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The folk in Vancouver (8643)

8643Advocate Travel2003-05-14

The folk in Vancouver

A folk frenzy
in Vancouver

Set in what may be the most beautiful city in the world, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival heads into its 26th year, bringing together not just folk music but also a diverse and friendly assortment of the "folk" themselves, from all over the world.

Pat Blue Heron

"A festival that's all over the map." "Music to shake your bones to." "Hot and cool." Those are some of the many slogans that have been used to describe what I believe is the best music festival ever: the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

The Vancouver fest turned 25 this past year! I was there for this incredible silver anniversary celebration, and I urge you to consider attending the 26th festival this July.

I first discovered the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1986, the year of Vancouver's World Fair Exposition. I attended both events that year, the folk music festival following the expo. My partner at that time was a great pin collector, wearing the pins from the many nations and Canadian provinces that were represented at the expo. I was wearing an expo T-shirt. At the festival, we quickly learned of the politics of the expo, particularly of the plight of many homeless people who were "evicted" from their homes on the streets of Vancouver's north side, displaced once again by yet another devastating life change.

In spite of our political incorrectness, we found a community of fabulous music from all over North America and the world. I'll never forget hearing a huge array of "women's music" at that first festival: Sweet Honey in Rock, Holly Near, and Vancouver's very own Ferron. And it was so awesome to hear this music in a mixed crowd: heterosexual couples and same-sex couples, people in their 80s and families who take their children to the special kids' stage. Well, this felt like how the world ought to be, I've been thinking ever since! Since then I have returned the third weekend in July, every year but one, to this glorious coming-together of kindred spirits gathering around music, the universal language.

And if that wasn't enough--this all takes place in what I think is the most beautiful city in the world, at least from what I have seen so far! Vancouver is in the westernmost province of Canada. A coastal city, it sits along the quiet seawaters of the English Bay, with gorgeous snowcapped mountains rising to the north. All this incredible beauty is seen up close from Jericho Beach Park, along the city's waterfront, which provides a breathtaking setting for this most special annual event. The performers and the audience are awestruck by the surrounding scenery. As the music is projected from the stage, great blue herons, bald eagles, and of course the festival's mascot, "Pete" seagull, soar above.

But some say, "Folk music?" and think of Joan Baez or Peter, Paul, and Mary. Although there have been some famous folkies who have played the festival--Pete Seeger and even Loreena McKennitt in her early days--the festival organizers have described folk music as "the music of the folk...from the world over."

Performers at last year's 25th anniversary celebration included Tanya Tagaq Gillis, an Inuit throat singer from the far north of Nunavut; B'Net Marrakech, a seductive Moroccan women's band and belly dance ensemble; Ruthie Foster, singing in the African-American blues and gospel tradition of Texas; two Afro-Cuban dance bands; England's Horace X, with a funky folk circus-groovy beat; Rokia Traore, singing harmonious melodies of her homeland, Mali; Lui Feng, a Chinese-Canadian beautifully playing the 2,000-year-old pipa; Amampando, a traditional group of marimba players, dancers and singers from South Africa;and La Bottine Souriante, called Canada's best band, playing traditional Quebec tunes with a funky beat. Many more have performed, including some old festival favorites: Utah Phillips and Ferron.

The festival's format hold its own traditions as well. The festival begins on Friday evening and continues all day Saturday and Sunday into both evenings. Each day, hard-core festivalgoers line up hours before the gates open for the "Birkenstock 500," a race for the blanket space closet to the big main stage. In the festival tradition, space is claimed on a first-come basis, beginning with the space closest to where the evening performances are held. Throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday, listeners move about to seven different smaller stages, where anywhere from one to five performers or bands present smaller concerts, either solo or around a workshop theme: "Girls With Guitars," "Ancient to the Future," "Rhythm Magicians," "Try a Little Tenderness," "Sing Out Sister," just to name a few.

The diversity of music, people, ages, and cultures represented at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is incredible! Though we '60s folks are still a big portion of the audience, our children are coming, and even some grandchildren. When I first discovered the festival my son was 13, at that age when he didn't want to do anything with his mother. Last year he turned 30, and he and my daughter-in-law came for the first time, discovering that some of the things Mom does are cool.

Others grew up going to the festival, including Vancouver's own Veda Hille, who performed her composition "Silver" for the 25th anniversary. Still others are second-generation performers, such as Toshi Reagon--daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, cofounder of Sweet Honey in the Rock--who brings her own dynamic style as a performer who will carry this festival to its 50th anniversary.

I could go on and on about the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and the importance it serves in filling my spirit each year with song. It seems hard to imagine being anywhere else the third weekend in July. In the past 17 years, I have missed the festival only once--to go with my mother and family on a houseboat trip, fulfilling one of Mom's life dreams. My life dream is to be present at the golden 50th anniversary celebration!

Between now and then and hopefully even beyond, I'll get the annual lineup from Check it out!

Pat Blue Heron is a travel journalist and travel consultant who lives in Oregon with her partner, photographer Mary James. They recently completed a two-year journey in their motor home, "Minnie," realizing a longtime dream. Their passions include spending time in national parks, visiting ancient sites of indigenous peoples, and traveling to GLBT-friendly cities and events. Enjoy more of Pat's stories and Mary's photos at

(c) Copyright 2002 by Pat Blue Heron

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