A funnel cloud split the sky in a terrifying twist of darkening wind as the Calgary Folk Music Festival began under a cold rain that swept over the prairie river valley. At the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Bow River embraces the city of Calgary in power and steam, all emptying into dry air under the incredulously spacious Alberta horizons.
From the south, the high plains roll as lofty and wind-whipped as the Sahara Desert, encompassing the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, the Blood Reserve. They are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the traditional stewards of the region.
From the east lies a dinosaur haunt of cactus-laden hoodoos.
From the north a boreal forest as important ecologically as the Amazon rain forest is now desecrated by what Greenpeace calls the most destructive industrial project on Earth. This place is today referred to as the Athabasca tar sands, where the second largest oil reserve can be seen from space.
To the west, the altitudinous spine of the Americas stands, jutting, unparalleled.
In the First Nations mythology, the Earth and the human soul are made of equal parts direction (south, north, west, east), quality (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual), and color (red, white, black, yellow).
In many interpretations, these attributes also represent four ways of seeing the people of Earth, as Native American, European, African, and Asian.
The Calgary Folk Festival is a meeting ground for the four peoples of the Medicine Wheel, as it is known and revered on traditional Blackfoot territory, where circular cairns of stone can be seen above human fossils dating back 12,000 years. Locals and travellers sang, played, danced and harmonized with the riverine soil and impassioned spirits of the globe, resounding from the furthest point of every direction.
From the south, Bombino, the nomadic Tuareg country of Niger, opened the festival as the first main stage act of the festival, a most welcome call to summer. His rhythmic lyricism and cool guitar stung popped over electric vibes, calming and enlivening to the pulsing beat.
Like the mad rush of the mountain-cold Bow River, his presence steadily guided listeners downstream, to imagine, while at peace, the strength it takes to overcome war and exile through music. In fact, following an armed uprising, Niger has forbidden Tuareg people to play guitar since 2007. In Africa, a musical instrument has become a symbol of resistance, as illegal as a gun. Bombino exudes the power of musical liberation and radical independence, both personal and cultural in every downbeat strum.
Canadian country guitar then waylaid the hundreds of attendant festivalgoers strewn about the dank island grass. Calgary’s own J.J. Shiplett surprised with homegrown tradition, as he gave people something to believe in with heavy-hearted laments that drove and rocked folk lovers with just the right nerve.
From the north, the Blackfoot Medicine Wheel turned to invite DakhaBrakha, a self-proclaimed exploration of EthnoChao that have lit up the 21st century airwaves like none other. Tribal drumming reinforces piercing vocal harmonies as the artists perform on accordion, cello and percussion that commingle with everything from abstract wilderness sounds to deft Ukrainian rap.
The Ukrainian flag flew high from the dancing pit as DakhaBrakha stoned the wild trespasses of their Eastern European brethren with music so original that it feels like it has a mind of its own. Now far-flung throughout the globe, Ukrainians are well steeped in life on the Alberta prairies, where they have thrived for generations, never forgetting the sounds of home.
Transcending all sense of direction, simply grooving to the celebratory feel of the Friday night festival frequencies, Kid Koala’s Vinyl Vaudeville stunned and enjoyed the reinterpretation of contemporary folk culture. Nostalgic gravity brought all ears to their toes as Koala spun on nothing but good old-fashioned vinyl.
Yet, his show would not be merely a staged museum exhibit of antiquated musical modes. Halfway through his set, the Kid leapt offstage and controlled the turntables remotely, partying hard amid the crowd as his vaudeville dancers surfed the upraised hands. Like at any rabble-rousing fiesta, hilarity ensued.
As from deep within the cavernous recesses of earth, like the mortal wailing of a miner dreaming of light, Colin Stetson burned up the soundscape with stroboscopic woodwind electronica. One-of-a-kind, daring and masterful, Stetson brewed up a strong batch of experimental saxophone to lure folk music listeners to harmonize with pure, solo sound creation.
The power in his breath and ingenuity in his fingers invigorates the musical horizon, picking up from where Coltrane left off at his last and most radical of moods, and where Peter Brötzmann once angered the jazz lounge. Stetson has innovated a range of new ways to compose and perform saxophone. At times, what’s even better is the look on the faces of his thoroughly mesmerized following.
Fame is an illusion. If this is true, there is no better illusionist than the famous, the celebrity, and the iconized. Esperanza Spalding has transcended all sense of fame. She is a breathtakingly gorgeous young woman whose voice is a revelation of modern jazz, resonating with the names Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan. That she doubles on stand-up and electric bass, and is a technical and soulful virtuoso on the instrument, has stunned the nation and the world.
In an unclear turn of events, she was billed to perform at the 2015 Calgary Folk Festival, though not as a headliner. Many in the crowd remain convicted that the young woman singing and playing bass onstage at 8:55PM on Saturday night was Esperanza Spalding. The program was misleading, as festivalgoers read Spalding’s bio, though most did not question what exactly “Esperanza Spalding Presents” meant, or why her name was followed by an apostrophe and the letter “s”.
Esperanza Spalding did not perform at the 2015 Calgary Folk Festival. Surely, her name brought many people out to see a young artist who she has endorsed. Without alluding to the fact too blatantly, Spalding has simply stated that Emily’s D+Evolution, the name of the artist who performed, is her take on reimagining herself and her art.
Has Spalding identified so intimately with her art that she sees presenting another young African-American woman who sings jazz and plays a mean bass as simply the furthering of her art?
Or, is this all a conscious ruse instigated by someone whose fame is beyond comprehension for the vast majority, that Emily’s D+Evolution is meant to obscure her fame so that one day she may return to the stage as more of an unknown again?
Whatever the truth may be, Emily’s D+Evolution is a world-class project, featuring some exceptional artists, including the bassist and singer upfront who, while not nearly projecting her voice with the same awe-inspiring beauty and harmonic versatility as Esperanza has sufficed for the festival crowd. In the meantime, many fans are left scratching their heads amid the countrified gullibility of the folk music scene.
Then, there is Buffy Sainte-Marie. The people, the folk–they know who she is, and still, after over sixty years, everyone stands motionless, listening, because she is here. And she is as she always was. Yet, at the 2015 Calgary Folk Festival she sounded even more larger than life. With all of contemporary folk music history behind her, and with the life force of the present, everyone could see how gracefully, and potently, she pressed all of that revolutionary energy onward for the betterment of the future.
She sang the ingenious love song, “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” noting how magnanimously it has been covered by the most revered of names in folk music, as well as in uncountable symphonies and films. Her words are so true they sting.
“Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” caught on fire with lyrics that truly gave weight to her conviction that a four-minute pop song can capture the substance of a four hundred page book.
Sainte-Marie’s protest music, as in “Universal Soldier,” continues to steal the hearts and minds of succeeding generations who remember back and see how far the society has come and how important folk music has been and continues to be along the way.
That her words, her voice, and her music shake people to their core is not only a testament to the fact that a formidably commanding band performs them with an especially exceptional drummer–it is because people need to hear her words more than ever. Perpetual war in this age of terrorism, and injustices against people upholding the authentic folk traditions of humanity, are outstanding.
Every year there is change. New seasons revolve, and expose the obscured and repressed, whether by the light of the summer sun or the chill darkness of the winter night. Newborns learn to feel, smile and spit on the warm ground from the womb to the bosom of a young mother.
“We Are Circling,” sang Buffy Sainte-Marie, calling hundreds of people camped on an island in the middle of the prairies to join her. “We are singing, singing our hearts off / This is family / This is unity / This is celebration / This is sacred!” she invoked, her arms spread out to invite the spirit of all within her glorified heart.
She told a story of how she learned the song from a hippie community in northern California. And as festivalgoers gazed on her, a living history from the era of as yet matchless cultural evolution, Canadians were proud to call her a compatriot. More, the multigenerational children of hippies once again felt they could express the love, freedom and togetherness that once conceived them.
Review by Matt Hanson