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17 wows in a sea of sound at Folk Alliance International 2019

A dancer from Mama Mihirangi & the Mareikura

For four days and four nights, Folk Alliance International stormed the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, QC, and I was there. You couldn’t help but to experience all the feels: the highs and the lows, ultimately ensconced in a mix of awe, chaos, spirit and crazy.

Imagine rooms set up for performances from the lobby of the hotel through to the fifth floor; musicians attending from all over the world, playing official showcases from 4:00 p.m. To around 8:30 and private showcases from 10:00 p.m. through to until 3:30 a.m.; music for almost 12 hours, non-stop, for four days and nights (and mornings); close to 200 concerts happening at any given time. If your imagination is overwhelmed at the thought and your heart is palpitating just a little, then you are on the right track.

Last spring at Canadian Music Week, the seed was planted to attend FAI 2019 in Montreal. This outstanding (if a little overwhelming) music conference is usually held in the United States, so when I found out that Canada would be its 2019 home, I jumped at the chance to be there.

After a lengthy application process for an opportunity to play an official showcase, I was politely told “no.” So instead, I applied as a first timer and was even awarded a scholarship to help with the registration fee. I sent out a ton of emails and filled out more applications for a variety of non-official/private showcases and recieved a handful of yesses. YES! We music creators/bookers/managers LOVE a Yes. So there it was: a seed sprouted!

I have attended a variety of music festivals/conferences, but nothing could ever prepare a person for what could happen. Heading into something like this, you need an open heart, a fierce drive, and a thick skin. FAI developed an app so we could attempt making a schedule, a schedule for your daily workshops, panels, talks, inteviews etc., and a schedule for performances. Sticking to the daytime plan wasn’t so hard (on very little sleep, I might add), but sticking to the performance choices previously made was, at the best of times, quite difficult! One could very easily be swayed into a room by the sound of a harp, a voice, a familiar face or a fiddle (to name a few). Great surprises are so rare it seems, but not at Folk Alliance International. There were surprises around every corner.

Here are my TOP SEVENTEEN picks, in no particular order.

  1. Sara Ajnnak is a Sami artist from Sweden. I happened upon her in a tiny hotel room when her voice called me in and put a spell on me, taking me across the hills of the north, along cold, fresh rivers, into a future of quiet beauty. I was fortunate enough to catch both a private showcase and an official one.
  2. Gangstagrass. You really could not have come up with a better name for this American bluegrass-meets-hip-hop combination of sound. Their music beckoned me into a few different rooms, PACKED rooms, touching on all the senses.
  3. Harrow Fair is a BOMBPROOF duo based in Toronto, ON. I was in complete awe, mesmerized by their musical prowess. Just WOW.
  4. Alash Ensemble is a trio of throat singers from the Republic of Tuva – Tuvan throat singers who will blow your mind into a million pieces. #icanteven
  5. Ordinary Elephant is a country/folk duo out of Texas, now living across the States in a tiny home on wheels with their dogs. This music is brutal, honest truth about what it means to be alive in this crazy world. Harmonies. Love and truth. Cuts right to the heart.
  6. Vishten is a spell-binding, make-you-wanna-dance trio from Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Islands, an Acadian trio who I fell in love with.
  7. The Way Down Wanderers are a five-piece bluegrass/pop band out of Illinois. Their subtle playing and sweet, playful stage presence captivated me in such a way that I could not look away.
  8. Mama Mihirangi & The Mareikura were an outstanding trio of fierce, fiery and friendly women from New Zealand. What a distance for this profound trio of Maori women to travel, all the way to Montreal, Canada. I was blown away (to tears at some points) with their EPIC performance, featuring soulfire, dance and siren sounds.
  9. BLISK is a quartet of Balkan singers from eastern Europe. Their harmonies and traditional songs kept me entranced. Their dancing and traditional garb and instruments make this Toronto-based band stand out in the best of ways.
  10. Good Lovelies have been favourites of mine for some time, but I had not had the chance to see them live for many years. How lucky I was to have them perform in a cozy hotel room (right before me in the “Ladies in Waiting” private showcase room). Their music reminds me of honey, campfires, Canada and the Great Lakes.
  11. The Dardenelles are one of my favourite traditional Irish/Newfoundland bands from Newfoundland. I have all their records and LOVE their passionate playing and upbeat sounds.
  12. Vox Sambou is a collective of talented musicians based in Montreal. Their lively performance had the audience on its feet dancing to the large sounds of this amazing upbeat group.
  13. Nick Sherman is an Indigenous artist based out of Thunder Bay, ON who is originally from Sioux Lookout. His crafted songs take you for a ride through the life and times of a dad on the road, a soul-seeking troubadour who sings with a mighty set of vocal cords.
  14. Joe Bel is a French chanteuse who took my breath away. I was so happy to randomly find yet another amazing songstress. My cup runneth over!!! Love!!!
  15. Red Moon Road has also been a favourite of mine since I heard this soulful trio of talent from Winnipeg, MB many moons ago. I love their harmonies and how they trade off songs, songs that take you to another time and place. Real music.
  16. Lisa Canny is an Irish music maker from County Mayo. She plays a plethora of instruments but can really steal you away with her harp playing. Her voice is also killer. I was very happy to stumble into her performance. It was a lucky find, indeed!
  17. Jackie Venson is a riveting master of music, hailing from Texas. There are no real words to stick on this power force of a musician. I was very lucky to find her on my way to someone else. Sorry to that other person, but MAN do I want to do better since hearing her.

So there they are. I could not possibly pare my top picks down any further. As it is, I am missing way more greats on this list. To say I am grateful and honoured to have been privy to such a MASSIVE event doesn´t cut it. What a whirlwind of sights and sounds, a blast of musical chaos that will keep me fueled for quite some time. It was pure excitement and a true pleasure to be among such wonders. Hopefully you can take some time out of your busy schedules and have a listen to some of these new introductions?? Have fun while you are at it. I know I will.

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