A festival takes root: North Carolina Folk Festival picks up where its predecessor left off
Featured photo courtesy of Winston-Salem Symphony
The North Carolina Folk Festival is, in some ways, a brand new event. This year marks the first iteration of the Greensboro festival. However, in other ways, it’s a musical celebration that is blooming exactly where it was planted. Or, it’s a new, young flowering shoot grafted on to older roots that are already seasoned and deep in the soil.
The North Carolina Folk Festival picks up where the National Folk Festival left off.
The National Folk Festival’s three-year run in Greensboro, from 2015 through 2017, was a wonderful and exuberant thing. The festival did an impressive job showcasing the varieties of music being made by folks in America – jazz, blues, folk, hip-hop, country, gospel, and an array of traditional musical styles that immigrants have brought to this country from around the world. (The National Folk Festival finds a new host city every three years.)
There were many highlights. Seeing, hearing and feeling (in your chest) the percussion-heavy party music of go-go legends Trouble Funk was a rare treat. And the trombone-centric sounds of Mangum and Company presented the ecstatic and jubilant praise music tradition of shout bands from the United House of Prayer. The interstellar big-band blasts of the Sun Ra Arkestra led by Marshall Allen was another peak experience for festival-goers, the kind of thing – part sci-fi space pageant and part Mardi Gras parade — that doesn’t hit the streets of Greensboro every day. Many of the performers had this in common: they make music as a way of building a community with a shared pulse, of drawing a circle around the audience and initiating a celebration of being alive. It’s both simple and profound on that level.
Like its predecessor, the North Carolina Folk Festival is a free three-day event that will take place on the streets of downtown Greensboro. The 2018 festival runs from Sept. 7 through Sept. 9.
One of the highlights of the 2018 festival will certainly be a performance by Rhiannon Giddens, the talented singer, songwriter and instrumentalist whose work draws on and accentuates the complex interwoven relationship between African-American traditions (string band music, country blues, gospel, jug band music and more) and the often-assumed-to-be-white styles of old-time and Appalachian folk music. Beyond her performance, Giddens, who was awarded a MacArthur genius grant last year, will infuse the festival with her wide-ranging musical intelligence in her role as guest curator for the festival this year. Giddens, 41, was born in Greensboro, and she’s retained a connection to her hometown and loyalty to North Carolina musical traditions that have informed her career.
World-class Indian classical music will be performed by New York-based sitar player Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury and tabla player Naren Budhkar. Hindustani music from India was probably the first of the subcontinent’s many musical traditions to resonate in the West. That happened through the work of sitar legend Ravi Shankar and the enthusiasm that many British and American rock musicians in the ‘60s had for drawing on elements of raga. The classical music of Northern India is deep and complex, with elaborate tapered rhythmic structures, dense polyrhythms and improvisational sections that transfix listeners. The use of layered drones can create a hypnotic and meditative atmosphere as well. Roy-Chowdhury represents a style that is deeply rooted in venerable traditions and yet one that is flexible and open to new contexts and collaborations.
Fruitful cross-cultural collaborations and hybrid vigor are at the heart of the North Carolina Folk Festival. Gypsy jazz is a perfect example of how something like American jazz can hop across the ocean and bump into flamenco and other traditions associated with the Roma or gypsy people, resulting in a style that is wholly new and energetic. Guitarist Django Reinhardt was the virtuoso who brought the music to its full flowering in the 1930s and ‘40s, and generations of players since then have worked to capture the combustible energy in his rapid-fire runs and crisp strumming flurries. The John Jorgenson Quintet bring gypsy jazz back across the Atlantic. Jorgenson plays with a Django-esque precision and drive. The JJQ have that rare mix of technical mastery and effervescence.
The festival will also include Sona Jobarteh playing the music of the West African kora, a 21-string harp associated with the hereditary class of musician bards known as djelis or griots. There will be beach music, a breezy Southern coastal twist on soul, performed by the Embers. Also look for Shashmaqam playing traditional Jewish music from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas will play the bouncing accordion-heavy dance music of Creole southern Louisiana. There will be Peruvian brass-band music, tap-dancing, rap, western swing and more, along with dozens of food and drink vendors and a marketplace for North Carolina makers.
America gets so much drive and zip from our melting-pot culture. It was true in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and it’s true now. Each go-round brings a different batch of ingredients to the mix, but it’s the creative combination that powers the show. Occasionally the idea seems like it needs defending from the forces of insularity and xenophobia, and there are few arguments as persuasive as everyone getting together in the streets to have a good time.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.