Expect close encounters with the grassroots at Brandon Folk, Music and Art Festival

Drop the word folk, and music lovers might immediately think of earnest long-haired guitar strummers, or late-night festival camping hand drummers. But headliners like hip hop trailblazers A Tribe Called Red, the indefinable Tanya Tagaq and genre-bending Digging Roots are a lot more folk than you might think.

The Brandon Folk, Music and Arts Festival started as a student-run project 31 years ago, thanks to a burst of funding for the National Year of Youth. The budding festival was mentored by the Winnipeg Folk Festival, but divided their lineup into 45 minute sets across various genres: jazz, classical, folk and rock ‘n roll.

“The folk was initially meant to refer to the people attending the festival,” Shandra MacNeill explains. MacNeill holds the title of Director, which means she’s responsible for booking everything from headliners to porta potties.

“All the artists that I book have some sort of subversive element that’s really productive to social evolution,” MacNeill says. “To me, that’s what folk music is. It’s not a very earnest young man singing about environmental causes on a guitar, it’s something that really moves people.”

This ethos has inspired a growing, loyal and dedicated volunteer crew, which will soon be expanded to include the many youth who have been chomping at the bit to get involved. Their artisans market, Under the Canvas, carries all handmade wares - no imports - in the spirit of closing the gap between maker and consumer.

Audiences can also expect a very small gap between themselves and the performers, especially if they’re camping.

When she came on as Director, MacNeill banned hand drums in the campground in order to foster the spontaneous musical collaborations that were springing up there. That first year, she was treated to a campfire jam led by Buffy St Marie and her band, and featuring almost everyone else who played the festival - a feat that would have been impossible amid the din of hand drums.

Coincidentally, the three headliners have also played together before, on the second last album from Digging Roots. While they’re all busy with touring schedules, “hopefully we’ll all get to hang a bit,” Raven Kanetakta (of Digging Roots) says.

“If you listen to Tanya [Tagaq]’s music, it’s very different, but it’s great music. It’s music that’s just coming from her land base and coming from her,” Kanetakta says. “I really enjoy artists that are putting in the extra work of bringing out their own voice of where they come from.”

Kanetakta has also drawn inspiration from other genres that could be loosely classified as folk. “We’ve always categorized our music as music for the people, which is essentially folk music,” he says. “We do draw from music types that come from the people, like blues directly comes from people working on the land...from slavery.”

Mixing genres is nothing new for the people’s music, Kanetakta explains. For example, traditional smoke dance songs from the Carolinas took a bluesy turn when slaves were taken in to the Native American reservation and joined in the music-making.

And this tradition of the people’s music, of folk, is alive and well with bands like A Tribe Called Red.

“What they’re doing with combining very traditional rhythms and songs with a modern sensibility and their incredible political activism - I’m not sure that there’s another band in Canada right now that represents the core values of folk music more than A Tribe Called Red,” MacNeill says.

Look forward to full, concert-length sets from each of the headliners, a vast departure from the Festival’s original 45-minute sets. Bands like these don’t come through Brandon often due to a lack of venues, so MacNeill ensures that when the city gets a show like this, they can take the time to fully enjoy it.

Part of the series: The 7th Annual Summer Festival Guide

Published in Volume 69, Number 27 of The Uniter (June 3, 2015)

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