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The Vancouver Folk Music Festival: an interview with the new artistic director

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Guitar in Woods

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival (VFMF) returns July 13–15 for its 41st year, with a fabulous lineup, new staff, and renewed optimism.

VFMF welcomed new artistic director Debbi Salmonsen in October 2017. Her current position includes artistic booking, augmentative marketing and sponsorship for the festival.  She was the executive director at the Calgary Folk Festival from 2014 to 2017.

I chatted with Debbi one warm afternoon at Kitsilano Beach, just downwind of the Jericho Beach festival site.

VC: Your most recent folk festival administration experience was in Calgary. However, your Vancouver roots run quite deep, don’t they?

DS: Yes, I’ve been active in the Vancouver music scene for several decades before my move to Calgary, as a hobby musician, Folk Fest volunteer, working in the festival record tent for many years, as a music radio host.  Vancouver Folk Fest has always been an important part of my life, and I brought my children to Folk Fest every summer.

What can VFMF learn from Calgary’s successful folk festival? Or vice versa?

I think that all festivals can learn from each other. Each city is different, and you have to adjust to the city’s demographic. Each needs to find their own niche, respond to their community.  Western Canadian festivals share many ethical and community practices that have sustained them well and engendered loyalty in the audiences. Environmental practices, providing crews for waste management, respect for the site, to mention a few.

We at VFMF have always had good diversity in our staff, our lineups, our volunteers. All are welcome; all are embraced. This is reflected in the diversity of our audience and the diversity of the programming.  Of course we are blessed with a nice site at the beautiful Jericho Beach Park. The audience and artists are treated to views of English Bay and the North Shore, spectacular beach sunsets. Pretty sweet!

Our festival has always been family-friendly; kids under 12 get in free, reduced ticket prices for elders, students, free companion tickets for disabled.  We also do outreach to new communities, refugees and so on. I think a lot of those community practices have built a strong base of loyalty.

This festival has many multi-generational families. Some of them set up camp on the hill and have a reunion – or volunteer. For example, one of our board members is a volunteer, his son-in-law is head of security, and his grandson is now a volunteer.

As a new artistic director, what were your guiding principles for booking artists?

My first goal: make sure all of the music sounds really good!  I was also committed to staying within my budget. I also tried to make sure we have a good representation of musical styles and types of performers.  So we have performers from around the world (Argentina, Brazil, Mozambique) as well as other provinces, and performers from other places in the world who now call Canada home.  There is also a healthy representation of bluegrass/country/old time music and traditional blues.

We also have a great Cajun band, emerging Vancouver artists, and some great Aboriginal performers: Iskwé, Leonard Sumner, Quantum Tangle.  Of course I am pretty excited to welcome Ry Cooder to Jericho Beach! He’s not doing many festivals this summer.

I tried really hard to ensure a good representation of bands fronted by women, or predominantly women members. I just think that it’s something everybody should try to do. I’m pleased that we are close to 50% this year.

I know it’s like picking a favourite child, but could you share a couple of acts that you are really excited about?

Kacy and Clayton, from Saskatchewan. Kacy is being called “the new Joni Mitchell”. I first saw them performing at a trailer park, of all places, as part of a showcase at the Americana Festival in Nashville. They are cousins and play really interesting stuff. It’s hard to categorize. There’s some folk, a certain country twang.  I am really excited that they’re coming, and I hope the audience likes them too.

I’m also really excited about Ranky Tanky. They are jazz musicians who hail from Charleston, South Carolina and New York City. As well, they perform traditional Low Country “gullah” music. They are all stunning musicians.

And of course Neko Case! 

One booking that jumps out, especially at those of us who followed the 1980s “alt” music scene in this city, is Art Bergmann.

Yes, he went over really well at the Calgary festival a couple of years ago. He is certainly known to locals for his stint with the Young Canadians, but he has always been a strong songwriter and very political. He has really interesting songs on his latest album.  I think that people not familiar with him will be pleasantly surprised.

A festival like this is always making adjustments. What will the site look like this year? Will we recognize it?

It will look and feel familiar, with a few small surprises of the good variety.  We have planned more interactive workshops this year. There will be a live, roving mariachi band, and square dancing!  With a live caller and a live band.  We’re also going to do some surprise things on site that will be fun for people – let’s call them “other roadside attractions”

We’re improving the flow of the beer garden for faster service and providing more umbrellas for shade.  Of course, we have our usual smorgasbord of food trucks¸ community market, art market and the always popular beachside Folk Bazaar.

The kids’ area will have the usual story times and opportunities to juggle, stilt walk, do crafts. Gamelan Bike Bike will be in charge of an interactive music zoo. There will also be a few roaming performers and a giant inflatable salmon.

We are pleased to welcome sponsor Evo Car Share this year.  Evo car parking will be available close to site, along with the usual bike valet parking.

Overall, I hope folks will find the same spirit of the festival as they have over the last many years. We’re encouraging newbies especially. Come for a night. Come for a day, Come for a sample! Bring friends! Enjoy!

For a complete list of performers, schedules and other information, see www.thefestival.bc.ca and Facebook page www.facebook.com/VanFolkFest

Val Cormier hosted “Folk Oasis” on CiTR-FM for over 15 years.

You’ll find Val in Newfoundland and Labrador for most of June 2018, in search of the best seafood chowder and trad music.

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