Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Unfettered Performing at Seattle's Folklife Festival
As I mentioned in an earlier post, street fair season is upon us. But famous in my region are two bookends to the summer--Northwest Folklife Festival, every Memorial Day Weekend, and Bumbershoot, every Labor Day. Folklife is my favorite--a free (donations suggested) and crazy display of every type of music. Aging hippies are much in evidence, with their folk groups of banjo, guitars and--choose one from each column--washboard, fiddle, bass, tambourine, mandolin, autoharp. But equally present are ethnically-inclined groups--Polish, African, Peruvian (same guys as pictured in earlier post), Celtic, Hawaiian. Then there are the solo players--the ones with a violin and its open case. Or weirder instruments made often of gourds. The Hurdy Gurdy men, who, when I casually threw out the first line of the Donovan hit, replied, "but we don't come singing songs of love." If you get that reference, you're a boomer.
Folklife is fabulously ad hoc. Anyone can come with an instrument, or a group, and just plunk himself down anywhere and start playing to an appreciative audience. This invites a lunatic panoply of participants. Many have matted hair. Lots sport Goth black leather and spikes. Tie-dye is de rigeur. National costumes from Norway and Nigeria are equally in evidence.
In the middle of the huge complex called Seattle Center is the International Fountain, a two-story tall silver ball in the vortex of a shallow concrete bowl several hundred yards wide. The wonderful trick of the International Fountain is that it sprays water from many holes in the silver orb, at unpredictable intervals. The arcs of water make designs in the sky, and create an exciting game for all who venture it. You run toward the sphere to touch it, trying to avoid being drenched by a strong stream of water. Most people get completely soaked, but they're all laughing. Two-year-olds and senior citizens both sprint toward the center. It used to be that the fountain's squirt was calibrated by computer to music from various parts of the world--thus the International Fountain. Lately, however, the miss-the-stream-of-water game has had only giggles for accompaniment.
One Hundred Sixty vendors' booths share the cacophany. Most are hippie independent crafts people peddling their pottery, leather goods, tie-dye masterpieces and photography, but a large number offer imported goods. I love the Guatemalan textiles, the artist of dogs in tu-tus, and the rainbow-hued boiled wool shoes. This year, I bought some squiggly-cut wooden utensils for my kitchen.
If you don't require kosher food, you have a world of tastes to sample. For some reason, everything mango was popular this year. This is not the usual carnival food--no, here you find crepes next to African dishes next to northwest salmon. Most everything was vegetarian, though. This is Seattle.
My favorite activities at Folklife can be done simultaneously. Just noticing the people there fills me with delight. They gather in clusters around the musicians positioned every ten feet or so. As the viewers smile, tap their feet, or grope for a few coins to throw in a hard-shell instrument case, they become part of the show. Nearby, a young woman who made herself into a wings-to-toe white-clad fairy stands motionless on a pedestal until someone drops coins in her box--at which time she startles all with a series of jiggles.
From jiggles to juggles, as an astounding foursome combines acrobatics with flinging pins, swords and flaming batons, bringing oohs and ahhs from an impressed crowd. Face painters, henna-appliers, and balloon-animal creators all captivate children and their delighted parents. The International Fountain is ringed by hundreds of people, each one an observable and fascinating sight. So I combine my fun--watching people, listening to performers and--photographing it all, very subtly.
Life is always a show, but here at the Folklife festival, everyone feels freer and more joyful about making his or her own two feet of space on this earth into a stage.