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WATCH & LISTEN: First ten artists announced for 2017 Richmond Folk Festival

Take a look and listen to some of the announced performers from all over the world who will grace the festival’s stages on the Downtown Riverfront this fall.

Trevor Dickerson



The first ten artists have been announced for the 2017 Richmond Folk Festival, which will take place on the Downtown Richmond riverfront October 13th through the 15th.

One of the largest events of the year in Richmond, the festival brings together artists both local and from across the nation from a variety of backgrounds. The artist mix is orchestrated by a programming committee that is guided by the National Council for Traditional Arts and the National Folk Festival, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many people might think of folk solely through the lens of rural America–Americana, bluegrass and the like, perhaps–but the festival spans the music that shaped the culture of communities across the globe across all genres and styles.

As defined by the National Endowment for the Arts:

The folk and traditional arts are rooted in and reflective of the cultural life of a community. Community members may share a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or geographic region. These vital and constantly reinvigorated artistic traditions are shaped by values and standards of excellence that are passed from generation to generation, most often within family and community, through demonstration, conversation, and practice. Genres of artistic activity include, but are not limited to, music, dance, crafts, and oral expression.

The first ten artists announced to take the stage this fall include the following:

Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo

La Parranda El Clavo and their clarion-voiced leader Betsayda Machado have inspired international acclaim for the exuberant sounds of their Afro-Venezuelan heritage. The New York Times declared them “the kind of group that world-music fans have always been thrilled to discover: vital, accomplished, local, unplugged, deeply rooted.”

The music of the Barlovento region on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast is based in African sounds and rhythms, nurtured and adapted by cacao-plantation workers and their descendants over centuries of slavery and then freedom. Notable among these traditions is the parranda, a troupe of singers who serenade neighbors house-to-house at Christmas time. With intricate call-and-response harmonies, polyrhythmic percussion, and vibrant dancing, the parranderos weave tales of local history, make pointed social commentary, and celebrate life’s passages.

Dale Ann Bradley

A five-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Female Vocalist of the Year award, Dale Ann Bradley is acknowledged as one of bluegrass music’s greatest contemporary singers, with a pure, shimmering soprano that brings alive the stories she sings. Though she has established a successful Nashville music career, she stays true to her Appalachian roots, with deft guitar picking, gospel-inspired harmonies, and “nothing doctored up” personal songwriting that bring listeners to the heart of bluegrass music.

Eddie Cotton, Jr.

Bluesman Eddie Cotton, Jr.’s music is rooted in the church. His father was a Pentecostal minister, shepherding the Christ Chapel Church of God in Christ that he founded in Clinton, Mississippi, just west of Jackson. While music was central to church services, his family and his congregation shunned secular music. Nonetheless, Cotton reflects, “The deepest of the blues I’ve ever played is in church.… The style they play on is nothing but blues.”

Cotton is a master of soul blues, a style that resonates particularly with African American audiences. Emerging in the 1960s, soul blues fuses the gritty guitar sound central to blues tradition with the smoother, gospel-influenced vocal style of soul and R&B music. Soul blues is music meant to move the body and spirit, which is why Cotton describes his sound as “hard driving blues” or “juke joint blues.” “If I’m playing to the best of my ability,” Cotton explains, “you’re going to move.… [This is] not sit down and look at me blues.”

Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka & the San Francisco Taiko Dojo

Seiichi Tanaka is a Grand Master of the ancient Japanese form of ritual drumming known as taiko. Taiko combines percussive sound with physically demanding choreographic movement to create a mesmerizing musical performance. “Teaching the discipline of mind and body, in the spirit of complete respect and unity among the drummers, that is my policy,” says Sensei Tanaka. “Heart, skill, physical strength, and courtesy—these four elements are based on Japanese martial arts. I have the same philosophy for my taiko.”

Originating some 1,400 to 2,000 years ago, the taiko drum was likely first employed in military settings, then later incorporated into agricultural rituals to protect crops and bring rain. Later, taiko became central to the rituals of the Imperial Court and the religious rites of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. After World War II, taiko drumming evolved again with the emergence of kumi-daiko, performance ensembles that brought together multiple drums of various sizes and tones.

The Green Fields of America

Four decades ago, renowned musician and folklorist Mick Moloney gathered some of the finest Irish American musicians and dancers to perform at the Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife. Overwhelming interest in that program led Moloney and friends to form The Green Fields of America, the first group on either side of the Atlantic to bring together Irish vocal, instrumental, and dance traditions on the concert stage, sparking a renaissance that continues to this day. The group’s ever-changing lineup draws on the legacy of immigrant musicians who created a rich new repertoire in America out of diverse traditions from across the Emerald Isle. As Moloney says, “The personnel has changed but the concept has remained constant over the past 30 years: to show in one major ensemble some of Irish America’s finest musicians and dancers.”

Hot Club of Cowtown

As its name implies, the Hot Club of Cowtown pays homage to two legendary groups from the 1930s: the swinging guitar and violin of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club of Paris, decamped from that city to the territory of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Now celebrating 20 years together, the Hot Club of Cowtown is widely recognized as one of the finest ensembles in western swing and hot jazz today.

Western swing emerged from Texas, Oklahoma, and the lower Great Plains in the 1920s and 1930s as local bands searched for ways to keep house party and dance hall audiences on their feet all night. It was an amalgamation of the country string band music and old-time fiddle traditions of the Southwest, combined with the “cosmopolitan” big-band jazz of the era. Musicians gave western swing an even stronger regional flavor by using accents from other local styles, including cowboy tunes, German polka, African American blues, and music from the Mexican borderlands. Western swing became wildly popular in the 1940s, and its cultural richness and sheer danceability have contributed to its enduring national popularity.

Innov Gnawa

Brooklyn-based sextet Innov Gnawa envelops audiences in the hypnotic power of Moroccan Gnawa. The word Gnawa signifies not only a style of music but also the people who created it. The Gnawa are ethnically diverse descendants of sub-Saharan Africans originally brought to Morocco as soldiers and slaves starting in the 11th century. “When I hear the song ‘Dawiniana gharib wa birani’ [Heal me, O God, I am a stranger in a strange land]—the words the slaves sang centuries ago—I tear up, I think of home,” Innov Gnawa member Samir Langus told The New Yorker. “But you don’t need to speak Arabic to be moved by this music. It’s the music of the poor, the excluded … their suffering is in rhythm.”

Although associated with Sufi tradition, Gnawa music actually pre-dates Islam, and is rooted in animistic, spiritual, and mystical concepts originally sung in Bambara, Fulani, and Sudani. Guided by a maâlem, a master artist vested with deep spiritual responsibility, musicians perform elaborately structured all-night trance rituals (lila) to engage the spirits in the healing and purification of both individuals and community. While historically a culture of the dispossessed, Gnawa has in recent years gained immense popularity in Morocco as a national symbol.

Jan Knutson

Only days before he performs at the Richmond Folk Festival, Jan Knutson will turn 19. But the tunes this young musician plays with such virtuosity and subtlety express the history of American vernacular guitar traditions. Knutson’s repertoire draws from the Great American Songbook, Gypsy jazz, and jazz’s heritage of guitar improvisation. Such is the level of skill he exhibits that his mentor, the guitar master Frank Vignola, says Knutson “is destined to be one of the next generation’s great guitarists.”

Given his musical pedigree—mother Laura played violin for the U.S. Army Band, and father Jeff is a trombonist for the Navy Band—it’s perhaps not surprising that Jan Knutson took to music early. After trying piano and violin, he added guitar at age 10, hoping to play rock and roll. But it was jazz that really grabbed him when, at age 12, musicologist Frank Latino, his first guitar teacher, introduced him to the work of legendary Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. “From that moment on,” Knutson says, “I knew I had to play jazz guitar.”

Nicolae Feraru

Nicolae Feraru is a revered musical master in Chicago’s Romanian and Hungarian immigrant communities, who, in 2013, received a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists. Now 67, he retains the same undiminished love of the cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) that he exhibited as a child, when he ate bread while practicing so as not to waste time on meals. “The music, this is my life,” says Feraru. “When I start on the instrument, I forget everything what is bad in the world…. The instrument is like for me my food.”

Nicolae Feraru was born into a family of lautari, Gypsy musicians, in Bucharest, Romania. His grandfather, Marin, and father, Ion, played the tambal mic (Romanian cimbalom), a smaller cimbalom that is played while being carried with the aid of a neck strap. His father initially discouraged his interest, insisting that playing the cimbalom for sleepless, weekend-long Gypsy weddings was too tiring a profession, but young Nicolae was undeterred. Ion eventually relented, and by the time Nicolae was 11, he was playing at weddings with his father. Eventually, they arranged for him to study the larger Hungarian cimbalom (also known as the concert cimbalom, because it is played seated) with the famous master Mitica Marinescu-Ciuciu, who quickly became like a second father.

Paulin Brothers’ Brass Band

“I made history because I had so many sons in my band—especially playing this kind of music,” the late, great Doc Paulin once said. “That’s a wonderful thing.”

Ernest “Doc” Paulin was born in rural Wallace, Louisiana, in 1907, and passed away a century later downriver in New Orleans. In the 100-year interim, he built a venerable jazz legacy that his sons carry on today. Doc’s father was an accordionist, but Paulin was introduced to jazz music by his uncle, trombonist Edgar Peters, who gave him his first coronet and brought him to gigs in the Big Easy. Paulin moved to New Orleans in 1928. Doc Paulin’s Dixieland Jazz Band was a beloved fixture in the city for seven decades, playing Preservation Hall, regular gigs at the Corner Club, and leading joyful parades throughout the city’s wards.

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Trevor Dickerson is the Editor and Co-Founder of RVAHub.