32nd Annual NW Folklife Festival

32nd Annual Northwest Folklife Festival
Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington
Memorial Day Weekend 2003

It’s been a few years since I have attended the Northwest Folklife Festival and while attending the 32nd annual festival, my mind took a turn down memory lane. The festival has endured many changes over the years, but has maintained its free admission, even if various festival staff, board members and musicians give PBS pledge drive speeches in between the 100’s of performances. Festival staff expected 200,000 attendees over the course of the weekend and the center grounds definitely felt over-crowded as I inched my way across the center on route to the various performances I attended over the four-day event.

For those individuals who thrive on statistics, this year’s festival boasted 18 stages, 1,000 performances from 120 traditions performed by 5000 performers. And for those who only wanted to get a bite to eat or buy handmade crafts, could visit 35 booths scattered throughout the center grounds. However, as I travel down memory lane, I recall the first festival I attended back in 1987. At that time, vegetarianism thrived among a large hippie crowd dressed in tie-dyes and Birkenstock sandals, playing drums on the lawn and occasionally checking out a performance of Greek dancers, Scottish bagpipes or tossing spare change into a fiddler’s case.
Although Folklife has transformed into a folk-roots festival featuring a broader range of world music performers, you can still find droves of Birkenstock clad hippies toting a coffee cup in one hand and a festival program guide in the other waddling their way to a performance. Tofu burgers have been replaced by large chunks of meat seen on various plates throughout the festival and the folky-folk scene has been augmented with a world beat consciousness that would put a smile on Peter Gabriel’s face.

This year’s festival promoted a maritime theme while highlighting the lives of fisherman and other maritime folk of the eastern seaboard and the West Coast of North America. Seafarers and musicians from as far as Scandinavia and Portugal were also strewn throughout this year’s festival programming. And while this theme focused on theatrical, dance, spoken word and other types of performances, I focus only on the musical portion. I started off with a Scandinavian fiddle performance with Michaelson & Myers. The Scandia-American fiddling duo introduced traditional fiddle dance tunes from Norway and Sweden, but tossed in a cover by the Finnish fiddle group, JPP. The fiddling was laced with Scandinavian humor and technical prowess.

Next I headed to the Seattle Children’s Theatre to catch the Maritime Showcase. The Yupik Savoonga Comedy Players, a troupe of elder women comedians entertained a packed theatre with slapstick antics, Eskimo humor on traditional songs sung in the Yupik language. They ended their set with How Great Thou Art sung in Yupik and although the vocals were slightly off-key, the women’s charming demeanor garnered hearty applause. Daisy Nell and her husband, Captain Stan Collinson chipped in a short set of sea shanties that delighted all of the fishermen and women in the audience. Local folksinger and fisherman Knut Bell also delighted the same audience members with his baritone vocals and songs about romance and rough seas. I felt a bit seasick.

Fado singers Ana and Jose Vinagre, accompanied by Portuguese musicians, Jose Pedro Ramalho (guitar) and Alfredo Paredes (Portuguese guitar) ended the evening with a passionate set. Jose kicked off with songs by the infamous Amalia Rodrigues and other fados that sported maritime themes. Ana completed the second half of the set with a similar repertoire along with commentaries about Portugal, the maritime culture and her guru, Amalia Rodrigues. When she asked audience members to name their favorite fadistas, a few yelled out “Mariza,” much to Ana’s dismay. She explained that she respects Mariza’s talent, but that you could hardly compare her to the legendary Rodrigues. Yet, any recent interest in fado could be connected to Mariza’s newly acquired international success and she will certainly keep the tradition going for another generation or two and at the same time, it’s a pleasure to watch older fadistas preserving the fado tradition and maritime themes.

On Saturday, I attended the Fiddler Showcase featuring world-renowned Cape Breton fiddlers Buddy MacMaster and Jerry Holland along with Appalachian fiddlers, Carthy Cisco & friends, swing fiddler Paul Anastasio with emerging talent 13-year old Michael Frazier, Jacob Breitbach and an array of other fiddling talent. Buddy MacMaster, (the brother of Charlie MacMaster and uncle of Natalie MacMaster) packed the theatre with fiddle enthusiasts. And his short set with Jerry Holland and pianist Robert Deveaux delivered the goods while acquainting novices with Cape Breton’s fiddling tradition. Two young fiddlers charmed the audience. Teen fiddler Sara Comer from Arkansas displayed a budding talent when she wasn’t hiding behind her girlish grin. Canadian swing fiddler, Michael Frazier also stunned the audience with his boy wonder abilities and his poise. Keep your eyes out for these emerging talents.

After I learned that the Scandinavian Music Concert with members of Varttina and Gjallarhorn was cancelled, I headed to an outdoor stage just as giant clouds roamed across the sky. As I waiting for the Latin American ensemble, Grupo Condor (from Beaverton, Oregon) to begin their set, I watched a parade of samba drummers pass. Grupo Condor struggled with the wind that was kicking the stage canopy and with their sound, but once the trio settled into their performance, they delivered warm and inviting Andean music from Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and France. The music featured pan flute, congas, guitar and vocals played by veterans of the musical genre. The group has already released several CDs and has a strong following in Oregon where they perform at various festivals.

I attended the Senegalese Show on Sunday. Charismatic drummer Thione Diop (“Jo Jo”) with the group Yeke Yeke and two seductive Senegalese dancers led off the showcase with power beats, polyphonic rhythm and entranced dancing. Although the audience seemed enamored with Diop’s vibrant personality and drumming abilities, the two dancers stole the show with rubber hips and non-stop smiles. Meanwhile, a colleague took her basket through the audience collecting cash for the performers, as is the custom in Senegal and one that honors the musicians.

San Francisco-based griot musician, Henri-Pierre Koubaka followed with quiet, yet mesmerizing set. Accompanied only by his guitar, I had a difficult time hearing his gorgeous songs due to audience members who decided to hold conversations during the short set. While solo performers deal with this sort of audience attention deficit disorder on a regular basis, Henri is an expert at engaging us with his stories and humorous antics. And despite the few rude folks in the audience, Henri’s soaring vocals and innovative guitar left a favorable impression.

I headed outdoors and caught a performance by local performer Gina Sala and her ensemble that consisted of a tabla performer, double bassist and guitar player who doubled on other exotic instruments. Gina coined the phrase global vocal that she fused with groove and devotional music while singing in Hindi, Bulgarian and other languages. The end result was peaceful music with a capitol “P” and a good remedy for my strained nerves.

I headed to the Mercer Arena on Sunday to watch the Arabic Show. Again, even though the showcases featured dancers, poets and musicians, I choose to focus on the musical portion of the show. Writer-musician Hanna Eady sent shudders through the audience with his haunting vocals and oud performance, but he kept apologizing for being on stage again. He had appeared earlier along side a trio of Arab women poets. Of course, no apologies were necessary since it seemed that everyone with the exception of the wailing baby (whose cries echoed throughout the concrete auditorium) seemed to be enjoying them selves. David McGrath introduced the ney (an end-blown flute from the Silk Road) with a performance laced with historical commentary. Soon a drummer joined David and the two musicians launched into traditional Arab dance songs. Master oud player Maurice Rouman also cited ancient history of his instrument, but his broken English proved difficult to comprehend. However, his passionate execution on the oud didn’t need any translation and was absolutely breathtaking. Rouman’s son-in-law and son assisted the frail octogenarian oud master onto the stage and also accompanied on traditional drums. Frailty, old age and Rouman’s small frame did not stop him from unleashing the oud’s hidden powers and secrets.

Finally, I capped off the long weekend with a solo kora performance by Seattle musician, Kane Mathis. Although I always enjoy hearing this West African harp, I would have enjoyed Kane’s presentation and comments more if the theatre ushers had the decency to lower their voices when showing latecomers to their seats and not shine their flashlights in our faces. On that note I will conclude my review, realizing that human behavior does play a big role in any festival environment. And that people come to the Northwest Folklife Festival for a variety of reasons, including people watching, networking, getting stoned, learning about new cultures and supporting local performers and colleagues. I went for the music and witnessed many dynamic events by musicians of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Many of the artists have released recordings and will be performing throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond this summer. For more information on the artists, please visit the NW Folklife Festival web site–directory of artists. www.nwfolklife.org