folk music, heritage and life of Canada is palpable when Charles speaks in Musqueam.

As the salmon and forests of the Coast Salish First Nations remain saleable to the maladaptive effects of capitalist exploitation, so the folk musician reiterates time and time again the importance of appreciating live music, and of supporting living artists. Perceptive, awake festivalgoers who have a mind for local history and social justice are led to wonder how the commercialization of popular music has misappropriated folk music towards what, in postcolonial studies, is known as ethnocide.

Such was the plea of Quebecer Cécile Doo-Kingue before the final concert of the festival, featuring Angélique Kidjo. On an afternoon so hot that sunstroke warned in the balmy air, only so heavy as where ocean meets forest, Doo-Kingue performed her exclusive show with a scintillating rush of soul.

She plays a mean blues guitar, a humbly strong artist with a penchant for doing justice to not only the musical traditions of Montreal and New York, where she was born, but also of Cameroon, where her ancestors lived to create her. Her latest album, Bloodstained Vodka is a tribute to the international LGBT community.

Her lyrics resonate with proud self-love. At one point during her concert, while in mid-song, she slapped her ass to the beat, reminding her audience that it's okay to appreciate the backside every now and again, if not at all times. Such displays really tap into the public spirit of uninhibited ribaldry and lowbrow playfulness. Otherwise, why is music played, if not to express at least some raw emotion?

Across the festival ground, the blistering sun poured out a heat wave in the languor of a dizzying late afternoon. The past twenty-four hours had been a glut of music, where piercing feedback and booming bass roiled the gut and weakened the ears. Entrenched walls of sound increase in volume from one stage to the next over the ecologically acoustical wetlands and fields of Jericho Beach Park.

Despite the chaotic flurry of tones in the effusive dissonance, such performers as Sousou & Maher Cissoko effortlessly transcended all sense of a divided ground. The People felt, danced and sang united under the wings of the loving husband-wife duo. Singing in Mandinko, Wolof, Swedish, French and English, Sousou & Maher Cissoko are also exceptional proponents of the kora instrument, a stringed gourd from West Africa.

The kora is traditional to oral storytelling of the West African folk musician, who would also serve as historian and genealogist. They are known as the jali, or griot, though today, since popularizing the instrument and its music, they are often now referred to simply as "artists". Aspiring to live up to the musical family tradition, Maher fled his father's home in Senegal, soon finding his footing as a musician in Mali and Germany.

It was back in Senegal where the pair first played kora together. The sight of two koras played by a man and a woman is as rare a sight as any on the contemporary scene where world and folk music share space. Together with the vivacious Samba Ndokh on percussion, accompanied by a bassist and drummer from Sweden, they sang, "I love you," in a foreign, African tongue, as the crowd danced euphorically. The Cissoko's stole the heart of the festival.

When it comes to stolen hearts, though, no one does it better than Basia Bulat. Her stage presence is golden, literally, as she skipped in front of the animated masses adorned in a glittering, sun-hued cape. Festival host, CBC radio personality, author and musician Grant Lawrence introduced Bulat as a fan, confessing that he has followed her since she released her first EP.

She shook the ground with all of the effervescent elegance of Joni Mitchell, making Canadians swell with pride at having cultivated such a young bearer of the brightest folk flame. Her lyrics alerted listeners not to fall into the tall shadows of her heart. As she stood on high, expressly grateful, her voice rang out through the exquisitely twilit horizon, a bath of colors suffused by her tastefully synthesized vocal frequencies.

While hailing from Portland, Blind Pilot is forever indebted to Vancouver, where they first played. Over a decade after the core duo strapped on instruments to their bikes and hit the trail up the West Coast into Musqueam territory, they are back, this time with a lush backdrop of eclectic accompanists and vocal harmonists. As humble as they are intelligent, to experience Blind Pilot is to let the serene pleasures and wise graces of life along the Raincoast sink in ever so gently.

The last line of their main stage show, written by vocalist and guitarist Israel Nebeker, struck deftly, straight to the marrow. "The only line that's true is the one you're from," Nebeker sang in the song, "The Red Thread", a direct hit against the nerve of folk tradition. This essence, so eloquently and memorably captured by Nebeker, speaks to how folk culture provides the solidest and most time-honored of foundations on which free individuals stand to affirm originality and independence, that fate is not written.

It is the art of popular song to, as Buffy Saint-Marie says, instill the effect of a 400-page book in three minutes of music. Whether listening purely for the instrumental musicality, or the immediate influence of live music on a crowd of people, folk music is more than anything a sonic vessel of stories, proverbs, expressions, and, at times, poems.

Yet in the midst of the heavy sonic gravity as is given to main stage headliners who crash the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, poetry is often lost in the total expulsion of volume and rhythm. In this way, Trampled by Turtles redefined a rhythm band, playing what can only be described as speed bluegrass.

Banjos, guitars, and mandolins were strummed and picked at such velocities as to border on absurdity. And this happened to be just what the doctor ordered. As the band passed around a bottle of whisky, Saturday evening concluded with hardcore folk virtuosity guided by the edgy lyrics of lead guitarist and vocalist Dave Simonett.

Folk musicians are lyricists, instrumentalists and composers. They are also most often steeped in ethnomusicology and serve the public as guideposts, signaling towards places remote and uncharted, yet that hold some of the more vital musical heritages that the planet has to offer a weary traveller of the soul. And then there are the folk musicians who are not only just a guide. Few are also a source of incontestable authenticity.

Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba fit the bill absolutely. They are as promising a family band as any the world has seen, and that is saying a lot. After even a brief listen, any hearing person knows this is true. The ebullient standing ovation they received under the searing blaze of early evening at the last day of the festival was testament enough.

The wife of Kouyaté, Amy Sacko, calls forth that wholesome kind of sustained vocal majesty as can only be rightly embodied from the breast of a strong, firmly footed woman. She is made of earth and light, and her presence is matriarchal, exuberant and artistic, holding her own as the daughter of a legendary Malian singer.

The ngoni is an unassuming instrument, appearing to the unknowing eye as nothing more than a makeshift craftwork of Africana obscurity. Six strings tightened atop goatskin pulled over a calabash isn't exactly a guitar player's greatest fantasy. That being said, to play like Kouyaté is as fantastical as to aspire for the genius of Hendrix.

Tastefully pedaled flanging overwhelmed the heights of musical possibilities in the Western ear, as Kouyaté plucked the ngoni with ecstatic sophistication. He is a true master of the instrument, a voice unparalleled in his art. Alongside two bass ngonis and another in his range, Kouyaté humored the audience, offering anyone his young nephew, an impeccable talking drum player, at the purchase of two CDs.

The recording, titled Ngoni Ba, literally meaning "Ngoni Power", not only upholds seven hundred years of Malian folk music. The group has also brought a renewed focus to women's issues, civil war, and a host of significant inspirations likened to any artist of the People, that cultural revolutionary known as the folk musician.

Folk history runs deeper through the land than the mainstream. As such, folk music slows the pace of history, diversifies its telling, and ultimately allows listeners to appreciate the nuanced character, and enduring vitality of diverse peoples, regions and times. It has been said by the great Nina Simone that the artist reflects the times.

In that sense, folk artists reflect alternate times, out-of-the-way places, and distinct peoples. Especially in the modern day, due to the prevailing homogeneous uniformity of Western nationalism, to be distinct is all the more important to the common struggle to be recognized, and so is crucial in the very real and volatile fight to preserve the original spirit of democracy, equality, independence and freedom.

As the West continues to purport the conveyance and securing of these founding constitutional values around the world, often by means of military control and indebting industrialization, the need to maintain and strengthen the reflexive distinctions of folk culture becomes all the more pertinent.

And then there are incomparable bands that fit almost no category, folk or otherwise, because they are, in fact, one of the most exact reflections of the people today. The evocatively stylish five-piece band from New York, known simply as Lucius, is the unsettled cry of the masses, heard as clearly as a piercing ray of starlight through the stormy cloudburst of now.

The vintage visages of lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig were seen on the cover of the Georgia Straight weekly on almost every street corner in Vancouver as the festival ensued. And once heard at Jericho Beach, practically everyone agreed, they deserve all the recognition. Pop, commercial, futuristic, they are an amoral instance of modernism, hearkening to the jet-setting era of the fifties, and beyond.

Over sixty acts from fifteen countries as far-flung as the Eastern Cape of South Africa culminated in Angélique Kidjo. Her fame precedes her. She shares the preeminence of Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, one of only two African women to win a Grammy. In 2008, she won the award for her album, Djin Djin.

When she sang Makeba's beloved "Malaika," the nerves of innumerable ears peaked with spine-tingling wonder. Here, all felt, is an original voice of the People, as all people, speaking in the folk dimension born of West Africa. The inimitable strength of her voice has emerged into the world as pure sound from the root base of humanity to the loftiest treetop aspirations known to the earliest of human eyes.

In terms of earning awards, Kidjo has been showered with welcome praise, winning a second Grammy this year for her 2014 album, Eve, dedicated to her mother, and which led her to record the music of women across the continent of Africa. At the awards ceremony in February, Kidjo dedicated her success to the women of Africa.

Kidjo is also an adamantly outspoken activist, speaking with a lucid intelligence about everything from climate change to the Ebola outbreak. Before festivalgoers in Vancouver slipped away under cover of processional lantern light, she sang and danced with all of the gargantuan love that pours from her music, unmediated by way of her Beninese soul.

She echoes the words of African music superstar Fela Kuti, who asserted that music is a weapon. And she wields her power with the might of history, speaking out against the night with words as clear as the midsummer Pacific sky. Women bear the brunt of wars, she said, with a voice so strong as to make anyone understand why the United Nations would honor her humanitarianism. And yet, she continued, they are not called to the negotiation table when truces are finally won.

There are many reasons why folk music festivals, such as held in Vancouver, are essential for popular solidarity. One of the most obvious is to demonstrate respect for the creative spirit of women in the performing arts, and not only as entertainers. As true to the roots of every folk music tradition, the musician is a storyteller, an indignant historian who has foregone unattainable objectivity in the name of social justice.

Too often, voices are silenced by the unquestioning, unlivable quotidian conformity of the day. The folk musician is as human as anyone, a man equal to all men, a woman not superior to any woman, a child without special privileges. Folk music harmonizes the voice of all people at once, leading a way, through as yet unheard music, to the succeeding generations who will sing, play and dance eternal truths into life, and altogether in the unbroken continuity so gloriously exhibited by the folk artists of today.

Photo Credit: Joe Perez

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