Photography by Twila
There is a community that exists beyond the Winnipeg Folk Festivals’s main site. Tucked away in the neighbouring groves, a sea of tent canopies emerge out of a clearing in the wood. The sound of guitar strumming and piano playing is heard, the earthy smell of barbeque smoke wafting from nearby campsites, and friendly campers beckoning patrons to take a seat at the grass table. This is the Festival Campground. There are two campgrounds run by the Winnipeg Folk Festival, one being the Festival Campground, housing 6000 campers, and the other being the Quiet Campground, home to 2000 campers during five day festival.
There is an unspoken social etiquette that exists amongst these campers that join annually to construct this peaceful temporary community. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is open to share. Everyone is taken care of by the collective community. It serves as an escape from reality, in addition to being an environment the fosters and encourages displays of creativity.
Camp sites display banners of personal art at their doorway, whether it be cardboard pop-outs of allegiance for Star War characters or the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. A grove of RV trailers are parked together at the back of the site, their own trailer grove, where individual personalities emerge with the display of RV art. A quick step into the wooded areas shows a dense network of woodland tent dwellers and suspended hammocks.
Larger pieces of infrastructure are also assembled by campers arriving at the campground – not because they were asked, but because they wanted to. Festival Communications Coordinator and camper, Kelly Romas reveals why she chooses to camp at the festival: “It’s magical how a community forms. [The campers] come. They set their tents up. They plan all year to build structure, to create art and animation… it just happens out of nowhere. We just provide the space facility and infrastructure.” Indeed, there is a working collaborative model between campers and Festival organizers. The Festival provides a blank campground canvas and the inhabitants join together to colour the site.
While the site is a mosaic of self-initiated Art initiatives, there are some traditional installations that return every year.
The Castle Boys assembled a Space Barn on site that is open to patrons open to having a jam sessions throughout the day. Evening programming showcases talents of fellow campers and a members are always welcome by walking through the open wall beams.
Popes Hill serves as a central evening meeting point for camp attendees. In fact, the Pope delivered an address there when he visited Birds Hill Provincial Park. Since the hill is still owned by the Catholic Church, the Winnipeg Folk Festival obtains permission to use the space every year and the hill remains an alcohol free zone. While the Hill is uninhabited in the day, it transforms into the evening into a blur of glowsticks illumination, the cacophony of drumming circles, open fire shows, and programmed events such as sing-alongs. The Popes Hill service continues well on into sunrise, fuelled by the energy of it congregation.
The Big Games exhibit is composed of large family game favourites such as Jenga, Scrabble, Guess Who, Backgammon, Connect Four, Battleship, Family Feud; ultimately, creating yet another avenue to interactive with your neighbours.
Free of the social confines and expectations of everyday life, the festival campground embodies the ideals of equality, peace, and transparency. It is a glimpse into a functioning, although temporary, unified society. I can see how campers beginning planning for next years’s Winnipeg Folk Festival camping experience as soon as this one ends, looking forward to the arrival of a community that will congregate once more.
As the heavy humidity settles throughout the festival grounds at Birds Hill National Park, signalling the impending rain, Danny Michel enters the media tent early for his interview. He sets down a black case on the table, shakes my hand with a smile and asks, “Is it alright if we do this now?” He has just come from the autograph session following his joint Winnipeg Folk Festival session with the Garifuna Collective.
“No problem,” I reply, gathering my materials for the interview.
Michel is entering the third week of his joint Canada and US Tour with the Garifuna Collective from Belize, whom he collaborated with on his Juno-nominated album, Blackbirds are Dancing Over Me.
Michel is often seen performing solo shows on festival circuits but, this time, he has brought an entire troupe of musicians with him. “I’ve decided to go from solo to ten people,” he laughs while reflecting on this abrupt transition. Michel’s current tour is filled with unique challenges, such as negotiating work visas and coordinating with the Department of Fisheries for customs clearance of percussion instruments like turtle shells. “Everything has been so stressful and so much work, but as soon as we get on stage… it’s worth it,” he states.
The dancing crowds and enrapt audience at Friday’s sessions supported that fact. Both Michel and the Collective shared the stage, taking turns to perform each others songs. A trend which they will follow for the rest of their tour. As a result, all their performances generate a collaborative workshop energy.
Collaborative projects are challenging to execute because it requires a openness and trust from all participating musicians. There is an uncertainty in the fact that neither party is sure of the musical result. Yet, at the same time, that is the beauty of the process because there is an excitement at the prospect of musical genesis. Michel describes his first meeting with the Garifuna Collective in Belize for the album:
“I walked into the room of people I’ve never met being this little guy from Canada. “Hi, everyone. You should trust me and play on my record and play my songs,” and [they were] looking at each other going, “mmm how is it gonna work?” Michel smiles, recalling memories of the situation.
“How did it work?” I inquire further.
“It just worked. I’d go in and show them a song idea, record the guitar part, I’d sing it, and then we’d have my guitar and vocal. Just like a good ol’ singer songwriter song then we just started piling it on… It kinda just became itself,” he replies.
Even when the record was finished, Michel wasn’t sure of the result. “I was close to it. I was so in. So deep that I couldn’t see it with any perspective anymore,” he demonstrates for me while squinting to see the details on the side of his black case. However, Michel reveals that he never felt like it was a risky endeavour to record the Blackbirds album because he had a solid rationale for starting the project with the Garifuna Collective.
“I really did this for a musical adventure for myself. I wanted to learn about their music. I wanted to open my mind and get beyond Pop music. I wanted to become a better artist. So this was a little self project for myself. That was the intention,” he says with genuine honesty in his voice.
When considering how Michel’s lyrics from What Colour Are You? “Why can’t we all just communicate”, I wonder if his current album and tour with the Garifuna Collective symbolizes how open communication between cultures can be successful.
Michel delves into his thoughts, reflecting on the cascading effects of his collaboration, his gaze unfocused upon the surface grains of the wooden table. He remerges, maintaining his humble initial intent, “If I can be a part of inspiring anybody to try more things like [musical collaboration], that’s an honour to me. I looked at this project like, well, I’m just gonna try it and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, if it fails, then it’s still going to be a great learning experience. And the exact opposite has happened. It has snowballed. All I wanted to do was make a record. Now it’s a record, then a tour, now it got released in the US, now it’s on the Polaris prize list.” Michel elaborates further, “I think that maybe happened because it was really genuine. It wasn’t a plan. We didn’t have a marketing plan. All we did was put our heart into something and try. And so maybe that’s the secret to its success – that it was honest.”
Michel’s travels to Belize and Garifuna collaboration is a definitive moment for him as an Artist, not only learning from the perseverance, vibe, energy, and heart of the Garifuna Collective performing on stage but, lyrically as well, contemplating the future topics he wishes to address as a musician.
“There was some point, probably around the time where I got tired of Pop music and where I wanted to go to Belize… there’s gotta be more to say. There’s gotta be something important to say. There’s gotta be a way of saying it without it sounding preachy…where I’m bonking people over the head with it. So I’ve tried really hard to kinda say that without sounding preachy… It was a turning point in my life. I don’t even know if I know what it was, I just thought I can’t do this and not say something more. So I’m just trying to be more thoughtful.”
There is no grand plan for Michel. No gleaming whiteboard with dry erase etchings detailing travel and song plans for his future. He prefers it this way. Guided by musical intuition, he does what he feels is right for him at the time. Michel does reveal a general philosophy he follows:
“My goal is to keep following the goal of writing more thoughtful music and just trying to get much better at it… I have something to say. So in 50 years, if I’m gone… one of my songs could still be important and still have something to say to somebody,” he says thoughtfully before laughing at himself, amused at how deep his contemplations led him.
Regardless of topics, songs, or collaborations Michel chooses to address in the future, they will always originate from his humble intent to challenge himself as a musician.
Photography by Twila and Miss. Sable
After starting our morning with some Winnipeg sights and fueling up on caffeine at Parlour Coffee, it was time to venture out to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, located about a one hour drive from downtown Winnipeg. As we made our way north on Winnipeg’s Main Street, we joined the highway that eventually led us to Birds Hill Provincial Park Northwest from Winnipeg.
We celebrated our arrival with a high-5 and posed for a picture with our vehicle among rows of grass parking. It was a long commute from Edmonton but we had officially arrived at the Winnipeg Folk Festival!
“It’s the same, but different,” Twila remarked as we surveyed the Main Stage crowd.
Indeed, the festival energy that we know and love from the Edmonton Folk Music Festival was present but there was a secluded magic about having the Winnipeg Folk Festival nestled away in a flat clearing of Birds Hill Provincial Park. A temporary city is built in the park to accommodate the festival community. As Oh My Darling, The Avett Brothers, and City and Colour headlined the opening night of the festival, Twila and I began our assimilation process into the Winnipeg Folk Festival culture. There will be more to come in regards to this process in the next few days.
This post is part of a series detailing the experiences of Edmonton folkies, Sable and Twila, heading to Winnipeg Folk Festival for the first time. See other posts here. Cross-posted on The Choir Girl Blog.