Ready for some folking? Good, us too.
The 31st Annual Brandon Folk, Music, and Art Festival runs this weekend, July 24-26, in Brandon, MB. Stylus caught up with the festival’s artistic director, Shandra MacNeill.
Stylus: There are only days before the festival. How are you feeling?
Shandra MacNeill: Things are good. As stressful as the week is, you start to see everything come together. The first tent goes up, and then everything seems like it’ll be ok because all you really need is a tent, right?
Stylus: Can you tell me the story of the Brandon Folk Festival? How, why, and where did it start?
SM: It was started by a group of newly graduated university students who were able to get some grant money because it was the National Year of Youth [in 1985]. There was a little extra money floating around from the federal government for arts programming in communities. A number of people in our community had been to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and they wanted to do something similar, but something that catered to our community. The mandate had to be a little broader – not just folk music but a variety of different kinds of music, and a variety of different cultures were represented, so it also had a multicultural component. There was also a heavy presence of the visual arts community in Brandon. They partnered with the Allied Arts Centre, now the AGSM (the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba) to do a lot of visual arts programming. It was a 1-day event that had 45 minutes of jazz, 45 minutes of rock ’n roll, and 45 minutes of Latin American music. Now it’s a 3-day event and we sell tickets at a national level, so people come from all over the country.
Stylus: You just mentioned something that was really interesting to me, which is that the festival is not just about music. It’s also about visual arts. Can you explain that component, and how it manifests?
SM: That’s one of those things that changes as the community changes, and different boards [of directors] have put different emphasis’ on that component . . . When your number one cultural activity centre in [Brandon] is the community art gallery, that means that a lot of people care about that programming, so you make sure that happens. This year we are doing some mentoring of young visual artists on the festival site.
Stylus: How is the Brandon Folk Festival different than the Winnipeg Folk Festival?
SM: Because we don’t have a lot of concerts that happen year round, when we do go through the trouble of bringing in a national or international headliner, we want to get the most of them. We close every evening with a concert. For example, Tanya Tagaq isn’t just doing a 45-minute set, she’s doing her full Animism concert. I think there’s a sort of intimacy too, just because of the size. You can still get within ten feet of the stage, which is always nice. There’s a spontaneity too because the artists are there all weekend, and most of them camp. We don’t allow drum jams in our campground so that the artists can make music all night.
Stylus: What’s the camping area of the festival like?
SM: It’s rustic, but it’s not just an open field. It’s a very lovely treed area. Actually, our site use to be a Victorian walking garden and now it’s more of an urban forest. It’s heavily treed, so everyone gets some shade. There’s running water, but there aren’t RV hookups or anything like that.
Stylus: What kind of demographic do you get coming to your festival?
SM: It really ranges, which we’re really happy with and proud of. When we do our breakdown when we’re reporting to our sponsors, there’s a pretty good division between the 18-30 group, and then 30-60. We’re having a lot of young families come as well, so our family programming is really important to us. There are enough young people for young people to be excited about coming, but it’s not a 24-hour party. People who prefer to come, and sit, and listen to music outdoors can have a really great time too.
Stylus: Explain to me how how this year’s lineup came together, and the curatorial aspect of pulling together this year’s lineup?
SM: Some of these artists we’ve been working on for years. Sometimes it just comes together and it really makes sense . . . I think it’s a really great representation of our community’s demographic. There are international musicians and there are really talented musicians from our own community. We just try and make it balanced. I love a good ‘mixed tape,’ and that’s essentially what putting together a lineup is.
Stylus: Two of your major headliners, A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq, are both quite vocal on First Nations’ rights in Canada. Is the festival taking a political stance by headlining artists who’re talking to those issues in a really public way?
SM: I think any folk music festival, or any festival that has the word ‘folk’ in their title, has to earn that word. What is folk music if it doesn’t reflect the concerns and issues of the people? I think that it wasn’t done on purpose, but if anyone is doing anything that really personifies what folk music is supposed to be about, that’s A Tribe Called Red. Now, they may not like to be called a ‘folk band’ [laughs] but what they’re doing with their cultural roots, the political activism (the general ‘badassery’ of that band), it very much reflects the folk music component of the civil rights movement. I think what they’re doing is very important, and I’m really proud to have them on our stage. I think that if a folk festival isn’t political in some way, or trying to encourage people to be a little better to one another, I don’t think they’re doing their job.
Stylus: If you can distill it into one aspect, what is your favorite part of this festival?
SM: On a personal level, I really love watching the musicians interact with one another. We have a good audience – our audience is a listening audience. They’re not there to party, although they have a good time. They’re not there just to dance. They’re a listening audience, they want to hear the musicians. If there’s one thing I enjoy most, and am most proud of, it’s those absolutely densely quiet moments where I catch the whole audience completely riveted to whatever is happening onstage. The musicians know that [the audience] is listening, and they play 100 times better because of that focus, attention, and respect. I’ve seen it periodically at other shows, concerts, and festivals, but I think it is one thing that our audience provides consistently. The community is between the musicians and the audience, and I think it makes a better show.
Stylus: I was told that one particularly incredible aspect of this festival was the food [laughs]. What’s the story with that?
SM: I think that if you feed the artists well, like really well, and you make them food that tells them they are valued, respected, and that you want them to feel good and do a good job, you’ll get a good performance out of them. It’s just about hospitality. I learned how to cook from my mom, so my mom and I do a lot of pre-cooking, and we have a lot of volunteers that pitch in. From all the festivals that I’ve visited, I’d say that this one’s food really tries to be exceptional, rather than just really good.