The 2017 Richmond Folk Festival is upon us, bringing three days of live music, dance, cultural demonstrations, arts and crafts, food, and beer and wine to the Downtown Richmond riverfront. Over 125,000 people visited the festival last year, making it one of the largest and most popular festivals in Virginia–and certainly the largest in Richmond.
Dozens of performers from around the state, the country, and the globe will share their traditions and talents all weekend long. More than what you might typically associate with regional folk music, the style of performances run the gamut.
As defined by the National Endowment for the Arts, folk music is:
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.
We’ve got some top picks of the top talent to catch this weekend, but first some logistics.
Getting there and getting around
For guest safety vehicular traffic is not permitted on the actual event site. All streets leading into the site are closed to vehicular traffic at Canal Street (two blocks north of the site). To reach the festival site, guests are advised to take Uber or Lyft, take advantage of the free shuttle bus (which runs every 20 minutes from City Stadium to the festival site and back), or utilize parking lots nearby via 2nd or 5th Streets. Full parking and shuttle info available here.
- Full schedule of performances
- The full roster of performers
- Festival map and stage locations (PDF)
- Downloadable, printable pocket guide
Food, beer, culture, and more
Some of the very best restaurants, food trucks, and other vendors will be on site serving up a wide variety of food–everyone from Boka Truck and Ginger Thai Taste to La Milpa and River City Wood Fire Pizza. See the huge list of what’s available here. There will be a ton of craft beer and wine available too, and you can enjoy the festival’s own Folk FestivALE, brewed especially for the event by Champion Brewing RVA. There are also a large number of arts and crafts vendors who will have booths at the festival marketplace. Expect everything from handmade jewelry and original artwork to home goods and more. See the list here.
Five artists to check out
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.
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.
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 ‘Dawini, ana 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.
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.”
The festival runs Friday, October 13th from 6:00 PM – 10:00 PM; Saturday, October 14th from noon until 9:30 PM; and Sunday, October 15th from noon until 6:00 PM. Learn more at the official website here.