Folk Fest – Meaning in Diversity

As the Calgary Folk Music Festival solicits ticket sales, books artists and ultimately throws Calgary’s largest and most significant annual music event, it uses the word “folk” very loosely. Even the performers you could confidently point to as decidedly folk often elude a common thread or theme, a sound that would tie them together.

In fact, the artists and performances that graced the seven stages at Calgary’s 24th annual festival were so diverse and broad that most people wouldn’t dare try, much less succeed, at a blanket definition.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the tried and true folkies: the standard stereotype that forms your preconceptions. Al Steward, Ian Tyson, Ricky Skaggs–that these artists are categorically folk is a very comfortable assumption. On the other end, you have global dance group Horace X (dressed in vibrant fluorescent costumes), Canadian hip hop artist Buck 65 and Alacie and Lucy, two wonderfully intriguing throat signers from Nunavut.

And there you are, in the middle of a tarped field in 30 degree heat, the smell of mini donuts and curry mixing in the air, trying to give meaning to it all.

That’s the magic of the festival, variety and unpredictability drive its success and appeal. It’s one thing to see the Waifs perform on the main stage (and they did so tremendously), but it’s an entirely different experience to see them alongside Australian aboriginal dancers White Cockatoo, complete with body paint, wooden spears and a didgeridoo. While Canadian pop-folk artist Kathleen Edwards will come to Calgary again, it’s not likely Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy will join her on stage for a duet of "Hockey Skates."

Perhaps more important is all these very different and very specific elements of music work together, forced onto a fenced-off island for four days of rigorous performance schedules, collaborative workshops and 13-hour days.

But the interconnectivity stretches much further. The mainstage performances complement the side stages; the side stages complement a crowd hungry for diversity; the crowd complements the vendors, community tables and surprisingly delicious food; the vendors complement the communal and self-contained spirit of the festival; and everything within the boundaries carved by the Bow River fits together like a carefully assembled jigsaw puzzle.

That is the common thread festival-goers come searching for. Like a perfect community, these often contrasted elements exist not only in harmony, but by feeding off and affecting each other.

That is the reason, easily defined or not, that the festival will continue to grow beyond the reaches of its own borders, drawing from every facet of folk, world, blues, country, jazz, afro-beats, soul, gospel, pop, rock, hip-hop, dance, and so on, and so forth.

If you’re looking for meaning, it’s that simple. It’s about bringing music, musicians and music lovers together. The result is a special melange of sound that exists in no other environment.

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