Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Before heading to Winnipeg, I contemplated why there is such a strong Folk Arts community there. While the Arts community is thriving and well in Edmonton, I was always curious as to why Winnipeg is such a strong breeding ground for Artists. Is there something in the water?
Sound + Noise creator, Michael MacDonald, discusses in his PhD thesis how Western Folk Music Festivals are like a "series of festival-garden plots. Like any garden plot it is a piece of land that has a variety of connections with the land that surrounds it. But gardens only exist where there are gardeners to tend to them." What is it about the gardeners in Winnipeg that make them different than the gardeners of other Folk Festivals in Western Canada?
After attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival (WFF), I have some hypotheses of my own on why there is such a strong Folk Arts Community in Winnipeg. I feel a large part of it is due to the creation of the WFF, which was made possible by the timing and presence of passionate individuals, Mitch Podolak, Colin Gorrie, and Ava Kobrinsky. In addition to becoming one of the premiere North American music festivals, there are Folk School education programs and Young Artist mentoring programs that help to educate and support up-and-coming local Folk Music Artists.
Another important factor is the environment and location of the festival itself. The process of going out in the "wilderness" has been reinforced by literature from "Hansel & Gretel" to Homer's "Odyssey". There is something about being in the metaphorical wild, whatever the wild may be, that promotes the process of self-discovery. Located in a Provincial Park, the WFF capitalizes on the isolation of the location to create a temporary community. There is a strong sense of inter-disciplinary artistic collaboration seen in the use of Art installations throughout the entire festival site. These are not static pieces of Art, but Art that is allowed to be touched and manipulated by its audience. This community energy does not dissipate once the Festival is over. The WFF serves as a retreat for the Winnipeg Arts community and they take this renewed sense of identity back to the city. The WFF also has The Folk Exchange where they host Open Mics, Concert Series, Workshops, Songwriting Circles etc. that run year-round. The summer festival is only one component of the organization.
I had a chat with Mitch Podolak, Co-Founder of WFF and Home Routes while at WFF. WFF is the Festival template of Western Canadian Folk Festivals like Edmonton Folk Music Festival (EFMF), Calgary Folk Music Festival, and Vancouver Folk Music Festival. He ventured a hypothesis at why the Winnipeg Arts scene is well and thriving:
"For the most part the population here is Eastern European. All those people brought their culture with them. In Winnipeg, there is an 80 year old Mandolin Orchestra. This is a blue collar working class culture here, combined with people holding onto a sense of tradition," he states. "There's something in the water I suppose. There's something about the fusion of the cultures. There's a certain sense of the fact that the working class people tend to hang onto that more than the middle class bourgeois...I believe in people's power. I want to teach people they can run things. You don't need politicians. You can just run them," states Podolak in an inspiring tone.
The political fervour of Podolak is an important factor when considering the structure of the Western Canadian Folk Festivals. The Festivals are fueled by the volunteers, which symbolize the working class in order to promote a sense of individual ownership. There is a deconstruction of class divisions. The volunteers and artists eat in the same areas, socialize the the same backstage areas, and they are all invited to attend the same parties. Podolak believes "the festival is tied to the working class. The common peoples experience... all festivals, Edmonton, all of them, every one of them, they are going to have the next Bob Dylan's on their stages in the next 3-4 years."
However, Podolak realizes that music festivals are prone to mutation depending on the needs at the time:
"The songwriters will become the anthem writers. That's what this whole show is. And when this happens, [festivals] mutate because they have to. I think we're in store for a lot of fun over the next ten years. I'm kinda hoping I'll survive long enough to see it," he says with a laugh.
While I have only tapped the surface of the WFF culture after being an Edmonton folkie over the past years, I have a greater sense of the historical lineage and ideology underlining the Western Canadian Festival experience. The main thing is to evaluate what unifies all of us in the Folk Festival experience. As different as some of the things at the WFF were from the EFMF, there was a sense of familiarity at the festival site. The familiarity is due to the Festival structure from the volunteer-powered initiative and collaborative workshops. The WFF is like a new friend that I have just met, but it feels like we have known each other longer. It is a friendship I intend to sustain.
Memorable Moments from WFF 2013
Twila (T), Sable (S)
Favorite Workshop Session
T: 1974 "It was amazing to see the music I grew up with there: Stringband, Sylvia Tyson, and seeing them interacting with each other."
S: Songs I Wish I Wrote "I loved seeing artists like Lindi Ortega, Danny Michel, Bhi Bhiman, Robert Ellis, Sean Rowe covering songs by the Clash, Talking Heads, and Elvis Presley. It lets me hear their soloistic voice as they perform song covers."
T: Nathan Rogers "It was such a beautiful venue at the Little Stage in the Forest, seeing his interaction with the audience and his daughter made you feel like you were a part of the performance. You weren't just watching the concert."
S: The Garifuna Collective with Danny Michel "I liked the workshop dynamic of this concert with both Artists taking turns to perform in each others songs. I am always a fan of hearing musical collaboration."
Favorite Festival Moment
T: The Mary Ellen Carter Finale on Mainstage "The Mary Ellen Carter is one of my favorite songs. It's was amazing."
S: Lantern lighting at the Finale "Watching the first family of Folk Music, Nathan Rogers light the floating lantern at the end of the WFF finale with his daughter just reinforced the community strength of the Folk Fest community in Winnipeg."
This post is part of a series detailing the experiences of Edmonton folkies, Sable and Twila, heading to Winnipeg Folk Festival for the first time. See other posts here.
Cross-posted on Sound + Noise.
Saturday, July 13, 2013
As the heavy humidity settles throughout the festival grounds at Birds Hill National Park, signalling the impending rain, Danny Michel enters the Media tent early for his interview. He sets down a black case on the table, shakes my hand with a smile and asks, "Is it alright if we do this now?" He has just come from the autograph session following his joint Winnipeg Folk Festival session with the Garifuna Collective.
"No problem," I reply, gathering my materials for the interview.
Michel is entering the third week of his joint Canada and US Tour with the Garifuna Collective from Belize, whom he collaborated with on his Juno-nominated album, Blackbirds are Dancing Over Me.
"What Colour Are You?" (Official CD Mix) by Danny Michel
Michel is often seen performing solo shows on festival circuits but, this time, he has brought an entire troupe of musicians with him. "I've decided to go from solo to ten people," he laughs while reflecting on this abrupt transition. Michel's current tour is filled with unique challenges, such as negotiating work visas and coordinating with the Department of Fisheries for customs clearance of percussion instruments like turtle shells. "Everything has been so stressful and so much work, but as soon as we get on stage... it's worth it," he states.
The dancing crowds and enrapt audience at Friday's sessions supported that fact. Both Michel and the Collective shared the stage, taking turns to perform each others songs. A trend which they will follow for the rest of their tour. As a result, all their performances generate a collaborative workshop energy.
Collaborative projects are challenging to execute because it requires a openness and trust from all participating musicians. There is an uncertainty in the fact that neither party is sure of the musical result. Yet, at the same time, that is the beauty of the process because there is an excitement at the prospect of musical genesis. Michel describes his first meeting with the Garifuna Collective in Belize for the album:
"I walked into the room of people I've never met being this little guy from Canada. "Hi, everyone. You should trust me and play on my record and play my songs," and [they were] looking at each other going, "mmm how is it gonna work?" Michel smiles, recalling memories of the situation.
"How did it work?" I inquire further.
"It just worked. I'd go in and show them a song idea, record the guitar part, I'd sing it, and then we'd have my guitar and vocal. Just like a good ol' singer songwriter song then we just started piling it on... It kinda just became itself," he replies.
Even when the record was finished, Michel wasn't sure of the result. "I was close to it. I was so in. So deep that I couldn't see it with any perspective anymore," he demonstrates for me while squinting to see the details on the side of his black case. However, Michel reveals that he never felt like it was a risky endeavour to record the Blackbirds album because he had a solid rationale for starting the project with the Garifuna Collective.
"I really did this for a musical adventure for myself. I wanted to learn about their music. I wanted to open my mind and get beyond Pop music. I wanted to become a better artist. So this was a little self project for myself. That was the intention," he says with genuine honesty in his voice.
When considering how Michel's lyrics from What Colour Are You? "Why can't we all just communicate", I wonder if his current album and tour with the Garifuna Collective symbolizes how open communication between cultures can be successful.
Michel delves into his thoughts, reflecting on the cascading effects of his collaboration, his gaze unfocused upon the surface grains of the wooden table. He remerges, maintaining his humble initial intent, "If I can be a part of inspiring anybody to try more things like [musical collaboration], that's an honour to me. I looked at this project like, well, I'm just gonna try it and see what happens. If it doesn't work, if it fails, then it's still going to be a great learning experience. And the exact opposite has happened. It has snowballed. All I wanted to do was make a record. Now it's a record, then a tour, now it got released in the US, now it's on the Polaris prize list." Michel elaborates further, "I think that maybe happened because it was really genuine. It wasn't a plan. We didn't have a marketing plan. All we did was put our heart into something and try. And so maybe that's the secret to its success - that it was honest."
Michel's travels to Belize and Garifuna collaboration is a definitive moment for him as an Artist, not only learning from the perseverance, vibe, energy, and heart of the Garifuna Collective performing on stage but, lyrically as well, contemplating the future topics he wishes to address as a musician.
"There was some point, probably around the time where I got tired of Pop music and where I wanted to go to Belize... there's gotta be more to say. There's gotta be something important to say. There's gotta be a way of saying it without it sounding preachy...where I'm bonking people over the head with it. So I've tried really hard to kinda say that without sounding preachy... It was a turning point in my life. I don't even know if I know what it was, I just thought I can't do this and not say something more. So I'm just trying to be more thoughtful."
There is no grand plan for Michel. No gleaming whiteboard with dry erase etchings detailing travel and song plans for his future. He prefers it this way. Guided by musical intuition, he does what he feels is right for him at the time. Michel does reveal a general philosophy he follows:
"My goal is to keep following the goal of writing more thoughtful music and just trying to get much better at it... I have something to say. So in 50 years, if I'm gone... one of my songs could still be important and still have something to say to somebody," he says thoughtfully before laughing at himself, amused at how deep his contemplations led him.
Regardless of topics, songs, or collaborations Michel chooses to address in the future, they will always originate from his humble intent to challenge himself as a musician."This Is What Is" Danny Michel with The Garifuna Collective - feat. Paul Nabor by Danny Michel
Listen to the whole interview here: Interview with Danny Michel at Winnipeg Folk Festival by misssable
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
After starting our morning with some Winnipeg sights and fueling up on caffeine at Parlour Coffee, it was time to venture out to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, located about a one hour drive from downtown Winnipeg. As we made our way north on Winnipeg's Main Street, we joined the highway that eventually led us to Birds Hill Provincial Park Northwest from Winnipeg.
We celebrated our arrival with a high-5 and posed for a picture with our vehicle among rows of grass parking. It was a long commute from Edmonton but we had officially arrived at the Winnipeg Folk Festival!
"It's the same, but different," Twila remarked as we surveyed the Main Stage crowd.
Indeed, the festival energy that we know and love from the Edmonton Folk Music Festival was present but there was a secluded magic about having the Winnipeg Folk Festival nestled away in a flat clearing of Birds Hill Provincial Park. A temporary city is built in the park to accommodate the festival community. As Oh My Darling, The Avett Brothers, and City and Colour headlined the opening night of the festival, Twila and I began our assimilation process into the Winnipeg Folk Festival culture. There will be more to come in regards to this process in the next few days.
This post is part of a series detailing the experiences of Edmonton folkies, Sable and Twila, heading to Winnipeg Folk Festival for the first time. See other posts here. Cross-posted on Sound + Noise.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Photography by Twila and Miss. Sable
Road trip Timeline
5:09 AM Farewell Edmonton!
7:57 AM Roadside continental breakfast at the Lloydminister Husky...
12:21 PM Full-serve gas pump in Lanigan, Sask. Luxury!
1:08 PM Foam Lake - THE best place on the world to live.
1:59 PM Yorkton - Home of the Cardinals.
2:48 PM Langenburg - Home of the Future! Where we finally found our 3G network again!
3:02 PM Farewell Sask, Hello Manitoba.
3:07 PM Roblin. Almost like Goblin.
4:00 PM Internet cafe and ATM access spotted in Stratclair.
5:25 PM Photo stop in Gladstone with the Happy Rock.
6:56 PM Hello, Winnipeg!
We've arrived just in time for the Winnipeg Folk Fest.