Northwest Folklife Festival

by Byron Au Yong

Even though I am busy writing Stuck Elevator, somehow my dear old friend David and I were able to catch a few hours at Northwest Folklife. We went from taiko to tejano to bluegrass to gaelic all within the less than a mile radius of the Seattle Center campus. It turned out to be a musical reunion of sorts with a bunch of my friends who I never see anymore.

I've known the players in Inochi Taiko since they were kids; really, like when they were age six and eight, playing with Tsunami Taiko. In 2003, Garrett, Tyrone and Max started their own group. I was impressed with their showing at the Regional Taiko Gathering in Portland last summer and wanted to check them out at Folklife.

Inochi performed in the Bagley Wright Theatre to a full house. While their playing was a bit shaky and lacked dynamic control, they impressed the audience. Since they seem to be going in a power taiko direction, hopefully their three new members will add to the excitement they are able to generate on stage.

I also ran into Kim Carter as she and Jose Guillermo Castro were rushing off to a gig. Kim and Jose played fiddle and a plucked string instrument and sang. It was stunning.

I was so happy listening to the microtonal doublestops and falsetto leaps. Kim kept time, while Jose weaved in and out. It reminded me that songs could be odd, be in a language I didn't speak and hold me in a spell.

The audience of six sat within arms length of the performers. It was like a house concert without the food.

David was especially excited to hear about my friends in the queer bluegrass group, so right after Kim and Jose's set, we went to hear Skitterpup.

I haven't heard Skitterpup since going to a bar in Fremont last year. Their sound has become cool and lovely, which may not seem like adjectives to describe bluegrass but that Sunday morning, the crowd was not yet up for dancing.

The songs I remembered most were Karen Lindenberg's original "Seagull," with it's this-is-not-your-typical-rock-band accompaniment and their cover of "Tennessee Waltz." Skitterpup's rendition of A-ha's "Take on Me" shows how talented the band is at making material their own. I look forward to continuing to hear them. Hopefully it won't be just once a year.

If you ever want to be happy, catch Karen on stage. Her smiles are contagious. Kathea's bass playing will keep you in the groove, Cody's electric guitar will keep you guessing, Colt's fiddle playing will tickle your ears, and their vocal harmonies will keep you wanting more. I miss the harmonica, but overall was impressed with their Folklife performance.

The highlight this year was catching Hanz Araki. I've known Hanz for over 10 years. He was the only musician I've ever interviewed over a beer. I've heard Hanz go from playing Irish flute, whistle and shakuhachi as back-up to singing and leading his own group.

Last time I saw Hanz was over the summer -- hmm there's a theme here -- in Portland. We talked about how hard it was to make a living as a musician. I was glad to hear that he decided to make it on his own. He's been great in all the groups he's been a part of, but I've always known that he was a super star.

Hearing him on that stage in the twilight was magical. Hanz sang a slow song with his comforting, storytelling voice simply accompanied by guitar, bodhran, fiddle, and keyboards. He also played various flutes. The outdoor standing room audience was mesmerized.

I like to think of Folklife this way: of lifting me out of this world through contemporary traditional music, of colleagues singing and playing from their hearts for strangers and friends and of making me pause and listen anew to the possibilities.

Procrastinating isn't always bad, especially when it's taking time to listen to live music.
Dedicated to intercultural collaboration, Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world. He teaches in Performing Arts & Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

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