Absolutely Free: National Folk Festival in Greensboro

(Last Updated On: August 17, 2016)

by John Adamian


The National Folk Festival is worth planning ahead for, penciling some dates on the calendar and coming up with a strategy for how to get to all the shows you’re going to want to see. The free three-day festival is having a three-year residency in Greensboro, and the 2016 festival, which takes place Sept. 9 – 11, marks year two of the run.

Last year’s lineup had an impressive scope and serious quality, with music from around the world, but with particular care and attention paid to regional roots music traditions. (Over 100,000 people attended the festival last year.) If you missed the rare chance to see the legendary DC go-go band Trouble Funk with their infectious call-and-response chants and percussionand-horns blasts — it was massive! — just know that the 2016 festival holds similar brassy charms. You might feel compensated this year if you can catch one of hip-hop architect DJ Grandmaster Flash’s two sets (Saturday, Sept. 10 at 9:15 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 11 at 2 p.m.).

Hip hop legend Grand Master Flash headlines the 2016 Folk Festival in Greensboro.

The summer music festival season has gotten so big and so sprawling that a lot of people have lifted their hands in resignation, stumped by the challenge of processing all of the offerings. This is in part a result of giant national festivals — Bonnaroo, Coachella, Pitchfork, etc — that take place every year, drawing a pool of the biggest artists, often with a lot of overlap in the lineups. But if the big blowout festivals have gotten predictable, that means that some of the others, ones perhaps a little lower on people’s radar, are able to assemble unique and unusual lists of performers.

The National Folk Festival has been around for 76 years. It’s America’s longest running festival of traditional arts. It’s a wandering festival — think of it like the Olympics or the World Cup for semiobscure branches of folk music — that sets up camp at a new spot every three years. In some cases the host cities have launched their own folk-related events once the festival moves on to its next location. The festival’s programmers — the National Council for the Traditional Arts — make it central to their mission to include a diverse range of traditional music representing the varieties of America’s cultural assets. That focus extends into the non-musical elements of the festival as well, with cuisine from Haiti, India, Syria, Vietnam and numerous other countries being sold or presented, as well as some specific North Carolina culinary traditions, like barbecue. Expect tacos, dumplings and burgers as well. An added appeal of the festival is the completely efficient and easy-to-use park-and-ride and shuttle system that makes it possible to get right to the heart of downtown without having to deal with parking or traffic headaches.

North Carolina acts include Diali Cissokho, which combines funk with traditional Senegalese instrumentation.

This year’s lineup will include fado, an urban folk cabaret tradition from Portugal (performed by Nathalie Pires of New Jersey); Tibetan folk opera and dance (from San Francisco’s Chaksam-Pa); Afro- Colombian dance music (Grupo Rebolu from Queens), hula dance and chant celebrating Hawaiian history and culture from Hula Halau O’ Lilinoe; tar and setar (lute-like stringed instruments) music of Persia performed by Sahba Motallebi of Los Angeles; and dozens of other artists and traditions from around the country and around the world.

San Francisco’s Chaksam-Pa will perform Tibetan folk opera and dance.

One of the notable elements behind the logic of the lineup is that it spotlights artists and traditions from North Carolina. Last year the festival paid tribute to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, an old time singer and instrumentalist from the mountains of western North Carolina who collected folk material and helped organize some of the earliest mountain music festivals in Asheville in the 1920s. Lunsford’s 1928 recording of “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” is a legendary piece of American music. This year roughly half of 39 performers at the National Folk Festival are from North Carolina. There are some first-rate musical acts — some gems hiding in plain sight in our region — taking the stage and demonstrating North Carolina pride with an impressive 21st-century multi-cultural vibe.

Sahba Motallebi brings Persian music by way of Los Angeles.

Awalom Gebremariam is originally from the East African country of Eritrea. Gebremariam, who in recent years settled in Durham, recorded his first record — his only one so far — in 2007 before leaving the country and eventually ending up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, before eventually earning asylum status, which allowed him to come to the U.S. His record, Desdes, was just re-released in spring of this year on the pioneering taste-making record label Awesome Tapes From Africa. Gebremariam’s music evidently became very popular in his native Eritrea, though he didn’t know this or profit from his success with local listeners. On the record, Gebremariam sings and plays what sounds like a small one-stringed fiddle. The lines he bows cycle around with his vocals overlapping and answering the phrases. Soaring female vocals sometimes join in to respond to the main vocal lines and double the ornate string lines that dip and curl. Drum machine programming sketches out the steady triplet sub-pulse. Hand claps and what sound like synth and submerged bass sometimes augment the music, which is based on the old folk songs Gebremariam heard as a child. Fans of desert blues from Mali and Niger will find plenty to enjoy about Gebremariam’s hypnotic music. Gebremariam plays Sunday, Sept. 11, the final day of the festival, at 5 p.m.

Nathalie Piers brings Portuguese cabaret known as fado to the 2016 Folk Fest.

Another more long-standing and unique North Carolina musical tradition will be featured in what’s bound to be a joyous and ecstatic performance when Mangum & Company bring their United House of Prayer “shout band” gospel brass music from Charlotte to the festival. Trombonist and band leader Cedric Mangum has been playing shout music for nearly 50 years. The tradition has strong ties to the Charlotte community, where there are around 17 United House of Prayer congregations. Mangum & Company pulls players from many of the city’s best bands. This is African-American praise music. It might make you think of New Orleans brass band music, but it’s less bluesy and less rooted in a funereal tradition. Shout music sounds like the silky harmonies of a gospel vocal quartet turned into shimmering clouds of trombones. Catch online videos of Charlotte’s shout band tradition to better understand why this is something you shouldn’t miss. Mangum & Company play two sets on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Other dynamic North Carolina acts include the Senegalese/American group Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba, which takes elements of the West African kora (harp) repertoire and crosses them with funk, jazz and other traditions of the African diaspora. The band plays Saturday, Sept. 10 at noon. There will also be numerous Montagnard performers from North Carolina’s significant Vietnamese population singing, playing music and dancing from the tradition.

If food and music and dance aren’t your thing, there will also be numerous folklife demonstrations, including one by Ruben Olmos of Burlington, N.C. who will have some of his customized “lowrider” cars on display on Sunday, Sept. 11 at 2 p.m. !