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Wednesday, August 11,2010

More than meets the eye and ear

Looking for guitar-strumming protest singers? They’re not at the Great Lakes Folk Festival. But if you want Detroit blues, Celtic classics and a salute to the green movement, look no further

by Rich Tupica
The genre of folk music is one thing — the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing is another.

The term “folk’”often conjures up images of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, a style from which the Great Lakes Folk Festival strays. This year’s fest, from Aug. 13 to 15 in downtown East Lansing, will be no different.


“Actually, we exclude that kind of music,” said Lora Helou, the festival’s marketing and communications director. “That is something you might see at the Newport Folk Festival. What we present are not the Peter Paul and Mary types, not the singer/songwriters. They might be writing about nostalgic things, but we present people who are actually living the experience.”


So what does it take for an artist to make the festival’s roster? Helou said the performers have to live the life they sing about. Authenticity is a key qualifier for all musicians, artists and dancers.


“We wouldn’t present a polka group that hasn’t grown up in a community of mentors or practitioners of polka,” she said. “Anyone can learn a style of music, but the richness of what you see at our festival is you have people who not only learned a particular style, but they live it and breathe it — and they live with people who have lived it for many years.”


This year’s festival features Motor City blues legend Alberta Adams. In her younger days she recorded with Chess Records and toured with Duke Ellington, T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan. The 91-year-old performer has lived the blues for decades.


“Alberta Adams’ work as a blues artist is exemplary and is committed to continuing blues music in our area,” Helou said. “She’s looked at as the queen of blues from her generation in Michigan. Anyone can sing the blues, but here is a woman who has had a lifetime of singing it and has had life experiences that paid into reasons for singing the blues.


“This year we also have Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver — they’re a mainstay in bluegrass. They are also National Heritage Fellowship honorees, one of the most prestigious awards given in our country to living artists.”


The festival, which draws approximately 90,000 people to downtown East Lansing over the weekend, features four stages (including a "green kitchen" stage), dancing, ethnic food and a focus on the green movement. As in previous years, performers and vendors are carefully selected.


“Every year, traditions are a big part of it,” Helou explained. “We are trying to show the kinds of cultural practices in our world that have deeprooted meaning in families and occupations. The emphasis is on tradition. Sometimes we really push it and showcase new variations of traditions. But if you look deep, whatever we present is rooted in something that has deep meaning for the group or community where that tradition comes from.”


Since 1987, the festival has been hosted by the Michigan State University Museum; it has changed its name three times.


Marsha MacDowell, the festival founding director and MSU Museum curator, said the festival is a like “an extension of the museum.”


“It’s
not like an average music festival in that we have a lot of
interpretive programs and knowledgeable people speaking on stage,”
MacDowell said. “Sometimes they are professors of anthropology, folk
life, history, ethnomusicology. They help introduce the artists and
groups to the audience. The announcers are amazing volunteers who we ask
to be in the festival. They are all specialists of music or traditional
culture in some way.”


There’s more than music over the course of the weekend. Each year, the festival showcases folk art and other forms of culture.


This year, the festival is highlighting the green movement, hosted by the Grassroots Green program started by the MSU Museum.


Lynne
Swanson, of the Grassroots Green program and an MSU Museum assistant
curator, said each year varies: This year it went green. The festival
will host 25 vendors from Michigan and surrounding states, all with an
environmental edge.


“Every
year we feature an area we call our ‘traditions’ area,” Swanson said.
“Sometimes we feature traditions of an ethnic group, like last year we
featured Hispanic and Latino traditions. This year it’s traditions of
the green movement.


“A
lot of things people used to do that have fallen by the wayside — like
re-using old clothes or making quilts and rugs out of scrap fabric —
these things are starting to become more popular because they are
green,” Swanson added. “People are interested in environmental issues.”


LuAnne
Kozma, of the Grassroots Green program and MSU Museum assistant
curator, said the green programs run each day from noon to 5 p.m.,
covering a broad spectrum of environmentally friendly arts.


“Some
of the vendors will show new types of art that are based on recycled
materials,” Kozma said. “We have a woman who makes purses out of soda
tabs, people who make furniture out of old skis, a metal sculptor who
uses only found metal, people who make quilts out of old T-shirts (and) a
lot of reusing, recycling and upcyling.”


Kozma said attendees are often surprised by the multitude of activities in addition to the music.


“A lot of times people expect to come and only listen to music and they are surprised that there is so much more,” Kozma said.


“We
always have activities for kids, speakers, traditional foods to eat. It
often doesn’t get highlighted, but it’s a big part of it.


"There is a lot for traditional food lovers, people who want to get the kids out to do activities — we have a lot to do.”

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