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

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


Monday’s personal highlight at the Seattle folk music festival was seeing the hula hoop lawn -- some woman had brought a couple dozen hula hoops for people to swing their hips. That, and bumping into friends. And, dancing with my son. And, hearing a white-bearded guitar-picker sing a jaunty song to Bush & Co., looking forward to them doing the “Perp Walk.”

That said, I have a complaint. It’s of a linguistic nature.

Today, by the evidence of the folk festivals I’ve been to, “folk music” means non-rock-jazz-pop-classical music from Euro-derived cultures and any music at all from any other culture.

Which means that Ethiopian pop music is folk music.

And Indian classical music -- complex chamber music traditionally played in the courts of the nobility -- is folk music.

“Folk” is a Germanic word for people, as in “the” people, as in, “not us.” "Us" -- the ones calling the shots, making up the names, and deciding on the categories. It’s an aftertaste of colonialism for westerners to think that 3rd world elites must be the “folk.”

I love hearing things I’ve never heard, and these festivals get me there. I just wish they were called “western folk and international music” festivals -- that would be closer.

“Folk” music for my white-collar white-skin milieu is musicals. Most people of my age-and-culture group grew up with them & know the songs, & I love a lot of them. I'd love to hear a sing-along act doing Rodgers & Hammerstein; I wonder whether such an act could pass muster at a folk festival. Most of the performers at these things come from my culture group, and most of them have taken up music that they didn’t grow up with. I’m not in a position to say that there’s anything wrong with that -- my parents didn’t listen to free jazz or punk rock or Woody Guthrie, and those 3 musics inform a lot of the music I make.

This stuff has been itching my cogitator for years. I’m still scratching at it.


My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey talks about some of this stuff in this beautiful e-mail he sent me today.

Saw your blog on the Seattle Folk fest -- went to a folk fest of sorts here on Saturday. In our Astoria neighborhood is one of the last (if not the last) beer gardens in NYC, outdoor saloons and social gathering places based on the European model that numbered in the hundreds in the City, I believe, until prohibition. This one is attached to the Bohemian Hall, a Czech-Slovak social club that also houses a nursery school and gymnastics club. As a beer merchant and good hang, it serves both the old timers and the new, hip Astorians. Kids are welcome until the early evening -- we used to go a lot when Mac was a baby. They have a lot of fine big trees and always a nice breeze.

Anyway, last weekend was the annual Czech-Slovak festival there, which revolved around music and dance performances, and even included a gymnastics exhibition. We were among many non-Czech/Slovaks (not sure when there was a significant Czech/Slovak presence in the 'hood, though I've noticed other remnants besides the beer garden), and so it was of interest on its face (the kids and I loved the music and dancing) and also as a cultural event somewhat out of time.

It started w/ speeches (best quote of the day, from a dour club official in a dark gray suit, "I will read this all in both Czech and Slovak so everybody will understand.") and prayers and a presentation of the Czech, Slovak, and American Flags. The said club official continued w/ a very moving eulogy for those lost, making special mention of the many Czech/Slovaks that died in concentration camps. There were tears from the older in attendance, and many clasped hands and bitten lips from some of the same and their families, seated at long tables in their Sunday best, when the soldiers now in Iraq were honored. Our wars on the backs of generations of immigrants.

But the band, after Taps, lighted it up. The Pilsner Brass Band, average age seemed to be about 65. Most older, few younger. The tunes were unfamiliar, (though I think I noticed the a varient of the Beer Barrel Polka) but the sound was great. Lineup, from memory: Tuba, trap kit, two or three baritones, two tenor sax, one alto, three trumpets, two doubling on flugelhorn, a flautist/piccoloist, and two clarinets, one a very small version I had never before seen.

They were a bit warbly, but endearingly bouncy. Not often that I hear brass band music, and it seemed so right amid hissing sausages and beer-mug clinking. A gray haired, barely moving guy in a Yankees cap and Birkenstocks that half seemed like he just stepped up from the audience (though later I could see he was with the band) sang in Czech and/or Slovak (I assume) with a tight lipped, chesty baritone, often joined by the crowd in unison, at which point he would become suddenly animated, waving his arms to the beat. It was really great. The power of nationalistic music, a music of community, of memory, of family. I don't think we have that reference anymore. Shame. It was a treat to watch and hear it, and somehow steal a bit of the feeling.

Next was a traditional dance troupe, Limora by name. Youngish, oddly tough looking guys in flowery outfits and triangular caps and prim 20-ish women in intricate dresses and head scarves. The men leapt and whooped and slapped their heels high in the air (little cymbals attached to their boots like spurs), while the women demurely twirled and lightly kicked with their hands clasped behind their backs, suddenly to be flung into the air by their partners. They had their own little combo, two fiddles, accordion, double bass, and a large hammer dulcimer I learned was called a Cimbalom. The dulcimer was under-amplified, but Mac and I sneaked right up behind him. A deep. lovely ringing sound. This lasted 'til evening, off and on, broken by the gymnastics exhibition performed to recorded classical music. The dancers gave up and started drinking, but the combo continued into the evening, this time with spirited two-part singing. All the while, kids of all sizes running willy-nilly all over the stage and dance floor (and the Czech/Slovak kids nipping at beer in little cups poured by their grandparents). We left beer-soggy and with extra-tired kids as the new Astoria slacker crowd started to file in for their regular Saturday night.

A great day of music, family, and friends. The kind of musical experience I rarely get, but want more of.


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