Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Folk Alliance Day 4, To Serve the Music

The room explodes to Le Diable a Cinq
 On the last day of Folk Alliance, I was driving two other volunteers (David Torrejon and Concepcion Neuling of the Chilean duo Coda) to the various load out points for the Folk Alliance gear. At one point, David said that he preferred the volunteer aspect of the conference to the artist side of things.

That surprised and intrigued me, so I asked why.

“We like to serve,” Concepcion said from the little spot I’d dug out for her in my messy back seat.

Reflecting on the good-natured attitude of all the volunteers as we waited for trucks to arrive and keys to unlock doors, all the little snafus of any such operation, I found myself connecting that spirit to the patience expressed repeatedly throughout the conference.

Each night, the Westin hotel restaurant was overwhelmed whenever the folkies came down to eat dinner and celebrate in the evening. One night, desperately hungry, I squeezed into a spot at the bar, and a couple by my side managed to flag the server for me. We immediately began expressing our concern for how overworked and understaffed the crew who was serving us was, a conversation we would repeat the next day at the merchandise table where I was working.

When things hitched up, I didn’t hear anyone complain. These struggling artists and promoters all understood the nature of work. And, in these congenial conversations, many with Kansas Citians I’d somehow never met, we understood that, when it wasn’t completely overwhelming, this work we were engaged in was rife with useful lessons.

Waiting on the truck we were to load, David and Concepcion showed me the quena flutes David plays, which originated with the indigenous Andean peoples. When I commented on the textile of David’s vest in a picture of the duo (which plans to tour Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Spain this summer), David showed me a piece of the aguayo cloth they had with them, a beautiful wool woven from alpaca. Concepcion showed me how the aguayo could be worn for warmth, how it could hold a baby, and how it could also store food. 

These lessons were topped off by a gift of a CD made by a group with which Concepcion plays cello called Ensamble Transatlantico de Folk Chileno. The album’s twelve tracks tour the varied cultures of Chile and blend those sounds with the folk music of Japan and Sweden, as well as performances by the Indian singer Shubham Modi, Colombian singer Victoria Saavedra, and the haunting vocals of Finland’s Viivi Maria Saarenkyla and Hilda Lansman. With a full orchestra composed of many woodwinds and strings, this Chilean tour of folk music is a head-spinning celebration of unity in our diversity, the motto in the liner notes taking me back to my previous blog— “we are all this and much more!”

That last night, too, was a lesson in unity through diversity. We began with a set from Toronto singer Melissa Lauren. She sang jazz and blues-flavored gems accompanied by her producer Tyler Emond on guitar. Lauren joked about how many of her songs were written about arguments with her husband but promised, “we’ll get to more romantic songs.” She needn’t have worried. Anyone whose been in a relationship long enough to survive an argument or two could hear the love pouring through the struggle of each original— “The Day We Stopped,” “My Blue Friend,” “Back to You,” and “My Voice,” as bright and clear as Lauren’s voice.

Melissa Lauren, “The Day We Stopped”— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPPIV0hGrv4

Gilles Garand and Le Diable a Cinq

Back at Mundial Montreal, Folk Quebec host Gilles Garand started the set by Le Diable a Cinq with a fevered harmonica solo. After about one song of the band’s set, Garand was walking down the aisle telling people to stack their chairs against the wall. In moments, the chairs were gone, and the room exploded with dancing and clapping to these Cajun-like jigs and reels.

Le Diable a Cinq, “Les Chaises a Chabot”—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxFEVd_DKkg&list=RDfxFEVd_DKkg&start_radio=1&rv=fxFEVd_DKkg&t=11

Zal Sissokho and Kora Flamenco
Chairs back, we settled into a dazzling performance by Kora Flamenca, a group helmed by Kora player Zal Sissokho and flamenco guitarist Caroline Plante. The call of Sissokho’s Senegalese vocals and the dazzling waterfall-like sound of the kora strings with Plante’s driving guitar inspired someone in the room to respond to with large maracas.

Kora Flamenca, “Manssani”—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZDcf4WJ6DM

Our night ended back in the “Women of Note” room, where Aoife Scott was hosting the UK’s Katherine Priddy, New Orleans-based Lilli Lewis, and New York folk-blues singer Elly Wininger. Priddy began with the remarkably tender and tough “Wolf” about loving someone who is “everything I hate,” that contradiction nicely mapping out the tough territory ahead of us.

Katherine Priddy, “Wolf”— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq34LkghY38

After another forbidden love song in Gaelic by Scott, Lewis raised the stakes with “Piece of Mind,” calling it, “my one murder ballad.” Wininger finished off this round with a minor-keyed and gorgeous explanation for why these hard songs must be sung, the title track to her album, “The Blues Never End.”

Elly Wininger, “The Blues Never End” -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQOTlvdeocs

After that, Priddy’s “Letters from a Traveling Man” seemed like the living damnation so often associated with the blues singer as well as that hapless lover from “Wolf.” It’s not unsympathetic…. She sings from his point of view. But the man wants a fire waiting for him while promising he won’t pass this way again.

Lilli Lewis and Aoife Scott

Scott took the strain of such personal politics to the bigger picture with a cover of Damien Dempsey’s “The Colony” accompanied by her “fella” Andy Meany on guitar and Lilli Lewis on keys. With a litany of violence, that song describes the common cause that binds together the Irish with the indigenous people of North America, Australia, and Africa, and it ends with the hard-fought declaration, “You’ll never kill our will to be free.”

Lewis answered this with a story about the cotton gin and how Eli Whitney’s invention transformed the business of cotton into an exponentially more brutal system. And then she sang “Wednesday’s Child,” a song she called her own story, of violence, sickness, and suicide rooted in the bigotry of those who stole and sold her family. Wininger used “Alabama Blues,” about the attack on women’s reproductive rights specifically, to underscore the set’s direction, a tale of women under siege from every conceivable front.

Lilli Lewis, “Wednesday’s Child” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVm637vTOSE

That coherence of this in-the-round session showed the potential of a collaborative set, each woman playing off the other’s perspective, each expanding our concept of how the personal and the political tie together.

I find myself again thinking about David and Concepcion’s concept of the conference itself as an opportunity to serve the music and to serve the musical community. At its prevalent best, that is what Folk Alliance does—the entire activity of gathering these people together in one place to meet in affinity groups and to discuss every aspect of their careers from songwriting to promotion. ‘

That, too, is the spirit of these blogs. I will have done my job if I’ve been of some small service to the music. It’s the music which binds us together, after all, and, as Scott sang in “The Colony,” it’s the music that holds the key to our freedom.

 

Lilli Lewis

 

 

 

 

Katherine Priddy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Folk Alliance, Day 3: Praise the Women

 


“In Appalachia, it’s not traditional for a dancer to fiddle or a fiddler to dance. We typically do one or the other. But here at Folk Alliance, I’ve met three other dancing fiddlers, who I’m thinking will be lifelong friends,” Nashville-based Hillary Klug said this as part of her endearing (earnest and funny) patter that accompanied what she presented as a sort of demonstration regarding her beloved buck dancing.

Klug said, “Now, how many of you all are familiar with buck dancing?”

Pause.

“Three people?” She paused again. “Now this is embarrassing. I’m the national champion of something only three of you ever heard of.” It was the oh-so-natural laugh line, and we laughed, hard and natural. 

That's the way the whole evening went.

“You’re probably familiar with clog dancing. They come from the same tradition, but buck dancing is older, and while clog dancing is fun to watch with all the high kicks”—Klug jumps and kicks heels together to illustrate— “buck dancing is all about the sound, and boring to watch.”

Klug was anything but boring to watch. Running through an array of standards from “Oh, Susanna!” to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “The Cuckoo,” her almost marionette-like movements were emotionally moving. As she fiddled with abandon and danced (though visually understated) much the same way, something that could only be called joy filled the room. Her set was the original concept of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance in the microcosm of one person.

Hillary Klug

Hillary Klug, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lNkCt1CDc0

Noting the difference in Canadian dance fiddlers and Appalachians, mentioning the loss of her accompaniment that night as serendipitous because the approach she now used would be more traditionally Irish, Klug tied together the traditions in the “Women of Note” room, a room created by Dublin’s Aoife Scott to pay homage to a yearly Irish Tradfest where women gather and sing in the round at Dublin’s Saint Patrick Cathedral. (This past January Scott performed with Wallis Bird and Peggy Seeger.)

Last night, Scott opened for Klug, a brilliant and funny warm up for the buck dancer. Scott managed to render stories of the interminable Irish Lockdown and dark days of depression (including sad jam sandwiches) in a way that brought laughter and tears intertwined.

“One thing about the lockdown, before, I didn’t know who I was without gigging. I found out I am someone when I’m not gigging, and that was grand.” The sweet humor in that brief, confessional comment was, in many ways, a theme that ran through the evening. We're more than all this, but isn't it grand that we're all this, too?

Aoife Scott, “Sweet October” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjqljZ8ZyFE

Each night of the conference, at midnight, Scott is gathering a group of women to sing in the round. Last night, she was joined by Thea Hopkins, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe in what is today Massachusetts, who calls her music Red Roots Americana. With her full-throated yet ethereal vocals, Hopkins sang of having wings to fly like an angel and compared the power of love to rain feeding the dry earth.

Thea Hopkins, “Love Come Down” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORJrXrkwJOQ

Sands, Lowry, Scott, and Hopkins

Another indigenous American singer, of the Lumbee/Tuscarora tribes of North Carolina, Charly Lowry spoke thoughtfully about her own life story, how she moved from a predominantly native American hometown to a university town where most people were not indigenous, acknowledging she went through a profound culture shock, leading up to her celebratory anthem, dedicated to women, “Brown Skin.” Later in the set she called upon all of us to celebrate our backbones as well.

Charly Lowry, “Backbone” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlOsH5zbYKs

Cork’s Clare Sands furthered the celebration with a song called “Praise the Women” in Gaelic, “Awe na Mna,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rhmX4fV-Uo Then she closed the evening with two fiddle tunes accompanied by dances from another native of Cork, Louise O’Connor. At one point or another, Lowry and Scott playing hand drums, the room giddy with our common humanity.

 

O'Connor, Sands (almost hidden in red), Lowry, Scott, Hopkins 

Friday, May 20, 2022

Folk Alliance, Day 2: Marching On

Los Angeles singer-songwriter Chris Pierce began his set by congratulating the Oklahoma City couple that fronted the trio Wood Willow before him. Someone had shouted “It’s their honeymoon,” and Pierce said, “That’s a beautiful thing, to declare your love in front of friends and family like that.” 

With that, Pierce took command of the room. I’m probably underestimating that Los Angeles singer-songwriter Chris Pierce stands 6’4”, but what matters is the way Pierce’s black-suited, white hatted frame seemed almost to crouch to fit in the stage area by the hotel window. Moving through one pointed confrontation with injustice after another, from “American Silence” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80dpcoV5eVU (“It’s a crime!”) to the hard therapy of “Ring Them Bells” (“Shame it, face it, damn it to hell!”), to his contemplation of the concept of freedom in a world where the poor person stealing for her survival faces prison while the employer stealing wages faces no repercussions, only rewards, “Chain Gang Fourth of July,” 

Pierce’s part blues, part gospel shout insisted everyone in the room and half the hall that extended beyond us face the lies that tear us apart and keep thinking on them until we find a way forward. As Pierce puts it in “Silence,” “we sing through the pain and keep on marching on.” 

Any attempt to describe Pierce’s sound falls short. He has a beautiful, soulful voice that can soar, like Sam Cooke, beyond all imaginable boundaries. At the same time, on songs like “It’s Been Burning for a While” and “Static Trampoline,” he can run that voice through urgent jazz figures to pick this stubborn lock that keeps us where we are rather than where we are being called to be. 

On “Trampoline,” a song about the loss of his father, he turns that improvisation into proof that he will find a way, pouring his desperation into fevered harmonica explosions before pushing that voice as hard as he can. For Chris Pierce, music isn’t simply magic from the ether (oh, that’s there, in a big way) but more importantly it's hard work and fierce determination. 

Pierce ended his set with “How Can Anybody Be Okay with This?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMjhNFDf-JM, a song that begins “I’m sick and tired of this song/we’ve been singing it too long/singing ‘we shall overcome someday.’” 

He said that he planned to read the names of the ten people killed in that Buffalo supermarket last weekend, but he didn't have it, so resolved, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” before beginning the simmering build, asking why we stay in this holding pattern, society corroding from the wear, his voice a desperate effort to maintain hope, his melody a leap of faith that resonated throughout the rest of the evening. 

My friend Mike Warren and I carried Pierce’s resonating vision with us to the Mundial Montreal room, where artists from Quebec built upon it. With a trio our host compared to Crosby, Stills & Nash, and songs that called to mind virtually every seasoned impulse of early 70s folk rock with its warm melodies and harmonies, David Lafleche started that part of our evening in an assured, inviting way. Lafleche’s debut single “We Collided” https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs7ksHskKpc9vQo42uXIJLw 

And the musicians who followed fleshed out the idea of music as a tool to fight for the world we can envision when we sing and play together.

Colombian Ramon Chicharron’s four-piece blended sounds from South America with the Caribbean, even a touch of West African Highlife slipping in and out on the guitar. It perfectly suited Chicharron’s sound when he talked of a world without borders, “like the one all the other species we share this world with live in.” Then, he introduced “Pescador,” a song about a South American culture where fishing is done daily because, “why keep more fish than you need? The ocean is the refrigerator!" Ramon Chicharron, “Pescador”--https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgeMM8rfv_s&list=PLqpvhIJmoG_ZJIZjdz9BBwwuJyBLaL8NS&index=7 

Things became tender with a performance by Montreal’s Genevieve Racette and her brilliant three piece. Songs like “Someone” and “Maybe” were lump-to-the-throat direct and evocative. Genevieve Racette, “Someone”— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNk1pD3fHGY

The evening ended with a raucous set by the jump-suited, and jumping, band put together by Sao Paulo, Brazil’s Diogo Ramos. Ramos spoke of genocide back home and called on us to sing all the louder for those whose voices can not be heard. He concluded with a sentiment echoing Chicharron, ”Samba sans Frontieres.” A highlight of Ramos’s set, “Gamela” https://youtu.be/IdoNsyi4K4o

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Return of Folk Alliance, Day 1: Magic and Contradiction

 

A refrain at this first Kansas City Folk Alliance in four years connected Allison Russell to Jason Mraz and countless others, some way of saying, “music is magical.” For the four years before the break, Folk Alliance served as a yearly reminder for so many of us. Especially those private showcases. There’s something to getting away from the mainstage and even the barroom and hearing music in a hotel bedroom, beds generally (but not always) replaced by folding chairs, the hotel room stage either the area in front of the wet bar or the spot in front of the windows. Everyone in the room is engaged in a strikingly intimate ritual, a kind of party where one or four or half a dozen take the others on a mystery tour through their musical ideas, everyone engaged more as participants than audience and performers.

So after the lack of intimacy demanded by the past two years in particular, the magic was especially palpable at this reunion. When Fayetteville, Arkansas’s Patti Steel sang about missing every hug she might have had from her family and friends, she was speaking for virtually everyone in attendance. The conference featured three lanyards—a green one (hugs and handshakes please), a yellow one (ask first), and a red one (no contact please), and it made perfect sense that the green ones were gone by the afternoon. By evening, attendees were writing “green” on their yellow lanyards so others wouldn’t shy away.

Still, pandemic numbers are edging higher again, and the postponed-from-February conference was lighter in attendance than four years ago. Everything was available through remote access, and the halls to the private showcases were far from the brimming chaos of past years, more like any other halls anywhere, though a few people would be crowded outside a door halfway down and at the other end, and, in those muffled distances, beautiful voices clearly sung out.

That said, the International Folk Music Awards filled the great Century C Ballroom, and it was an extraordinary event. Though the politics of past Folk Alliance Conferences have been generally muted, give or take what happened in individual sets, four years of apocalypse had certainly changed that.

On the mainstage of the awards show, singer Diana Jones led the crowd in refrains of “We Believe You,” a song explicitly for Southern border refugees but speaking to all those being brutalized by the current system. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0NS9FGERCg While song of the year winner, Crys Matthews declared we all commit to being “The Changemakers.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZbJk-WXaSw   



Lachi and Gaelynn Lea of RAMPD

 2016 Tiny Desk Contest winner and cofounder (along with singer Lachi) of Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities (RAMPD), Gaelynn Lea said that it was important that we recognize disability as not simply a setback but a matter of diversity, raising the issue of equality in a system that is, by design, unequal. For all the beauty of seeing the Folk Alliance celebrate artists as diverse as Bolivian composer Amado Espinoza, organizer of Black Opry Fest Lilli Lewis, Los Cenzontles leader Eugene Rodriguez, Odanak Wabanaki First Nation songwriter/performer Mali Obamsawin, and Africasong Communications founder and deejay Dr. Jonathan Overby, the systemic roots of our oppressions were gotten at by Lea’s comment. Such roots were also addressed by Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Flaco Jimenez when, in a video tribute, he acknowledged his music had long been dismissed as low class and unworthy of attention.

Allison Russell, when she received the first of her two awards (one for album of the year Outside Child, one for Artist of the Year), challenged the room by stating, “we know tolerance is not enough. Tolerance is not enough. We tolerate mosquitoes. Humans need love.” With those clear calls, insisting that it is more than the look of Folk Alliance that matters, the awards ceremony celebration of diversity became a bigger call to think hard about the central problem of equality.

Patti Steel

That theme was picked up by Patti Steel, a remarkable multi-instrumentalist (we’re talking guitar, mandolin, clarinet, and spoons here) with a powerful voice, who sang of the rent being due and all her money spent. It takes more than magic to solve that rent problem, a problem that threatened the lives of millions during the pandemic, a problem addressed by Steel’s "Quarantine 2020." The folks working to solve that problem—like KC Tenants and the Kansas City Homeless Union—can tell us all just how useless magic is in solving that problem. But the magic of music indeed does break down barriers and builds bridges, my own aim of the past thirty years never more apparent than driving home last night past the homeless encampment off Southwest Boulevard, contemplating how the world of Westin Crown Center and such groups struggling to survive might be brought into more immediate dialogue and constructive work, not charity events but strategic planning as equals.

Stillhouse Junkies

My night ended in the British Underground room listening to the Stillhouse Junkies, a band from Durango. Lanky guitar and mandolin player Fred Kosak acknowledged, “Yeah, that’s right, we’re the obligatory Colorado band on your British Underground bill.” Kosak and upright bass player Cody Tinnin picked with an insane urgency, while fiddler Alissa Wolf not only matched their frenetic energy but used her long full bows to lend the music a sweeping, mythical grandeur. In the end, a song about certain defeat became its own refutation, the magic of the music existing in its contradictions.

The Stillhouse Junkies, “Whiskey Prison” https://rhythmic-rebellion.com/video/1a92ebb438/whiskey-prison

 

Gaelynn Lea’s Tiny Desk Concert https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6oSeODGmoQ