The Richmond Folk Festival got its start five years ago when the National Folk Festival was hosted here from 2005-2007. The first year I could attend was 2008, but it happens that the RFF coincides with my undergraduate homecoming weekend, and it was a reunion year for my class, so I opted to do that instead. The following year I went to homecoming again, but this year I decided that it was time to check out the festival instead.
The festival starts on Friday evening and runs through Sunday evening. There are seven stages scattered throughout the riverfront area, including two on Browns Island. The terrain is helpful for blocking sound between the stages so that concurrent performances aren’t interrupting each other. The performances are scheduled in a slightly staggered manner, and many of the artists have repeat performances on a different stage and time/day, so in that regard the festival organizers are making sure that everyone has a chance to see the performances they want to see, which is pretty handy considering that more than 190,000 people attended this year.
I was particularly thrilled to hear and meet some of the Sacred Harp singers from Sand Mountain, Alabama. They performed on one of the stages on Saturday, and thanks to some friends, I had a seat in the second row. Then on Sunday, as I was walking through the festival, I stumbled upon them holding a somewhat impromptu (not scheduled but sanctioned by festival organizers) open sing, and was able to join them for the last four songs.
The most entertaining performance award goes to Capoeira Luanda. They showed amazing strength, flexibility, and focus in their demonstration of this African-influenced Brazilian dance/game/martial art. Here’s a video that someone shot during the Saturday evening performance I saw:
The two other stand-out performances I saw were Benedicte Maurseth and Andes Manta. I have heard recordings of the Hardangfele, or Hardanger fiddle, but it wasn’t until Maurseth explained the construction that I understood why it sounds like two people playing when it’s only one. The fiddle has a set of strings under the ones that are touched by the bow which resonate when the string above them vibrates. She played some trance tunes that were so hauntingly beautiful that I felt a little lost when the music ended. Andes Manta are group of brothers who perform traditional Andean music, including flutes, panpipes, and several stringed instruments. I could have listened to them for hours.
One of the aspects of the folk fest performances that I particularly enjoyed was the educational component. I walked away from most performances with a greater understanding of the context, culture, and technical aspects of the music. Getting some education with my entertainment is a nice bonus.
Unfortunately, because I volunteered about 8 hours of my time at an information booth, I missed quite a bit of the festival (minus what I could hear from one of the nearby stages). While I enjoyed helping out, I think next time I will try to pick a volunteer shift that doesn’t overlap with quite so much of the performance times.
The folk fest is admissions-free, but they do suggest a $5 donation per person per day. There are people carrying bright orange five-gallon buckets all over the event, asking for donations from the people attending, but on average, they collected less than $0.40 per person this year. Thankfully, they are able to get sponsorships to cover the rest of the costs of the festival, but there’s some concern that the festival may have to scale back or start charging an entry fee if they don’t get more donations in the future.
So, if you’re in the Richmond area next October and you are looking for something relatively inexpensive and fun to do, please be sure to check out the folk festival!