Seattle Soundings – Folklife Festival

Walking by Seattle Center on a Memorial Day weekend, one can’t help but hearing the rich tapestry of sound coming from within or noticing the streams of people in a festive mood walking to or from the venue.

On being drawn in past the row of volunteers handing out schedules and the donation boxes and on into the event grounds, the sounds become more distinct. There is the deep percussion of African drums, the high notes of a pennywhistle, a chorus of song, and a highly dynamic mix of other instruments and traditions. This is accompanied by the smells of festival food and the sights of rows of vendor booths selling everything from fiddle strings to pottery.

It is an atmospheric festival, and it does it well. To go in with the view of celebrating and exploring both international and regional traditional and evolving folk traditions and being part of a diverse community doing the same is the best condition for enjoying the festival. It is made up, in general, of local or locally sponsored performers, and although the musical quality is high it’s a festival of the music (in a global sense) rathar than the performers. There are of course exceptions which tend more toward the character of recitals within the various pavilions rathar than on the festival stages.

It’s a festival of sound and movement. Each stage or other venue within the festival grounds runs to it’s own schedule, and while there are some general themes which may run at a given location (e.g 2 hours of bluegrass) it may be followed up with something completely different (e.g. Norwegian folk singing) so within a space of time the character of a given space shifts. Passerby may stop and listen for half a song before moving on, others may stay for an entire set or theme. The stages are generally outdoors and relatively close to each other, so there is usually a background sound of the other stages and performers. Sometimes harmonious, sometimes not quite so.

If attending with the view of hearing a focused performance with minimal distractions, the visit will probably be a disappointment. If attending to enjoy the overall experience, it will probably be a success.

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