The 2017 National Folk Festival: The eclectic music festival holds its final year in Greensboro
Clear your calendar for a blowout weekend of eclectic, multicultural, American musical entertainment as the National Folk Festival wraps up its three-year residency in downtown Greensboro Sept. 8 through 10. We bookend the summer season with an overstuffed cluster of weekends to signal the start and end of the fun. Consider the National Folk Festival to be sort of like the entertainment equivalent of the brilliant finale of a fireworks display.
If you missed the festival in 2015 and 2016, then you missed some spectacular music and culture. Trouble Funk, the powerhouse pioneers of the supremely funky, D.C.-based genre of go-go music played to an exuberant crowd in 2015 with over 100,000 people. Hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash worked the turntables during impressive shows of call-and-response excitement and rap/pop history last summer. The 2017 iteration of the three-day festival will be no different and the point is: don’t miss it before the festival moves on to a new home in 2018.
This is the 77th year of the festival, which operates with a wide and rich perspective on folk music in America, embracing the idea that American music is almost always the fruitful product of the creative interactions between people who came from elsewhere. The National Folk Festival, programmed by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, is America’s longest-running festival of traditional arts. Every three years the festival sprouts anew in another city, showcasing the diversity of America’s traditional musics and cultural wealth.
The lineup for the 2017 festival includes salsa, polka from Michigan, Chicago blues, trance music from Morocco via New York, western swing, bluegrass from Kentucky, hip-hop, gospel, jazz, brass bands and quite a bit more.
Here are a few of the acts you might want to plan on catching:
Alash is an award-winning trio from Tuva, a tiny republic bordering Mongolia and they’re named after a river. Tuvan folk music is known for throat singing, a tradition where performers coax a mix of low growl and high whistle from their vocal cords, all at the same time. The members of Alash, who play instruments as well, have performed and studied the traditional music of Tuva since they were children. Drones and scrapes, complicated layers of sound, and enigmatic harmonies are part of this music, which sounds both deeply pastoral and avant-garde, at times. So, expect to be captivated by this ensemble. Alash will play a total of four different sets over the course of Saturday, Sept. 9 and Sunday, Sept. 10.
Dark Water Rising
With ties to Robeson County and the Lumbee community there, Dark Water Rising play a dynamic mix of rock, soul, ballads, progressive rock, Broadway, pop and gospel. They don’t play Native American folkloric music, per se, but they represent a living culture that engages with popular culture while retaining and celebrating a connection to native traditions. Dark Water Rising will play Saturday at noon.
Fronted by Yasser Darwish, a former member of the National Folkloric Troupe of Egypt, this ensemble performs music and dance from Egypt and the Middle East, drawing from some secular traditions that have connections to Sufi ritual. Darwish, now out of New York, performs the tannoura, or whirling Dervish, which is a hypnotic spinning dance that requires stamina and fortitude. Egyptian Celebration will perform a total of six times on Saturday and Sunday.
While country music keeps morphing, picking up bits of rock, bits of hip-hop and bits of soul, Kentucky singer Kelsey Waldon plays classic country propelled by aching pedal steel and her arresting, straight-forward singing. She brings to mind classic artists like Loretta Lynn and Townes Van Zandt. Waldon plays a total of five sets on Saturday and Sunday.
The Fairfield Four
The Fairfield Four is a group with a venerable 96-year history, extending back, with numerous lineup configurations and newcomers, to its 1921 formation at the Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Gospel quartet singing can be surprisingly energetic, with rhythms, syncopations, dense harmonies and ecstatic high notes. The genre links elements of spiritual singing of the mid-19th Century, songs of freedom and faith, call-and-response vocal traditions of West Africa, and church music and hymnody, and a style that shaped early raucous rock and velvety soul. The Fairfield Four keep alive a tradition that is distinctively American, filled with hope, devotion and the push for justice. The Fairfield Four perform a total of three sets, one on each day of the festival.
Sun Ra Arkestra
Sun Ra was a bandleader, a composer and an improviser, but he was also a poet and an icon who preached a kind of mash-up philosophy of Afro-mysticism, sci-fi futurism and world peace. Sun Ra, who was born Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, claimed to be from Saturn. His cosmic shtick may have overshadowed his music for some casual observers who weren’t jazz listeners. But Sun Ra was sort of like Duke Ellington, his orchestra — or Arkestra, in Ra’s case — was his real instrument. He composed deep and lovely songs, check out “Space Is the Place,” “Saturn,” “Brainville,” “Lights of a Satellite” or dozens of other compositions from his huge catalog of tunes. He nurtured some serious players in his horn sections, like baritone player Pat Patrick and tenor player John Gilmore (both of whom are now deceased). Alto player Marshall Allen, who is now 93, played with Sun Ra for nearly 40 years, and has led a band devoted to the composer’s music since the composer’s death in 1993.
For more info and a complete schedule go to nationalfolkfestival.com.
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.