Wednesday, July 17, 2013
What's in the Water in Winnipeg?
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.