On music, sun & community
My neck is sun burnt, my legs ache, and my back hurts . . . all in all, it was a successful weekend! I spent July 18, 19 and 20 at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival—a event that I have been a part of for going on 30 years, first as an audience member, then as a performer, and lately as co-coordinator (with Amy) of the children’s area. This year, Chibi Taiko—the youth taiko group that our daughters Emiko and Kaya belong to—performed there for the first time, playing a set Saturday morning on the kid’s area stage. For most members of the group, it was just another performance; for my kids and me, it had special meaning. Emi and Kaya have grown up attending two festivals every summer—the Powell Street Festival on the BC Day long weekend and, a few weeks earlier, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. The former connects them to their Nikkei community and heritage, the latter connects them to a different kind of community. From the outside, to those who have never attended the Folk Festival, it can seem like nothing more than an exotic mélange of aging hippies, pierced, tattooed youths and assorted other anti-establishment types squatting in the dirt in front of small stages to listen to music that would never be heard anywhere else outside of the CBC. It is all those things, but it is also something much harder to explain to the uninitiated. It is, for three nights and two days, a place where the outside world goes into soft focus, where garbage and ads are at a bare minimum, where it’s safe to let your kids wander off clutching a twenty-dollar bill, where people pick up after themselves, where doctors and daycare workers share the same patch of earth (and often wearing the same t-shirt). It is a place where star power has little or no currency, where musicians and volunteers line up for the same food served on reusable plates and use the same porta-potties.
It is by no means nirvana. There is theft (although very little) and ugliness (ditto) and politics (c’mon, this isn’t a fairy tale!). Not everybody is nice to each other and I have no illusion that it is anything more than three days of escape from the outside world, a small, insular bubble of peace love and understanding. And it comes at a cost of course. With very little in the way of sponsorship (and what there is is very small potatoes—organic ones at that) ticket prices are much higher than they would be if a major bank or corporation lent their name to the event. The Festival continues to run a deficit and is one rainy weekend away from disaster. The financial situation also means they can’t bring in expensive, big name acts.
That said, the strength of the Festival lies in its grassroots sense of community. As an event that is largely volunteer-run, it is the shared belief in a collective ideal (and the music of course) that keeps people—volunteers and audience alike—coming back, year after year.
My kids feel a bond to the event based on familiarity—they have been attending since they were in the womb after all and feel completely at home there. For myself, the bond is musical. I grew up listening to Buffy Saint Marie, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and played in Kokuho Rose, a folk-blues band. Then in 1979 I was one of the founding members of Katari Taiko, Canada’s first taiko group. All of us had grown up immersed in North American culture and playing taiko was our way of accessing our Asian heritage. When Festival director Gary Cristall invited us to play at the 1982 Festival, it was huge step for us. We made our Vancouver Folk Music Festival debut on the Friday night mainstage in front of what looked to us like a million expectant faces. As I wrote years later in the Festival’s 25th Anniversary souvenir book, “A magical thing happened at that Festival. During that long, hot weekend, a bond was formed between the group and the audience, built through a mutual sense of discovery. Just as we were discovering ourselves, our shared history and our power to move people through the drumming, the audience was experiencing this ancient aural and visual art form for the first time. Together we shared a sense of wonder, and the energy that was generated between us was powerful.” In the ensuing years I have performed at the Festival many times, first with Katari Taiko, then with Uzume Taiko. The world has changed a lot in the ensuing years. Taiko is no longer a novelty and doesn’t generate the incredible excitement that it did in 1982. Instead, has matured into an accepted art form, with groups all across Canada and the US.
Although I have long-since retired from performing, I remain tied to the taiko world through teaching with Chibi Taiko. To share the stage this long, hot weekend with my two girls, to see them carrying on this living tradition, was another powerful and moving experience that I will keep stored in my memory forever. The circle, as they say, remains unbroken.