by Shannon Griffiths
VANCOUVER – Vancouver has always been a place of diversity — a desired destination for both tourists and immigrants around the world, and a breeding ground for environmental and social movements that represent our geographical and social multiplicities. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival has thrived in such a city, and, now in its 40th year, has firmly established its role in celebrating diversity and inclusivity.
“There are two distinct kinds of music that end up sheltering together under the umbrella of folk music,” says VFMF co-founder Gary Cristall. “One of them is purely traditional music; music that goes back hundreds of years that essentially comes from rural, pre-capitalist, non-literate societies… and then there’s a whole body of song writing and popular music that doesn’t really fit into the commercial music industry, and that too became known as folk music.” Folk music, which can be defined as music for and of the people, has the ability to connect people with forgotten stories, heritage, and cultural traditions.
Cristall started the VFMF in 1978 as a way to “do something that gave people music that celebrated diversity of traditions…and music that was going to change the world or have the ambition of doing that. Music that was provocative — music that was saying something.” A not-for-profit charity run by volunteers, the VFMF has always been committed to providing a stage for authentic and honest artistry — in one of the most beautiful settings, Jericho Beach Park, at that.
At first, some criticized the festival for being too much of a nostalgic throwback to the free-thinking, free-love era. Cristall jokes that it seemed as if the public presumed festivalgoers to wear tie-dye shirts and Birkenstocks, without appreciating the core traditions of folk music itself. After all, folk music is not to be confined within current trend or fad — it is much more substantial than that. But over the last four decades, the VFMF’s vision has remained the same: deeply rooted in values of diversity, equality, inclusivity, and peace. Cristall recalls artists from past years who have represented this well, like Ed Balchowsky — a one-armed pianist who lost his right hand in the Spanish Civil War and who performed at the festival in 1982. The VFMF, Cristall says, is “a place where a number of dynamic, contemporary artists, and different facets of music are able to reach thousands of people.”
This year, the festival lineup includes Haitian roots group, Chouk Bwa Libète; Australian singer-songwriter and Indigenous advocate Archie Roach, who combines folk music with the stories of his ancestors; experimental African musicians Mbongwana Star, from the Democratic Republic of Congo; Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Andy Shauf; Barenaked Ladies; Missouri-born, BC-raised blues artist, Jim Byrnes.
These are all people from different backgrounds, uniting together through music, storytelling, and emotion to share a greater experience of humanity. It is this that demonstrates the beautiful diversity that is intrinsic to folk music — and, in the same way, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.
Vancouver Folk Music Festival runs from July 13 – 16 at Jericho Beach Park.Jericho Beach Park, Vancouver Folk Music Festival