Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 30, 2004


It’s called Folklife, which is a fine name if you know what it is, or maybe Northwest Folklife, which underscores the pretentiousness of the name of what is after all an international folk music festival.

Folklife runs Memorial Day week-end, Friday through Monday, at Seattle Center, the complex of park space and public buildings around the Space Needle. It’s free though they ask for donations. I never go on Fridays -- work -- but yesterday afternoon my spouse & son & I made it down for a few hours between the toddler dude’s nap and dinnertime, and again today the toddler dude & I made it down there while my beloved spouse was at work.

A few quick highlights.

Item. The Ethiopian outdoor stage yesterday (Friday). Lots of Ethiopian immigrants in Seattle. I don’t know that much about Ethiopian music but I really like it. We saw one act -- a female singer accompanied by keyboardist, electric bassist, & electronic drums, who were fine, and then the headliner, someone we’d never heard of who’s apparently been a big star there for decades, a man named Ali Birra, a smooth & expressive singer fronting a happeningly powerfully grooving 6-piece band of trombone, trumpet, electric guitar, keyboards, electric bass, & drums. The crowd went nuts -- from the first note there were a couple hundred people up front dancing. Then, better: people climbed up and danced onstage. Dancing in couples, dancing in groups, dancing with the singer. And little little kids dancing -- 4 or 5 years old, two boys, jumping up and down, arms around each other. A young woman pulled off Birra’s fine black fedora revealing his bald head, midsong -- he smiled. On the most uptempo number, two young men jumped up immediately and put their arms around Birra’s shoulders as he sang. Beautiful, the barrier between performer & audience so permeable and friendly -- never seen anything like it in American music except at some punk shows, and those back in the ‘80s. Great music too.

Item. The Jewish stage today (Saturday). Bumping into a couple I know with their five-year-old.

She (who’s Jewish; he’s not): “I didn’t know you’re Jewish!”

Me: “I’m not.”

She (laughing): “I didn’t know you were Ethiopian either at the Ethiopian stage!”

The Klez Cats were pretty happening, and then another local Klezmer band came on whose name didn’t stick, and they were pretty good too. The best part was a big dance line during the last song, where the last band invited the Klez Cats to join them for a 10-piece wailing klezmer ensemble, as dozens of people hand in hand wove around in loops. I held the toddler dude against my ribs with one elbow so my hand could stick out and hold the next person’s in line. Joyous and exhilarating.

Item. Folklife encourages buskers -- very cool. Lots of drum circles, ranging from free hippie drumming (which has gotten better over the years as music from Africa and India and South America has seeped deeper into American consciousness) to serious West African drum ensembles. 3 teen-age looking guys playing acoustic guitar, snare-drum-and-high-hat, and glockenspiel, totally unamplified, ‘80s-style new wave music with a snappy beat -- friendly guys too. Lots of fiddle circles playing old-timey southern American music. A ukulele ensemble strumming traditional Hawaiian songs. Break dancers doing their thing to a live 3-piece percussion ensemble. An old friend of my spouse’s named Jonny Hahn who plays New Agey piano instrumentals leavened with original satirical-political ragtime songs -- makes his living & pays social security tax & health insurance from what he takes in playing on the streets; he has a 3-quarter size piano that he keeps locked up in a closet downtown, and bandaids wrapped around the tips of all his fingers; and he’s a totally sweet guy (and a good player) -- always nice to see & hear him.

The toddler dude loves to dance, & he dug the crowds & the music, so hopefully we’ll make it again tomorrow -- a day off for me.

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