Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Let your folk flag fly

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Without going too deep into the details, it is fair to say that life today in these United States occasionally has me casting longing glances toward Canada. Sure, our neighbors to the north are dealing with their fair share of problems—a once-dreamy prime minister that has become a sentient oil pipeline comes to mind, not to mention the steep price of milk—but on certain days, the grass really does look greener just across the border.

While the socialized medicine, access to education, gun-control laws and protections for civil rights are the big-ticket items that draw me in, it’s the smaller quality-of-life issues that seal this purely hypothetical deal. In my near-north fantasy, I live in Vancouver, where I eat dim sum, enjoy the benefits of well-developed mass transit systems and encounter politeness wherever I turn.

And I also go to music festivals, which Vancouver definitely does in its own delightfully unique way.

Take, for instance, this year’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which concluded its annual run. Keep in mind this is no small event—it’s the largest jazz festival in British Columbia and draws nearly half a million people each year to its 400 or so concerts. Miles Davis has played it, and so have the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, and just about every other jazz luminary you can imagine. This year’s headliner: everyone’s favorite jazz band, the Wu-Tang Clan.

Pack my bags and be still my beating heart.

Although slightly smaller in size, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is not to be outdone in the realm of diverse to downright weird programming. They’ve been at this for more than four decades, and their comfort zone is in the nooks and crannies and at the outer edges of what can be considered the folk tradition. If it’s music that in some way passes along a story, sound or way of life from one person to the next, it’s all folk to them.

Letting their folk flag fly is one of the secrets to the festival’s success, as is its stubbornly independent nature. Without major corporate sponsorship, festival organizers are free to take us on a magical mystery tour solely of their making, one that invites inclusiveness, encourages creativity, rewards curiosity and practices environmental stewardship.

They don’t exert corporate control over the songs or the messages of their artists, preferring instead to make as much space as they can for the rich and varied experiences of performers and audiences alike. They also try to operate with a goal of being zero-waste, and when the Vancouver Folk Music Festival packs up each year and departs its home in Jericho Beach Park, the only mark it wishes to make on the land is no mark at all.

But the point of the thing is the music, and the festival has three days—July 19-21—and six stages worth of it from all over the world.

Among this year’s headliners are Canadian alt-country stalwart Corb Lund, the Juno-award-winning Sam Roberts Band, the hugely entertaining Hamiltones, Edgar Allen Poe’s musical descendents Larkin Poe, singer and lively multi-instrumentalist Basia Bulat, the Rebirth Brass Band (fresh off Bellingham’s Downtown Sounds stage), and many others.

From there, things get wild.

Hear the sounds of soul from the future when South African-Canadian Zaki Ibrahim takes the stage. If zydeco is what whets your whistle, “America’s hottest accordion” winner Dwayne Dopsie and his Zydeco Hellraisers will be happy to oblige. La Mexcalina will convince skeptics that mariachi music and rockabilly really do go hand in hand. The 50 members of Tsatsu Stalqayu, ranging from toddlers to 60 years old, will captivate crowds with traditional Salish song and dance. “Progressive francophone folk” is the order of the day for Quebec’s Le Vent du Nord, while Oktopus’ goal is to “extend its creative tentacles across the landscape of East European music.” Namgar hails from Mongolia, and bring with them the music of that country’s borderlands. Meanwhile, national treasure Rambin’ Jack Elliott brings his extensive songbook and lifetime of experience as the original hardcore troubadour to the festival.

That’s just the tip of this very deep and wide musical iceberg.

Along with live performances, this year’s folk bonanza also features aerialists for the first time, and, as ever, a slate of workshops bearing such interest-piquing titles as “Muy Caliente,” “Tradical Folk,” “My Beat Your Beat,” “Time to Wake Up,” “Our Song is Strong,” “Klezdeco,” “Avant Bards,” “Dance Your Ass Off,” “Heartworn Highways,” and the alluring catchall of “Nontraditional Encounters”—to name but a few. You can watch, you can learn, you can “Shake Your Soul” and “Blow That Horn,” should you so desire. There’s something for everyone in this musical mix.

Even though pesky things like my jobs, my cats, my lack of citizenship and, ultimately, my begrudging love for a country that needs to start acting like it deserves it all conspire to keep me where I am, a weekend run for the border and to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival might be just what the doctor would order—if I had socialized medicine and could see a doctor without worrying about my enormous deductible, that is.

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