Audiences at five of Canada’s major summer music festivals have already noticed an extra attraction this year. To mark Canada 150, the artistic directors for the Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Canmore, and Regina Folk Festivals have teamed up to curate a collaborative touring project called Canada Far & Wide: GrandsEsprits, celebrating the Canadian songbook.
The concept is intended to put a focus on a diversity of voices and artistry while reflecting all of Canada's history, both positive and challenging. Along with performing songs from the canon (Neil, Joni, Leonard, Lightfoot et al), Indigenous songwriters are represented, with Indigenous artists playing an integral role in the live performances. The end goal is to harness the power of the songs and the atmosphere of the festivals to inspire a more inclusive spirit within the country as a whole.
The line-ups, anchored by Cree cellist CrisDerksen, DJ Shub—former member of A Tribe Called Red—and Quebec's Mélisande (électrotrad), is augmented by guest appearances with Old Man Luedecke, Basia Bulat, Jason Collett, Kacy and Clayton, Cold Specks, Whitehorse, and others.
The climax to each performance will be a group sing-along led by Choir! Choir! Choir!, with Coco Love Alcorn handling those duties in Canmore.
Calgary Folk Festival Artistic Director Kerry Clarke spoke to us in more detail about Canada Far & Wide: GrandsEsprits, and the general mood going into the 2017 festival season.
Where did the spark for this project originate, and how did it come together?
Chris Frayer of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and I connected about how to celebrate 150 years of being called Canada. We loved the idea of pulling songs from our history and having them re-imagined in new and inventive ways, and increasing the project’s impact by having it in several cities. After we had conspired and brainstormed, we shared the concept with some other key colleagues that have the same programming model.
It's great to see a lot of festivals working together on this. Is this something unique, or are there good relationship among festival programmers?
Most Artistic Directors in western Canada are tight, and we have some very close colleagues in other parts of the country, too. We have pretty unique jobs so talking to each other, collaborating, sharing information, ideas and best practices are critical.
We don’t block book per se, but often share artists, either by design or coincidence. We’ve taken turns championing artists—particularly from outside the country—to help facilitate tours.
When one of us is at an international conference or junket, we’re often the only Canadian festival there, so it feels like we represent a whole group of festivals and value that AD’s input about artists we might hire. And when we’re all at the same conference, we tend to share accommodations, meals and laugh a lot.
It's also great to see the emphasis on Indigenous artists with this project. What's your view on the increasing popularity of Indigenous music?
I feel like Indigenous politics and awareness are strong right now, which is expressed in music and art. There’s a lot of pride, and it seems like they’re forging their own musical identities and sounds based on theirs, not settler’s roots. There are still some awesome artists with their takes on blues, country, rock, etc., but it feels like the most standout artists are creating new music out of their own cultures and sounds.
When you listen to Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red, Leonard Sumner, Buffy Ste. Marie etc., there’s no mistaking that they’re Indigenous. The sounds are powerful, fresh and original, but with a foot in tradition. And the public is responding in kind.
Aside from Canada Far & Wide, what are you most looking forward to with this year's Calgary Folk Festival?
I always love being able to combine icons and upstarts—expose people to artists they love that might’ve never or rarely play Calgary, like Michael Kiwanuka and Dawes—and open their ears, hearts, and minds to artists that are likely brand-new to them, like Carsie Blanton, FARIS, and Lucy Dacus. Mostly I still get super juiced by the collaborative sessions, of which we have 39 happening over two-and-a-half days.
If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?
Perhaps it would be to have the word “festival” less ubiquitous as the description has lost some of its attraction. And, for some of the monster for-profit festivals to have less impact on the summer music-going ecology.
Also, I’d love to see the most creative artists celebrated over the flash-in-the-pan superstars.
So, dreams that are unlikely to be realized! Then again, it was a big dream by hard working, passionate people that lay the groundwork for all our festivals.