Hope for folk in a bitter year: how the music plays on for our local festivals

Genevieve Jacobs 14 April 2020
Water Runners

Kiama band the Water Runners were on the Cobargo schedule for 2020. Photo: Cobargo Folk Festival Facebook.

Bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis have devastated the folk community across Southern NSW, sweeping aside the likes of the Easter National Folk Festival, what would have been the 25th Cobargo Folk Festival, Nariel Creek, Numeralla and more.

For Zena Armstrong, musician and executive director at Cobargo, it’s a bittersweet time. Fire obliterated much of the village on New Year’s Eve and took with it any chance of running a festival at the end of February.

The small community inland from the coast lived with constant fear for weeks as fires flared again and again. Four of the Folk Festival’s key team of 12 lost either their homes or significant amounts of property, sheds and fencing.

“We were living with all of that sadness and grief of so many friends’ losses,” Zena says.

“The Showground was a relief centre for those who’d lost their homes. We didn’t want to bring people into what could have still been a fireground at the end of February.

“Cancelling the Festival meant a loss of $2 million in tourism multiplier income for the region. It was an enormous loss to the 40 or more scheduled acts, to all the local service providers, and to small businesses up and down the coast.”

But the music itself is keeping Zena positive. She sees and hears people everywhere turning to acoustic music, the folk tradition and new music, all written to be shared between friends with little more than an instrument and the voice. It’s music for the back step, the verandah or in front of your kitchen fire.

“I’m seeing this so much on Youtube – so many people are turning to acoustic and folk music to lift themselves and to share their experience with like-minded people. I find that really interesting and uplifting.

“I’m wondering if this means a resurgence of acoustic music. The folk song is another expression of how much music and art matters to us at times of crisis and great stress”, Zena says.

Helen Roben

National Folk Festival managing director Helen Roben. Photo: File.

Helen Roben, who runs the National Folk Festival in Canberra, agrees. After the heartwrenching decision to abandon the five-day Easter festival, she was faced with dismantling a major event less than a month from its intended start date.

The decision was made even harder by the fact that Helen and the board had instigated a ‘Hope for Folk’ stage, intended as a fundraiser for bushfire-affected neighbouring festivals.

But she’s been moved by the overwhelming generosity of the wider folk community, many of whom have made substantial donations from their ticket refunds in the hope that the 2021 festival will go ahead. That’s what everyone wants but there are no guarantees at this stage. Helen says the final call will need to wait for gathering restrictions to lift.

For the moment, the focus is on keeping the artists at the forefront and supporting a community whose income and livelihood has been destroyed.

You can construct your own imaginary National Folk Festival by reading the program book on the National Folk Festival site and engaging with the artists via their online presence. Helen wants everyone to share their images of ‘Folkie at home’ online, whether they are photos, videos, or the special things that remind them of the Festival.

Zena Armstrong

Zena Armstrong at the 2019 Cobargo Folk Festival. Photo: File.

The possibility of a 2021 festival will be a lifeline for everyone in the folk community in Southern NSW.

“It will be crucial,” Zena Armstrong says. “But the messaging from the government is that this is not over until we find a vaccine, so these are very uncertain times for the festival sector broadly.”

As a smaller festival that’s entirely volunteer-run, Zena says Cobargo is fairly well placed to pick up the reins. The challenges are bigger for the National, which is one of the largest events of its kind in Australia and requires more infrastructure and staffing.

But Helen and Zena both are clear that it’s crucially important to keep music alive.

“The folk community and people in the arts are so generous with their time and skills and creativity. It’s been astonishing”. Zena says.

“When you have rich, vibrant, well- supported cultural sector you can actually use it to bring people together”.


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