While it's hard to complain about so much of a good thing, some wonder if this abundance of "canned" music, bought and sold like any other consumer item, causes us to forget that music used to be more than the soundtrack for our daily commute. Simple music, accessible to everyone, used to be a type of communal glue.
With this in mind, the 11th annual Spokane Fall Folk Festival celebrates music and dance done by the people, for the people -- just like it used to be, and just like it is still done today in less commercialized cultures. While some of the 90 scheduled performers at this year's festival are of a professional caliber, many are garden-variety Spokanites who get together simply to keep traditional music or dance alive for its own sake.
"It was not that long ago that everyone told stories, or learned an instrument," says Sylvia Gobel, a member of the Spokane Folklore Society and director of the festival. "It was how people entertained each other." While not everyone agrees on a universal definition of folk music, she says it generally means "you learned it from your grandfather." But some people fall in love with traditional music by other means than family tradition, Gobel says, and this doesn't disqualify them as folkies.
"When I use the word traditional, I mean it sounds like something that might have been played in a pub in Ireland a hundred years ago," says Carlos Alden of the crowd-pleasing Celtic Nots, a veteran band at the festival. The Nots, according to Alden, are an unpretentious trio who work hard on their music, but refuse to take themselves too seriously. They play traditional Irish and Scottish music but also take the liberty to experiment with nontraditional sounds.
"People don't entertain themselves with music anymore," he laments. "If you go back just a hundred years, every school, every workplace would have a little mandolin orchestra, or a banjo orchestra, or a little string quartet, and people would get together once a week and practice some stuff, and then perform it at the Christmas party, and such," Alden says. "Nobody worried too much about making a mistake; it was a way of socializing, and developing themselves personally, and just for self-entertainment. I think it's something we've lost in this culture, and this is exactly what folk music is about."
Gobel says the Spokane Fall Folk Festival was modeled after the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle -- causing some people to insert the word "life" into the title of the local event. After people kept asking if something similar could be done here, the local event was born in 1996 at the Unitarian Church. There were about a dozen performers then, and even though the infamous ice storm kept attendance down, Gobel says the response from the public exceeded expectations. Needing more space in following years, the event moved first to Glover Middle School and now utilizes several facilities at Spokane Community College. Last year, about 4,000 people attended.
Asked what he likes best about the festival, Alden says it's "the chaos." People in odd and elaborate costumes scurry to and from performances, perhaps stopping to mingle, or to teach a newcomer a piece of history or music that they didn't know before. There are usually a lot of things going on at once. "There's a buzz of excitement from all doors," he says. Alden has also hosted the KPBX broadcast from the festival for the past few years.
New to the festival this year is Sanchali Banerjee, coming to Spokane from Calcutta, India, via Richland, Wash., where she and her husband now reside. Banerjee, who worked as a journalist in Calcutta, has had extensive training in Indian classical dance, and has won numerous awards at dance festivals both in her homeland and in this country. Elaborately costumed and barefoot, she will perform a set of dances in the Odissi form, which is rooted in the ancient temples of Orissa, India. It is said to be the oldest form of dance from her country. Banerjee says she is excited about performing in Spokane.
Amid the color, motion and sound of this year's Fall Folk Festival, you may expect: jigs and reels that some bolloxed Irish blokes might have played long ago for their friends at a local pub; the infectious, earthy rhythms that hail from West Africans who learned it from their village djembefola, who learned it from the village djembefola before him; the sonorous and haunting sound of bagpipes that make you see plaid when you close your eyes; the manic plucking of banjo strings and white-hot fiddling from some good ol' boys playing bluegrass; enchanting and ethereal Native American flute music; swishy Polynesian and Hawaiian dance; heartbreaking and foot-tapping old-time blues; nonviolent protest songs by the Raging Grannies; polka music by men in alpine hats and lederhosen; the swiveling hips and liquid moves of belly dancers in the thrall of exotic Middle-Eastern rhythms; and a whole bunch of workshops, crafts and participatory happenings.
Alden says, "A lot of people come and walk away with a pennywhistle, or a music book, or something, thinking 'Hey, I could do that!' -- which is the whole point."
The Spokane Fall Folk Festival is at Spokane Community College on Saturday, Nov. 4, 11 am-10 pm and Sunday, Nov. 5, noon-5 pm. Admission is free. For a detailed schedule, visit www.spokanefolklore.org.