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Canberra Today 8°/15° | Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Chorus of signs point to folk festival success

Standing room only at the National Folk Festival. Photo: Helen Musa

If the “venue full” signs were anything to go by out at EPIC on Friday for the 2024 National Folk Festival, it’s been a roaring success, so far.

Although it won’t be possible to assess that until the final gate figures come in, the tightly-packed program meant that at any given time you could be viewing performances in 14 different venues, an extraordinary achievement for a festival that had nearly lost its way several years ago.

“We don’t do headliners veteran,” Irish folksinger Seamus Gill told me proudly, in answer to those who were asking where the headliners were.

Although there certainly were folk stars, such as Harry Manx from Canada and our own performers, the philosophical stand that says folk music and festivals come from the folk and not from talent agencies, was loud and clear.

Artistic directors Michael Sollis, Holly Downes and Chris Stone, themselves former “National” children, have worked hard to make this event accessible, and the ease of finding refreshments and and rest rooms was notable, made possible by the 1000-odd volunteers.

There was a lively kids’ zone for art and relaxation and any number of hands-on workshops.

Hungarian dance workshop. Photo: Helen Musa

I popped in on a well-attended Hungarian dance and music workshop in the Coorong, for instance, where, as the fiddle picked up pace, so did the knees.

Then there was a South Indian Carnatic singing workshop, again well-attended, where I was surprised to see pre-adolescent children fully engaged in beating out, the complex rhythms of this art form.

The Randai dances hailing from West Sumatra via Sydney had also engaged a large cohort, some of who quickly learnt to play the instruments to which the dancers moved.

Because of the tight programming, you could only be in so many places at once, but I gave it my best shot.

For my money, WA Noongar singer, Gina Williams and guitarist Guy Ghouse, are true stars. They got their first big break at the National Folk Festival 10 years ago and have been coming ever since, while building a huge career elsewhere. Williams’ powerful voice and the way she slips between Noongar and English made for a riveting hour.

Having written about him, I was also very pleased to catch a bit of Hairy Man (Dale Fullard) singing about convicts and Australian war veterans. His, too, was a powerful, penetrating voice as he expounded the plight of the underdog and he held his audience with ease, extraordinary considering that he is normally a recluse.

For fun, I put my head in the door of the 20-year-old Infinite Song Contest, where artists give a folk interpretation to music from other genres. In 2024, it was time to interpret Tina Turner, and as I wandered by, the strains of “Burn Baby Burn” could be heard from Fremantle sea shanty group, The Lost Quays.

That was the nearest I got to shanties, because the 4.10pm Urban Sea Shanties session at the Fitzroy was completely packed out.

The programming, the festive mood and the abundance of kids running around suggest the festival is back on track in dealing with its constituents – those who love folk music.

Whether it has succeeded in garnering new fans from the wider public remains to be seen.

The 2024 National Folk Festival, at EPIC until April 1.


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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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