The 2023 Folk Music Ontario (FMO) conference is taking place in London, ON, from Oct. 12 to 15. It’s hard to believe that these annual gatherings began in 1987 when a handful of festival organizers first got together to talk largely about the logistics of putting on a festival. In those days, the organization was called the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals (OCFF), and the annual meeting was dedicated to the mundane but important aspects of making the summer music events we all know and love successful. Conversations focused on things like publicity, staging and even garbage collection on site.
Some of those discussions still take place at the conference, but the focus has, over the past several years, morphed in the direction of proving a showcase for performers to be heard by festival artistic directors, other venue bookers, and pretty much anyone else who might be able to provide a leg up.
Having said that, it should be noted that this year’s event includes panels on how artists have a unique platform to reach people about the importance of addressing climate change. Panels also focus on music education, music licensing, grant writing, house concerts, getting booked, creating opportunities for Black artists, and how folks in the 2SLGBTQIA+ can support one another, etc., etc.
Lots of stuff happening in London, but back to the music.
The showcases, or mini-performances, began on Thursday night, Oct. 12, and go through the weekend. If I’m counting correctly, there are well over 100 performera on stages throughout the conference. Not to be unkind, but there is a bit of a meat market feel to the some of the showcasing setups at the FMO with one stage on the left side of the room and another on the right side. In the main showcase area, the moment a performer finishes their roughly 20 minute set, the other stage powers up and kicks into gear. It’s a pretty intense, and exciting, environment, and it might well be pretty nerve wracking for some.
It’s a business, and we all know it’s about who impresses with the time they’ve been given. So, who on Friday afternoon impressed?
Callie McCullough is a singer-songwriter from Stratford, ON, who has earned a Canadian Country Music Association Award nomination for Alternative Country Album of the Year. She is a very polished performer, with great stage presence and a lovely voice with song-writing talent in abundance. I don’t know how to make distinctions between country singer-songwriters and folk musicians in the same area, but she is clearly a pro.
Charley A’Court was also up this afternoon. He’s a Dartmouth, NS-based performer also in the country music vein. A recent album, When Country Gets the Blues, was nominated for Country Recording of the Year in 2022 East Coast Music Awards. He is also a five-time East Coast Music Award (ECMA) winner and an eight-time Nova Scotia Music Award winner. Plus he’s had a number of Maple Blues Award nominations. He has a great big voice and terrific guitar work. Good stuff.
Shauit from Montreal has twice been nominated for Indigenous artists of the year at the prestigious ASISQ gala. He sings mostly in Innu but also in French about the complexity and beauty of the Innu nation. It was a nice addition to the day.
There were a couple of strong entries on the world music side. Senaya, from Montreal, beautifully combines African and Caribbean rhythms, jazz, funk, blues, folk, R&B and even negro spirituals. And Empress Nyiringango is an Ottawa-based Rwandan-Canadian singer-songwriter. She calls what she does a Jablur sound, which stands for jazz, blues, and Rwandan. The distinctive fusion features Rwanda’s oldest instrument “Inanga” (Zither) and contemporary music. One really has to love the energy and joy she brings to her music.
Those were some artists that stood out. Keep in mind that music conferences are much like folk festivals – you can’t catch everything. If you happen to out of the room when the best thing you might ever have heard is on stage, that is entirely your loss. If you’re lucky, you can catch then at a subsequent showcase.