Richmond Folk Festival: Communication’s Essence


My favorite cultural/entertainment event of the year comes to Richmond, Va., this weekend. It’s the Richmond Folk Festival, now in its second year although the predecessor National Folk Festival ran here for three years.

I’m afraid when people hear the term “folk festival,” a lot of misconceptions pop into their minds. The Richmond Folk Festival is not a concert of Arlo Guthrie songs. It is not a latter-day version of Woodstock. It is not seminars about basket weaving. While each of these might have some relevance to folk arts, that’s not what the Richmond Folk Festival is all about.

To me, the Richmond Folk Festival is a celebration of the essence of communication.

What makes something a folk art is the fact that it has been shared within a culture, from one generation to the next, from one artist or performer or craftsperson to the next. With its transfer comes history, heritage, instructions for life, stories about ancestors, a sense of place and time and self.

So the nearly 200,000 people that will fill Richmond’s riverfront this weekend will witness musical and dance performances, see craft skills, hear stories, view art and sample foods that span the generations of peoples from all over the world. For example:

  • Khogzhumchu, who will perform xöömei, or throat-singing, one of the oldest vocal traditions in the world. It is unlike anything in western vocal music and it was largely unknown outside of the tiny Russian republic of Tuva until the 1990s. Khogzhumchu has never before performed in the United States.
  • La Gran Banda, a Colombian papayera band. The style combines the European municipal brass band tradition with the percussion instruments and African dance rhythms typical of the Colombian coastal region.
  • Lloyd Arneach, a Cherokee storyteller who learned the stories told by two of his uncles when he was growing up. Arneach’s ancestors hid in the remote hollows of the Great Smoky Mountains to avoid being forced to march on the “Trail of Tears” from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma. Much of the history and knowledge of Cherokee life was passed through storytelling.
  • Bluegrass innovator Jerry Douglas, who is perhaps best known for collaborating with T-Bone Burnett to create the soundtrack for the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? Five years ago, he was awarded the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists, the National Heritage Fellowship, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

And there is so much more. Korean dance. East African rumba. Piedmont blues. Cowboy poetry. Western music. Bluegrass gospel. Irish fiddle music. Old Regular Baptist singing. Klezmer. Not to mention folk arts like violin making, handmade household items, vintage fishing lures and decoys, handmade shawls and more. You will feel as if you’ve taken a whirlwind weekend trip around the world and experienced the best of dozens of cultures.

And all of these arts have survived because people kept them alive, passing the techniques and skills and stories from person to person — communicating in the most fundamental form.

If you are within driving distance of Richmond, Va., come to the Richmond Folk Festival on Friday night, Saturday or Sunday. It is well worth the trip.

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2 Responses

  1. I love the Richmond Folk Festival. There was some really great gospel singing last year that sent chills up my spine. Planned to go this year, but the SATs are Saturday, and, unfortunately, it’s flu season here on the home front.

  2. […] Every year, I come away from this festival with an even greater understanding of the power of communication — especially through music — to span generations and bridge diverse cultures. […]

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