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Afrobeat musician Seun Kuti.
courtesy Peter Johnen

Folk music is about tradition and evolution

Folk Fest artistic director talks about what defines folk music

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The 35th Calgary Folk Music Festival has begun and features an eclectic line up of 76 artists. With a range of genres from indie to afrobeat, electric to experimental, many bands are not what music lovers typically call 'folk music.'

Yet what all the artists at Folk Fest have in common is that their music focuses on something traditional.

“[Folk is] anything that comes from a singer-songwriter tradition,” artistic director Kerry Clarke says. “Anything from traditional music from all over the world — that includes bluegrass, African music, celtic music. Any traditions and then their evolutions.”

As an example, Clarke says you can hear the evolution of the afrobeat in the music of Folk Fest performer, Seun Kuti. Seun Kuti's father, Fela Kuti, is a legendary Nigerian musician who pioneered afrobeat music in Ghana during the late ’60s. Drawing on the social issues of the time, Kuti went on to use afrobeat to shape political discourse in Nigeria during the ’70s and ’80s.

With roots in jazz, funk and blues, she explains that afrobeat is an amalgamation of different American and African music styles, typically incorporating political lyrics. “It’s all evolutions,” she says.

For Clarke the roots of folk music aren’t just musical roots, but also the personal roots of the musicians themselves.

“Even someone like Great Lake Swimmers aren’t necessarily seen as a folk group,” Clarke says, “but they play acoustic instruments and write songs about the people and the land, politics and social issues.”

Another example is A Tribe Called Red, who combine electronic music with traditional aboriginal elements to create their own musical style ­— electric pow-wow.

“They use traditional pow-wow in their music, but they happen to use laptops,” Clarke says. “They’re aboriginal, they’re proud of their aboriginal culture and they’re spokespeople for a lot of the current movements.”

Folk is something that connects people to their roots and Clarke says Folk Fest is always looking for those links to the past.

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