If the words “folk festival” make you think of oldtimers playing banjos while someone accompanies them on the dulcimer, welcome to the club. That’s the image I conjured. And I’m not knocking banjos or dulcimers – I love them both. My parents raised me on Peter, Paul and Mary, and Ian & Sylvia.
But as the National Folk Festival approaches – it’s in Greensboro Sept. 9-11 – Charlotte historian Dr. Tom Hanchett took time to set me straight.
“If you want banjos and guitars, you can definitely find that. Balsam Range from Haywood County plays that style of music, and the Quebe Sisters from Texas play Texas-style fiddle and sing like the Andrews Sisters.
“But there’s every other kind of tradition, too.”
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Being in North Carolina has special meaning now (for the festival). This is a celebration of our better selves. This festival has always been about bringing people together.
Julia Olin of the National Council for the Traditional Arts
He means it. The 82-year-old festival, which is free and expected to draw up to 150,000, brings together musicians, dancers and a range of craftspeople – some 300 in all – to stages and workshops and demonstrations, and calls itself the first national event to “present the arts of many nations, races, and languages on equal footing.”
It transforms downtown Greensboro, said Sally Peterson N.C. Arts Council: “This place comes alive. You’ll see buskers and fiddlers and banjo players. There are cloggers in the street. Saxophone players will wander up and down the streets. This is so much more than the stages. There’s music everywhere.”
That means rockabilly, reggae, jazz, zydeco, mariachi, Celtic, honky-tonk and hip hop, before you even get to the food, and sports and cars. (Yes, cars. We’ll get to that.)
So what IS folk tradition?
“Folk tradition,” said Hanchett, is any tradition passed down from person to person. (He said I’m not alone in my confusion and pointed to the “folk revival” movement that peaked in the 1960s as the reason many think “folk” equals Pete Seeger and not, say, DJ Grandmaster Flash – who, by the way, will be in Greensboro for this Festival.)
Another way you can characterize folk traditions, he said: “They’re easy to pick up, but challenging to master.
“I can play the guitar, but I’ll never be B.B. King.”
So the festival offers a glimpse of masters of these traditions – from legendary guitarist Bill Kirchen (who’s played with Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello) to nationally known tap dancer Leonardo Sandoval.
But it also illustrates change.
“What is traditional and what isn’t is constantly changing,” says Julia Olin of the National Council for the Traditional Arts. “Culture is always a moving target. Look at the hip hop arts; they’re almost a half-century old.” Even the places folk traditions come from have changed, she says, moving “from the front porch to the street corner.”
And as America has welcomed immigrants, our cultural traditions have grown. Reggae music may have originated in Jamaica, and fado in Portugal, but both are part of the American cultural fabric now. Clinton Fearon, formerly of the Gladiators, was born in Jamaica but now calls Seattle home. He and his Boogie Brown Band will perform in Greensboro. New Jersey-born Nathalie Pires, developing an international reputation as a fadista, is also in the lineup.
And from Charlotte ...
Joining the lineup from Charlotte – “validation of how special Charlotte is,” said Hanchett – will be:
This is sacred, spiritual music. This is music that feeds the soul and heart.
▪ Cedric Mangum & Co., a shout band representing many of Charlotte’s United House of Prayer for all People congregations.
“This is sacred, spiritual music,” said Mangum, a trombone player who refers to himself as just one of the leaders of the band. “This is music that feeds the soul and heart.”
He expects to perform two 20-minute sets with a band of six to eight performers – and the band will do songs people likely know by heart, such as “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
(Charlotteans can catch Mangum and his band regularly at the United House of Prayer for all People in Third Ward.)
It’s beautiful is all I can say. And the only way to know how beautiful it is, is to hear it for yourself.
The Rev. Alton Lee
▪ The gospel International Community Mass Choir founded by the Rev. Alton Lee and his wife, Mercy, both originally from Liberia.
Lee said Western audiences are only now becoming familiar with African music. Describing its power isn’t easy; he said it must be experienced. “It’s beautiful is all I can say,” he said. “And the only way to know how beautiful it is, is to hear it for yourself.”
He said his choir, after performing once in any given venue, is generally invited back. “People respond to the African rhythms – the bass, the Congo drums. The choir is dancing onstage, but the audience may find themselves dancing, too.” He knows plenty of people who exercise to African music, he said: It’s got a rhythm that gets people moving.
The choir will take about 15 members to Greensboro for the festival. Lee said it’s an opportunity for his group to reach a new, larger audience and that he feels a “duty” to recruit new fans to African gospel music.
▪ Chef Khaled Mahrousa, born in Syria to a family known for its cooking and restaurants.
He’ll demonstrate making the Syrian form of baklava. That pastry differs significantly from the Greek version more familiar to many Charlotteans (hat tip to the nearly four-decade-old Yiasou Greek Festival, coincidentally going on Sept. 8-11).
The Syrian form, also made with phyllo dough (“and love,” said Mahrousa, who now has Jasmine Grill in Charlotte), is crunchier and has a longer shelf life, he said. The secret to making baklava? “I cannot tell you exactly. It takes about two years to be able to learn to it properly.
“You must put all your feeling into it. Have you ever seen ninja movies where they close their eyes and can somehow feel everything around them? It’s like that.”
These people will join others in the festival’s N.C. Folklife area, a setup curated by the N.C. Arts Council and the N.C. Folklife Institute.
Underscoring the N.C. pride is the fact that Greensboro getting to host this festival is “kind of a miracle.”
To be in N.C. ‘has special meaning now’
That’s how Peterson, folklife program director with the N.C. Arts Council, characterized it, since the city had to find partners, funding and submit a proposal in a very competitive review process.
Part of why it’s so competitive: The festival offers a shot at continuing celebrations. It moves around the country – 28 cities so far – and typically stays for a three-year run in each. That way, it hopes to leave enough groundwork behind for a local version to carry on.
This is Greensboro’s second year.
Both Peterson and Hanchett both point to Guilford County’s distinction as home to the state’s largest and most diverse refugee population as part of its winning combination.
“Greensboro is an example of how compassion, generosity and concern can unite people and create conditions of acceptance,” Peterson said. In an election year when immigration is much talked about, she said, “There is another narrative – one in which we recognize each other’s humanity.”
What is traditional and what isn’t is constantly changing. Culture is always a moving target.
Julia Olin of the National Council for the Traditional Arts
Olin, of of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, said that after HB2 passed, people called her organization to suggest North Carolina might not be the right place for an all-inclusive festival this year.
But “being in North Carolina has special meaning now,” she said. “This is a celebration of our better selves. This festival has always been about bringing people together. It’s a 360-degree look at your own country. It is both timely and timeless.”
The range of acts and demos at the National Folk Festival is staggering. When Olin talked about the constant churn of “culture,” she mentioned the lowrider subculture. (And once again, my notions on what constitutes a folk festival were blown away.)
Ruben Olmos and members of the Lowyalty Car Club from Burlington, N.C., will speak about North Carolina’s lowrider culture on Sept. 11. The N.C. Folklife Institute website pays tribute to this art form this way: “Great lowrider vehicles draw attention. They capture the spectator’s eye with chromed detailing, art work, super-active hydraulics, audio systems and tricked-out interiors.”
Yes, you can see these mobile works of art. But you can also meet Olmos and the other artists who created them.
Hanchett said talking to the artists and performers is a big reason – maybe the main reason – to head to Greensboro for the festival. “The performances are really just an excuse to mingle and get to know these folks.”
National Folk Festival
What: The festival runs Sept. 9-11 in downtown Greensboro, with more than 300 traditional musicians, dancers and craftspeople in performances, workshops and demos, plus children’s activities, Southern and ethnic cuisines, craft beer, dancing, storytelling and more. It kicks off with Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys at 6 p.m. Sept. 9; performances begin at noon on Saturday and Sunday.
Details: It’s free and no tickets are required; nationalfolkfestival.com.