What the Folk Festival can teach us

Music can be a lens to peer into our humanities chaos, it can magnify hidden flaws and surprising strengths that the rest of our circumstances fail to accentuate.

This article began when I was asked by the esteemed Dean Christesen to write my definition of Folk Music. This proved exceedingly difficult, as the boundaries of these kinds of things can be very slippery. The intellectualizing that is necessary to achieve a suitable answer is certainly not how I want to spend my afternoon, and I try hard to stay away from such matters. My enjoyment of the music, folk music or otherwise, can be malformed by the interfering fingers of academic pursuit.

Music, in this sense, is a jewel. There is no need to enjoy it on anything but its own terms. You do not have to bring politics or religion, any social or governmental issues–race, sexuality, academic criteria or bookish enthusiasm–into its sphere. It is beautiful all on its own.


Music can often be used as a lens to peer into our humanity’s chaos. Perhaps it is because it stands, unmistakeably amoral and separated from our struggles, that it can be used to magnify hidden flaws and surprising strengths that the rest of our circumstances fail to accentuate.

I tried hard to phone-in an answer to Dean-O. I could care less what Folk Music is in an ethnomusicological sense; I don’t mind if the definition is strict or loose or upside down or sideways, if I like the music, let it be. But unfortunately for my Saturday and Sunday nights, I am concerned by something bigger.

Folk music can be many things and might be slippery to define but one thing that seems consistent is it is not viewed as art music — musical traditions implying advanced structural and theoretical considerations and a written musical tradition. This esteemed title is reserved for the Bachs and Beethovens of the world, maybe even the Steve Reichs, and possibly even the Duke Ellingtons (on a good day). Folk music often implies the opposite: “blue collar” music, oral traditions, sometimes even a simple nature to the music itself is implied (though certainly not always the case). My concern is that by classifying artists as “folk,” when their music clearly resides on the other side of the fence, we continue a long standing Western tradition of simplifying non-Western cultures and keeping them on the fringes of our playing field.

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A virtuoso classical musician, subject of a recent concerto performed by the Nashville Symphony, a prolific composer, child prodigy, and professor at Stanford University and Princeton, Zakir Hussain was the headlining Folk musician at last year’s folk festival. The year before Debashish Bhattacharya, an Indian classical guitar virtuoso and singer, played under the same tent. Bhattacharya has been giving recitals since the age of four, spent ten years training with the father of Indian classical guitar, and has done decades of disciplined study of Indian vocal technique. He, also, is a prolific composer and is truly a master of many Indian classical styles. This year, Imamyar Hasanov will appear at the festival. He began playing the kamancha at age 7, was the youngest soloist ever to appear in the Azerbaijan National Orchestra, has a masters degree in music from the state conservatory, and is the winner of several classical musical competitions in Azerbaijan.

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Do I think that watching Zakir Hussain headline the Folk festival is a small slap in the face to his ability and history?


Do I think this echoes a time where we consistently, as a nation, devalue the beautiful subtleties as well as the immense greatness in the ethnic cultures around us, namely Native American and African American?


Do I think we, as a country, often see ourselves outside and often above the conversation of the global village?


Does this effect how we view art that is not our own?


Do I think that if one were white and American and had the résumé of the folks listed above one could play the folk festival?


Do I think these folks deserve a different stage to tell their musical story?


Do I think western “art music” musicians could do themselves a favor by acknowledging some of the populist roots of their music and try to find themselves an audience like we have at the folk festival?


Am I thankful that folks like Zakir Hussain play at the Folk Festival every year?

I am.

And I will go watch them every time. But I think, at the least, it begs a dialogue as to what message it is sending to a captive audience. Do we understand that these men are master musicians, in the bloodlines of history’s finest? Or, do we see them as foreigners with funny clothes and instruments that come from afar with their strange scales and exotic rhythms? Even if we see them as somewhere in between we are doing ourselves a disservice. Maybe we see them as both. I don’t know how one sees them, but I do know that the circumstances surrounding their performance hints at things that we may want to–at least–talk about.

Let me be clear. I think the Folk Festival is the best thing that happens every year in Richmond. It is my favorite thing that the city does. It is also an event that tackles race, culture, music, and an attempt to put them all inside a box: a box entitled the Richmond Folk Festival. This is a brave and exciting task. An unenviable one and one that will undoubtedly start a dialogue or two. This is all I mean this to be.

Please weigh in.


photo of Zakir Hussain by ritwikdey

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Matthew E. White

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