For the 49th time the National Folk Festival opened its arms to artists and audiences alike and, for five perfect days, washed away from the soul the dust of everyday life. The National Folk Festival continues to be the festival of the people and for the people; a time and place for a collective imagination to come together and share its stories, its dreaming, its theatre, its music, its poetry, its culture: our humanity. The festival is the truest emblem of that sometimes elusive word ‘folk’, for folk simply means you – the people.
After a welcome to country paid homage to Australia’s first peoples as a prelude to the opening Thursday concert, the curtains were raised and the stages were lit for international and local artists such as the shambolic brilliance of the well-received Czech duo DVA; the utterly absorbing Lucy Wise Trio whose musical clarity is as adept as Lucy’s extraordinary ability for storytelling; the earthy sonority David Francey whose heart beats for the common man; and Canberra’s very own Fred Smith whose humble hue holds a wealth worldly wisdom.
Blank canvases lay ready for children to leave their marks on the community mural as a part of KidzFest. Circus and street performers limbered up for the outdoor entertainment, the quality of which has greatly improved over the years. Bushman Dave Upton lit his campfire and boiled his billy. Around sixty small businesses opened their doors. Wine mulled, Guinness poured, and the session bar filled with fiddles, cheer, and beer… and Canberra’s best showcasing of artistry began.
(Above: Bandaluzia Flamenco led by virtuoso guitarist Damian Wright.)
The first act in Thursday’s opening concert, this contemporised flamenco quartet ignited a fire in the belly of the Budawang theatre with elegance, dynamic control, and duende. A truly Dionysian performance and an excellent choice for the overture to the festival.
Ted Egan AO (pictured above) was presented with the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. An Australian legend of the outback, Egan has released 30 albums and authored 10 books exploring Australian and Aboriginal history. A regular performer of the National Folk Festival, Egan was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1993 for his enduring contribution to the literary heritage of the country that he loves. The former public servant of the Northern Territory was recently listed as a National Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia. After receiving the award, Ted went on to entertain the thousands of people who packed the Budawang theatre, telling stories through song with his unique form of bushy brilliance.
Who says art isn’t political? Singing at the Bohemia Bar, Ecopella is an environmental choir inspired by the beauty of nature and the struggle to protect it from corporate exploitation and destruction. Founded in 1998 by musical director Miguel Heatwole, the choir sings throughout Australia. Pictured is five members of the choir singing of the perils of coal seam gas and the corporate greed that threatens Australian communities and the country they love.
A lovely young lady named Imagine (above) paints her contribution on the community mural. Children from all walks of life and from different parts of Australia came together with their parents to paint a spectacular 40-metre-long mural. Imagine said that she enjoys concentrating while she paints but doesn’t mind listening to the music at the same time.
Small business had nothing but praise for the National Folk Festival…
Small business operator and owner of Vietnam Food House, Darren, is pictured above with his wife Hien and daughter Nina. He said he enjoys coming to the National Folk Festival.
“At other festivals we are sometimes subject to racial slurs and drunken behaviour but when we’re here I feel safe. It’s the most harmonious festival in Australia. Although, you do sometimes get the feeling that things are a bit too regulated here. Too many rules,” he said.
Custom Leathercraft owners Maureen and Richard Irving have been married for 29 years. Richard was originally a chef but after leaving the UK he decided to join Maureen in her Leather business.
Richard jokes that he has been her apprentice for some time now and would’ve expected a little raise by now seeing as though he is sleeping with the boss!
Emma-Jane Williams was working at clothes stall Radha Rani. Always a friendly face, Emma said she loves coming to the Folk Festival to see friends while trying to make a living at the same time.
“Canberra is a hard place for small businesses to survive but it is lovely being here among friends,” she said.
Yianno’s Catering (Yianno is pictured above) was one of festival goers favourite places to snack.
Supporting a new generation of artists…
After coming to the festival last year, 12-year-old Catriona Williams from Brisbane insisted that her father allowed her to busk this year. The young lady played with a technical dexterity in the left hand and maintained a consistent depth of tone with the right.
Andre Ramada has been playing the guitar for six years and has been singing since he can remember. He doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but when I asked him about his art he was quite clear, “I just want to make people happy by playing music,” he said.
This busker calls himself Musketeer and comes from Newcastle. He is a storyteller, writes his own songs and delivers them with a sandy yet velvet voice attuned to the mature precision with which he plays his instrument. He’s cool and collected, and plans a world tour starting in Berlin. Musketeer (Joseph) was playing for money, dumplings, or gin… a true musician.
Lucy Sugerman is a spellbindingly brilliant 13-year-old singer/songwriter who has just recorded an album called Hello, I’m Lucy. She sings with a soft maturity that can only come from a wise soul. If she is not famous within a few years, I’ll eat my hat.
Just some of the locals…
Backed by the dulcet and versatile embouchure of trumpeter Cameron Smith, one of Canberra’s most loved and enduring voices sings to a merry crowd. Ben is one of those musicians whose dedication to the arts is his life’s work. A theatre-maker, actor, event organiser, arts administrator, teacher, instrumentalist, and singer define him as an artist in the truest sense.
“There’s nothing quite like the national. So much great music on and off the stage. Every time I go, there are a bunch of magical moments that just wouldn’t happen anywhere else,” he said.
Canberra’s younger version of Paul Mcdermott, Joel Barcham (pictured), once again hosted this year’s poetry slam Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit alongside Andrew Galan (not pictured) . Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit has become a Canberran institution that may be described as a form of violent and chaotic verbal warfare where everyone is your enemy. Always engaging, and a great deal of fun – this year was no exception.
Wiradjuri man Johnny Huckle is in my opinion one of the most uplifting performers of our generation, and he played in numerous settings during this year’s festival. His joy is infectious, and his ability to move his audience to inspiring new heights is ingenious. For every lifetime of pain that Johnny has endured, he has given a thousand lifetimes in healing and humanity. It was an honour to listen to him, and I think many thought the same.
Fred Smith delivered four well-received performances from his new album Home. Smith’s most powerful song was an ode to fallen soldier Lance Corporal Jared ‘Crash’ MacKinney. The song Derapet fuses Smith’s gentle musical arrangements that often juxtapose a more cutting and explicit lyricism, and his lived experience working with soldiers.
Derapet is the last song on Smith’s new album as it allows for a minute’s silence in respect for a fallen Australian soldier.
Smith imbues a unique characteristic of Canberra’s psyche, and that is he couples the cold indifference that can often come with a life of public service with a deep yearning to express one’s sense of humanity: he speaks to many, but he especially speaks to Canberrans.
For some the National Folk Festival is a fun day out with the family or little jaunt with a few friends – and of course that’s absolutely fine. But for me, it is something far deeper. For me, the festival is a golden heart of humanity within a rusted heart of towers and concrete (as Christy Moore might say). It is an all-too-brief reminder that life is possible without fear, greed, and isolation; that it is made better with generosity, music, and merriment.
It seems to me that as we stare out into the vast void to learn where and why on earth we are, the smaller we feel, and less significant we become.
Perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction. Perhaps we should be looking into ourselves and seeing what of ourselves we can share with one another – surely that is the final frontier.
Congratulations to everyone who made the 49th National Folk Festival a reality. I can’t wait for the 50th.