MUSIC

Bringing folk together

DENNIS DUFFY September 1 1973
MUSIC

Bringing folk together

DENNIS DUFFY September 1 1973

Bringing folk together

MUSIC

DENNIS DUFFY

The Mariposa Folk Festival, now in its thirteenth year, happens on the Toronto Islands and features folk singers, dancers and artisans from North America and elsewhere. A three-day, 10-hour-a-day festival with better than 100 performers cannot even be fully attended, let alone commented upon, so let me tell you about two things I enjoyed at Mariposa ’73 and what they say about this kind of gathering.

Los Quinchamali, a Montreal

group of four men of Chilean, Swiss, Spanish and Russian-Jewish backgrounds, play Andean music on curious instruments. A 10-stringed mini-ukelele {charango), panpipes, flutes without mouthpieces, rattles more rackety than my ’65 VW and, best of all, a drum {bombo) made from a hollowed tree trunk with a head that looks like dogskin all combine to produce a high-pitched, bouncy, at times plaintive sound reminding me of the Suprêmes in their great days. Picture this group: guitarist laying down massive Spanish chords while the Incas liven things; the charangist intent as a knot-tying surgeon as he works 10 strings within an area the size of an envelope; the amiable giant with the flute picking up the lead, while the dogskin drummer pounds with one hand and tootles the panpipes with another. Incredible stuff, and the very looks of the moving musicians recall Goya’s strolling beggars or Picasso’s saltimbanques. Call it wedding music, music which, no matter how well planned and executed, carries within it a sense of improvised grace and just a hint of chaos. Such marriages are made on earth.

Les Danseurs du St. Laurent are a Quebec group of young men and women with inspired accompanists and a cocky emcee whose speech is one long strut. Step dancing is their forte, and sexuality is on their side. Not that they are trying to turn their audience on, they are simply healthy men and women whose spirits flow all over. They appear to enjoy each other’s company, and in the dances the group performs there is more than a formal sense of one sex moving freely among the other. Dance is liturgy; it is also fun, and Les Danseurs have an unselfconscious sense of both.

Dennis Duffy is a Toronto author and music critic

I picked these two examples because I was simply following my sense of what I liked best. But they can also give a sense of the range and variety of the folk scene in this country. On the one hand, the organized troupe, with a director and a sense of cultural purpose (the emcee announced in some detail the region of Quebec from which each dance sprang), yet a company which hasn’t yet been Sol Hurok-ized into a costume ball. On the other, four extraordinary men who bumped up against each other in Montreal clubs. On the one hand, an attempt to preserve with joy and grace at least a sense of the rhythms of the past; on the other, the enriching of one culture with the rhythms of the alien.

If looking back and looking abroad are two functions of the folk scene, then the third — the attempt to get in touch with the rhythms of the here and now — is better described by discussing the context, rather than the content, of what I saw and heard. The mentions of musicians bumping against each other reminds me that a subculture in which these meetings can take place is in pretty good shape. The fact that Mariposa isn’t a once-ayear freakout, but instead the manifestation of one year’s workshops and gatherings demonstrates the strengths of both impresarios and audiences. The festival is supported by ticket sales rather than government grants; it is the result of numbers of people working hard for no pay because they like what they are working for: the performers often receive far less than their usual fees; most of the music is scarcely million-seller. Situations differ, the question is complex. But oughtn’t other minority art forms — dance, opera — to be asking themselves what they are really up to when their activities can flourish only through official patronage? Oddly enough, the blue-jeaned, haltertopped, hirsute folk at Mariposa are far deeper into the free enterprise/initiative thing than the penguin-suited first nighters at the O’Keefe.

As with any festival, it was full of petty hassles, from crowded ferries to people talking when they should have been listening, but certainly anything its organizers could have been expected to have had control over went smoothly. The performances kept to schedule (important, if a listener was to move among the attractions to hear all he wants), the garbage was collected, the performers and crafts people given decent working conditions. Lots of people were strolling about with bottles of beer, wine and (a little) whiskey — I’d like to add

for status purposes that I was the only one drinking Guinness — a little Devil Weed could be sniffed along the breeze from time to time — my companion’s 10-year-old daughter recognized it before she did — but no stoned kids thrashed about, no redeyed bikers sought out raw meat, no abandoned children got into trouble. Sunburn was the most persistent form of self-abuse. Those who came knew what they came for, and either sought it in comfort or put up with a temporary inconvenience to get what they wanted.

Can you see why finding a song about the War Measures Act or a freeway accident wouldn’t say much about the contemporaneity of the folk scene? The festival itself, with its lowkey matching of performer and audience, is the comment. Mariposa is good fun. And the fact that the music is also good is a bonus.

Mariposa is an example of the sort of voluntary grouping, the do-it-yourself organizational model that powers any gathering that is still vital in our society. To whatever extent Mariposa exemplifies the folk-music scene in this country, that scene is rooted in the realities of the present.