Folk Life 2009, and a few bloggy bits

Here are some of the photos I took on our recent trip to Seattle for the Folk Life festival… there’s not really a narrative, but I wanted to give an idea of the color and sheer energy that goes on there.

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We had arrived very late the night before, due to a delay on United. We went for a walk in the morning after breakfast around the neighborhood near the hotel, walking up 5th Ave. North on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill to get to a spot where there was a nice viewpoint. Although I’ve never eaten at this particular restaurant, the color is striking in the morning light and it gives a really nice old-school feeling. After taking a few more shots, we headed up the steep street, where I quickly realized the error of my sedentary, out-of-shape ways.

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This coffee place is just next door, a charming little place that sells their own roasts. And d’oh! we forgot to stop in and grab some beans before leaving town, as we did the last time. This part of the Queen Anne neighborhood isn’t as familiar to me now, as it’s changed so much over the years. Just down on the other side of the street were two big new buildings, including a brand new QFC (Quality Food Center?) and a fancy-schmancy sushi restaurant that we visited later in our stay. I kept looking around trying to get my bearings, because at one time I lived on top of the hill and rode the trolley buses right through this part of the neighborhood. The wires were still there, and I saw buses, but they didn’t seem to be running as often as I remembered. And all the tacky, run-down, but colorful little houses and former stores had been torn down to make room for the new condo/retail block with the QFC, and for the hotel that we were staying in. They look nice, but the rest of the neighborhood looks a little shabby by comparison… although with plenty of character.

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This is just a bush of purple flowers… it looked pretty in the sunshine and I was looking for an excuse to stop and catch my breath, which was coming shockingly fast after only walking up 1 moderately steep block.

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This is what happens when you’ve got the telephoto lens on, as I did, and do a closeup. I’m pretty happy with the way this came out. Actually, almost all of the shots I took the first day (which was Saturday) were with the long lens. Which I need to clean, as later in the trip I picked up some artifacts that need to be dealt with.

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More flar peekchurrrrs, this one a light pink rhododendron. I love rhodies, mostly because they always remind me of the Northwest; they grow wild in the woods (as will be seen if I get as far as uploading my pictures from our short walk through the California redwoods). When I lived in Eugene years ago, there was a city park near one of my old homes that was an entire hilltop of rhodies. It was quite a place to be when they were all in bloom. I’d never seen rhododendrons before going to school at Eugene, and then became fond of them because a huge old treelike specimen threatened to overgrow the guys’ dorm next door to mine in freshman year. I was fascinated by the huge size of the thing and the riot of color on its many trusses of blooms, and also the variety of color was a plus. The only downside was the bees the flowers attracted; the guys that lived on that side of their dorm couldn’t open their windows in spring without getting some bee action.

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Another breathing break, this time to peek into a yard and enjoy the serene bubbling/trickling sounds of their garden fountain. I will say that during the rest of our walk, I spent a lot of time pining for life in a pretty neighborhood; we live in a very ordinary Midwest suburb and part of me longs for surroundings that are more beautiful and photogenic than our current circumstances permit. David also admitted that he wished we lived somewhere worth photographing, as we always have to pack up the car and drive somewhere else to get to “scenery.” I suppose we don’t have the eye for suburban photography, but it’s hard to be inspired by lookalike housing developments and strip malls.

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Obligatory picture of the Space Noodle. My first apartment (no, second, I moved within the same building) in Seattle was an overpriced little studio that had an enviable view of Elliott Bay and a great view of the Noodle, which I loved to watch in bad weather (especially fog). Sometimes I’d watch the elevators and see if one or the other would win the race to the top or the bottom. Some old clients of mine when I worked in Seattle were from somewhere in Denmark or Sweden; they were obsessed with the Space Needle and collected stuff with images of it. They had leather jackets made with 60’s era logos from the old World’s Fair… hadn’t thought of them in years until we topped out at the viewpoint (puff-puff-puff) and I caught sight of this.

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Another view. You can see a bit of the Experience Music Project|Science Fiction Museum at the bottom center of the picture, also the monorail tracks that lead away toward downtown. At certain times of the year, the Space Needle is decorated with giant blow-up crabs, gorillas, or whatever nonsense the marketing people come up with. And of course, at New Years’ it’s all lit up like a futuristic Christmas tree (or shapely Festivus pole).

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More rhodies. My favorites are actually the purplish ones, but none of those were handy when I had the camera set up for shots like this.

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Obligatory arty depth-of-field shot with rhodies and Noodle. Onward!

We walked around the corner of the hill and since I hadn’t been on Bigelow in years, I forgot the trick it has of bearing right while you tend to bear leftward and downhill. We admired houses and yards and eventually walked past my friend Jean’s old apartment house, and the one I’d lived in that was next door. More nostalgia for times past, although that place had unhappy memories for me in that I lost a TON of my stuff in that move, because I lost access to the storage room and didn’t get back quickly enough to retrieve my things before it was cleared out. I still think bad thoughts about that old landlady. Grr.

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At last!! Actual Folk Lifey stuff! On our last visit, we got down to the site much earlier than anything started, so we’d timed our walk to get us down to the Seattle Center late enough that booths were open and stages were active. This was one of many groups that performed at that particular stage. They look happy because they’re playing at the beginning of everything, they love what they do, and there’s not yet a hundred thousand people crushing their way through the site. Fortunately, the weather stayed sunny but cool all weekend. Can you imagine doing this on a hot, muggy day? Seattle don’t play dat.

The first thing about Folk Life that you need to know is that it’s a big site, with many stages, and everything’s all happening at once, so that it’s essential to grab schedules at the entrances and mark up the stuff you don’t want to miss. One of the first things that caught my eye was a choral thing with shape-note singing in what I knew would be an outdoor courtyard with good acoustics (I’ve done Folk Life a few times before). David wasn’t too interested in something that sounded sorta churchy, so he opted to head to the Northwest Court stage area and we’d meet up later. This strategy really works – if you look for something you both want to see, or every one in your group wants to see, you can all head off in different directions according to your interests, and meet up to compare notes later.

Heh. “Notes.” I was headed for the Shape Note Singing demonstration, which was to be followed by a more advanced singing. So I planned to skip out of the first one for a short time to see some people playing mbira, a traditional African instrument similar to the kalimba that I’ve owned since junior high. As I thought, the Shape Note workshop was a lot of fun. I had a good time chatting with a neighbor as we figured out the music, and she was helpful about matching the shapes to the syllables. Shape note is also called “Fa so la” singing because the four shapes are “fa sol la ti” in the octave (there’s no do re me, they just repeat the syllables). I really, really enjoyed the workshop but soon enough it was time to hand off my music to the next participant to arrive and hotfoot over to the Alki Stage, which was just below the Northwest one in an open area next to a big fountain.

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I also used my cameraphone to try to bookmark things and I had noted that I’d tried to get the image of the keys being played with the big lens, except that the one musician was dancing and her butt kept getting in the way. I have about a dozen shots from this angle, but this is one of the only ones where the butt is not in play. This group sounded great, very traditional, and they were very colorfully dressed. However, I did get kind of tired of the orange pants, because I wanted a better look at the keys on the mbira. It’s enclosed in a gourd to add resonance, and the instruments are all miked inside the gourd. The decorations around the rim are actually loose bits of metal or shell, and the buzzing sound they make adds to the mbira’s texture.

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::sigh:: Well, that’s a very nice purple shirt, but you can’t really see the keys, although you could argue that the soft focus is artisitic, I guess. You can just make out her thumb on the keys of the mbira. The orange discs are the noisemakers – on this one, they’re bottle caps painted orange and wired to the gourd.

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This is the player on the far end – he looked sort of academic and may actually have been on a music faculty somewhere (a lot of the really interesting musical groups are often made up of enthusiasts who studied the music, in addition to people from the source culture). You can see the keys a little better, and also the mic wire looped over the top of the gourd. Also: the bottle caps are from Coke bottles.

The music they played was authentic, tuneful, rhythmic with repetitive patterns, and there were vocals along with the shaker noise the dancer was playing. It was pleasant to listen to, and the crowd had a nice vibe going although the benches were placed in full sun. In the same area was a “Green Market” with demonstration products including a Smart Car, a camping trailer designed as an accessory to same, and some other “green” or “Hybrid” products. Also, they had a section on urban or suburban gardening, and some natural hair and skin care products. It was a lively area that got a lot of traffic, especially as it heated up later in the day and parents let their kids play in the (shallow) fountain next to the court. It was also kind of a bottleneck area, as there were 4 ways into it, and it was kind of on the way between venues that avoided the REALLY big crowd on the other side where the big central Fountain Lawn was.

Also in the same area: some of the food booths, plus a bunch of buskers, plus a zillion music fans and “freak the mundanes” performance art types. We spent most of our time in this area, as the acts we were most interested in seeing were all playing in the Northwest Court/Alki Court/Bagley Lawn corner of the Seattle Center site. Other years, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy walking back and forth to some of the big amplified stages on the far corner of the site; not this year. There just didn’t happen to be anybody we wanted to see all the way over there. I already had some wild photos of the Morris dancers from a few years before, and David didn’t want to sit through that again, so we were happy to orbit in the area of greatest convenience and interest.

After watching the mbira group, my plan was to walk back north to the Intiman court and rejoin the second half of the shape note singing, but on my way, as so often happens at Folk Life, I heard and saw something so amazing that I had to stop and take it in.

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Yes, Electric Mbira, and these guys looks like the real deal with their hide costumes and DIY-looking instruments. The music was a lot louder, a lot more danceable and the tunes were different from the “trad” group; they almost sounded like a blend of traditional African tunes, reggae rhythms, and jazz tone clusters. It was mesmerizing!

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Here you can see a bit more detail: the mbira have the metal keys fastened to boards of a kind of wood that looks like what my kalimba is made out of – there are gradations of color. You can also see that they’ve attatched the rod holding the keys down (they’re kept in tension because it’s springy steel) with wire strung through holes in the wood, rather than simply screwing a bar holder to the wood itself. According to the old, lost music book that came with my original edition Hugh Tracey Kalimba, makers in Africa used to use old bicycle spokes to attach the key assembly like self-tension screw hooks.

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I don’t know if they still do that; for a while, the Hugh Tracey brand kalimbas I saw had ordinary wood screws holding the keys to the top board of the box, which in my opinion messed with the resonance. My kalimba is a treble one, and quite out of tune based on the example MP3 of a treble kalimba from the Kalimba Magic site. I would love to have an alto one, which though it has fewer keys, it has a deeper tone and is reputedly easier to play because the keys are bigger. Anyway, these guys appear to be playing homegrown versions, but the Kalimba Magic site has them with pickups and chromatic scales and weird tunings… hmm.

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Here’s a shot of one of the instruments they weren’t using at the time. The keys are bent (and probably tuned and arranged in the African manner, rather than in the Westernized tuning and arrangement used by the makers of the Hugh Tracey kalimbas. Yes, I was more than a little fascinated, because at one time I took the kalimba everywhere with me, although I never made much attempt to actually learn to play anything “real” on it. I could play a bit of Bach on it as a showpiece, and I had one song that I’d made up and a lot of patterns that I could play and rearrange on the fly. Mostly I played for my own enjoyment, and sometimes other people were there (in the dorms or at school) and I’d say “Oh, I won’t bore you with this” and they’d usually say “No, it sounds relaxing, and it’s weird that we can carry on a conversation while you play.” They seemed to think it was some mastery I had, but it’s really a simple instrument that anyone with a basic grasp of the intervals in music (thirds, fourths, fifths, it’s all really math that sounds pretty) can play. It helps to have two hands and two thumbs, but some of the flat-board table models can be played by anyone with some finger control.

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My poor old kalimba! It’s covered with dust and there are cracks in the back. I wrote my own name and my dorm and room numbers from my first two years at Oregon on it; with all the things I’ve lost in moves over the years, it’s a testament to the fact that I kept it by me and played it pretty constantly until several years after I moved to Seattle. Fell out of the habit when I got my first computer; guess I need to start growing out my thumbnails again (they’re pretty short now). And now I wish I’d bought one of this group’s CDs, because I really did enjoy their music.

After walking behind these guys (noticing that they were wearing battery packs for their amps) I got over to the Intiman Court for some more shape notery, but my little friend was gone and the hymns were a lot more challenging and complex. It was a lot of fun, and there were some great leaders; it was interesting watching how the more accomplished singers were the ones making a very deliberate and authoritative time-keeping gesture that seemed full of power and grace – the kind from God as well as the kind a dancer or actor has. The less accomplished singers tried to do this too, but only the leaders gave the impression of the rocker arm on a steam engine, driving the music slowly forward towards glory. Still, I was losing my voice a bit (shape note singing calls for a very full-voiced, plain delivery) and so I wandered off to meet up with David at the Shaw Acoustic Stage for a group that had looked interesting in the schedule.

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And here they are, Crescent and Shamrock. Billed as a Celtic-Middle Eastern band, they played with a great deal of verve and even had a wonderful dancer to provide spice. My pictures aren’t as good as David’s, as I stayed in the back corner the whole time. But you get the sense of the performers and of the crowd in Shaw, which is a smallish meeting room that I’d described in a previous moblog post as the default “indoor folk venue where we stick acts that don’t have enough draw for a big outdoor stage” place.

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I didn’t get many full-length shots but I did love the expression on her face as she dance. She was really talented and really into the music.

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Focus isn’t great but I got a kick out of the drummer’s interaction with her, and her playing to the people in the front row. The expression on the face of the tsimbalon player behind her struck me funny, too; she was getting all the butt-wiggly action up close and personal.

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Just as a side note, Gypsy music and performance art seemed to be the Next Big Thing. It’s also the Next Big Thing on Second Life, as gypsy music and camps are springing up all over creatively anachronistic sims in Second Life, and gypsy-inspired fashion were everywhere in Seattle and also on Second Life when I logged in later. This person could have been an avatar downloaded into Real Life, she was so striking looking. Must have been a performer in another group, but I had to snap her picture when I spotted her. Regrettably, I couldn’t frame the pirate to her left; you can just see a tip of the tricorn. There’s a lot of cosplay that goes on at Folk Life; some people are their art, in some cases, and there were a lot of young Bohemian types wearing dreadlocks, Goth ripped stockings, corsets, and work boots. Also, a fair number of neo-punk newgrass bands. More about that later.

You can see the crowd is pretty eclectic; some older fans who’ve been around since the beginning in the 70’s, some younger people, and some people who look like they come from another planet. Note to the guy in the shorts, though – the plaid doesn’t work if your hands are in your pockets.

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More peoplewatching goodness: I probably could have done nothing but take shots of people’s t-shirts and jackets. I loved this vest, I had to ensure I remembered it.

That’s as far as I’ve uploaded to now; there’s more shots of the belly dancer getting people in the crowd going before we get to some of the more colorful acts back outside.

I’ve decided that I’ve neglected the blog shockingly of late, as in at least a year or more. In fact, ever since the “no internets at work” injunction,and even more since I got the iPhone, I’ve been blogging bits of news from Google Reader, and links to stories via del.icio.us and now via Twitter. But there has been very little of my doings, our activities, getting together with family, my thoughts, and things that occured to me that would have made a good blog post if only I could remember what they are. My “oooh, shiny” style of information gathering doesn’t stand me in very good sense as a blogger.

In fact, we had tickets to go to Wordcamp here in Chicago, but sold them back after the agenda was announced. Why? Because it wasn’t what either David or I were interested in – it was all about marketing your blog and becoming one of the cool blogger kids.

So in fact, I’ve made a decision that instead of dinking around all evening playing Spider Solitaire or Second Life, I will try to spend 1 (one) hour a day writing about… stuff that occurs to me. Because Blogula has been very boring lately, what with all the autoposted links and things, and when I go back and look at something from a couple of years ago, I think “well, did the idiot that is me do that?”

I do have an awful lot of photos to catch up on, not only from this trip, but from a couple of trips that I never wrote up or even uploaded to Flickr, so it’s not as if I’m lacking for material. Plus there’s a ton of things stirring in my memory that were kicked up by the Seattle visit; things I missed, things that I remembered that are no longer there, things that remind me of stuff long forgotten. So we’ll see how it goes. I’ll try to get more Folk Life and road trip photos uploaded and posted here this week.

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One thought on “Folk Life 2009, and a few bloggy bits

  1. Hi Ginny!
    What a treat to read about your experiences at Folklife! Great pix too! I remember back in the day when we all met up at Folklife, back when we were in to Andean and Irish music and going to hear Seth Blair. Maybe I’ll head down to our own Smithsonian Folklife festival here in DC, but if past experience repeats itself, it doesn’t have NEAR the charm and energy that Seattle folklife did/has!
    And Seattle doesn’t have the nasty humidity!
    Hope all’s well with you & David.
    Did you ever catch up with Aleta?
    😉
    debbie

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