David Garcia is 74 years old and he's dancing on the top of a 90-foot pole. Four of his companions are tying themselves to a wooden frame up there and are going to jump off and rotate to the ground, sure, but Garcia's up there sans rope, playing a reedy tune on a flute. After his companions unwind to the ground, Garcia will slide down one of the ropes, walking hand over hand at the end. When he shakes your hand, you are very aware of this fact. Garcia's been at it since he was a teenager, say 60 years of what is called sun dancing, which itself is the hallmark of a 2,000-year-old tradition of the Totonac, a Native American tribe related to the Maya who were building temples in Veracruz, Mexico, way, way before Columbus came along and called it discovery.
Here's proof that the indigenous people of wherever don't have to be forced out at the point of a sword or the flagellum of a microbe.
So the idea of longevity was certainly a subtext of the first Richmond Folk Festival this past weekend — here are practitioners of these old, even ancient, cultural traditions from all over the world, such as Garcia and the Tezcatlipoca Voladores, camped out in a city that considers itself pretty much eligible for discounted movie tickets. And of course in a city this old, a city that can at times be cranky and resistant, the success of an event like this is something we need to pay attention to.
Also note that all those people that were out there on the grass, listening to that music, all those ages and backgrounds, that's pretty close to what Richmond looks like. Or at least closer than your average Richmond school or church or other musical event. It was a real grab bag of people, too.
I saw a tall white gentleman wearing a daishiki; I spied upon a couple wearing matching striped shirts and navy shorts (are they in some very insular gang?); I witnessed the dramatic shift in family dynamics brought about by a funnel cake; I saw a range of socio-economic backgrounds united by canvas folding chairs; and I watched young kids on grassy hills rolling, falling over, cartwheeling and swirling hula hoops with the immediate abandon of childhood, kids who will soon suffer from puberty, have their hearts messily broken, start taking themselves too seriously, wear the wrong clothes, join lacrosse teams, wreck their first cars, drink beer, choose colleges (or jobs), leave home, suffer some personal setbacks, get into camping, try to find the big answers, travel with friends and go to music festivals, where they will take drugs and hula hoop in the grass.
This year we had 185,000 people over the three days. The beer truck had Blue Moon. And Guinness. Performers included a cornerstone of bluegrass culture (Lee Sexton), a fallen-and-risen soul legend (Howard Tate), the guys who did that song “Da' Butt” (E.U.), the son of a Saharan bluesman (Vieux Farka TourAc), Inuit throat singers (Nukariik), Texas polka, Sudanese pop, pretty Irish girls and, of course, sea chanteys. The weather held. The corn dogs sold out. All in all, a wildly successful weekend as Richmond's cultural ambassadors took over the local incarnation of the festival (with continuing guidance from the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the Maryland outfit that runs the National Folk Festivals). They did a fine job, a fine job.
So can we finally and truly be on to something? Have we found, in the Richmond Folk Festival, something to get behind? Does its presence reinforce our own culture, though few local artists were on display? Perhaps.
The problem is, and has been, that the city chooses to adopt a franchise rather than cultivating locally. Let's do a river walk like San Antonio. Let's do a cultural action plan like Portland. Let's do a marketplace. Let's do a performing arts center. Let's get another Marriott! (Two! Three!) And these ideas often are rejected by the cultural immune system. The Canal Walk sits there like somebody else's kidney.
So the long-term success of an import like the National Folk Festival is not assured. Of the 28 National Folk Festivals that have cropped up in American towns since 1934, only a few have continued the festival as a locally run event after Mama National rolled on. Bangor, Maine, held the National before Richmond (2002-2004) and has carried it on as the American Folk Festival; and Lowell, Mass., holds the Lowell Folk Festival, spawned from the National's residency there from 1987 to 1989.
What we've got on our side is a crack programming committee that knows its music, organizers who know how to put together a big event (and navigate the treacherous waterways of city paperwork). They've embraced the spirit of the National Folk Festival, so let's hope that they deviate where needed and grow the thing next year.
That means involving the rest of the city where appropriate — it means staging after shows at other city venues to pick up where the festival leaves off for the night. Or involving the 18 dozen galleries and museums we have here to screen foreign films, show outland art. It means getting everyone on the same page and allowing the whole city to play along. I suspect local artists will stage a Richmond Fringe Festival before long. Anything to maintain the momentum.
Because, and maybe it was walking around with a handful of beer and a bellyful of alligator bites, but this festival makes the city feel new. Not like a novelty, but like seeing the city in a new way. Interacting in a new way. If a 74-year-old man can dance on a 90-foot pole, a 300-year-old city should be able to keep on shaking a leg, too. S