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Music for Some Folks

The National Folk Festival brought all sorts of music, but just one color audience.


If you have kids and you didn't go, you missed enough eye and ear candy and enough room to run around to warrant taking them off Ritalin for the weekend.

The food was a disappointment. The food court featured too many carnie versions of ethnic food. The gyro and falafel were overpriced at $7 each, and the jambalaya came direct from D.C. The best food was sold by our own Richmond area ethnic eateries — Ma Musu's, India K'Raja and Croaker's Spot. And a festival that boasted "no inflatables," somehow couldn't resist the lure of the funnel cake. So next year skip the food, pack a lunch for the kids and get the whole experience free.

Despite the weather Friday and Saturday, which likely drove off casual attendees, thousands of music fans still showed up for the soggy first two days of the festival, donning Wellies and rain coats. The uncovered stages were closed and music was limited to the two main, covered pavilions. But by Sunday, the weather dried and the festival was in full swing. One of the most exciting things about the festival was seeing people actually walking through downtown Richmond on the weekend.

Changes in the schedule made it tough to try to catch a particular act. A better idea was to arrive with no agenda and see what you stumbled upon.

It was nice to see Southwest Virginia musicians represented, billed as music from "The Crooked Road," a new marketing angle from the Virginia Tourism Corp., but that could have done it for the bluegrass. The bill was too heavy on bluegrass and other string and Celtic-rooted sounds (like Canadian J.P. Cormier, Mountain Heart, Ralph Stanley) and while that sound is native of Virginia, it's also music we can regularly see in town.

Cajun and other music of the bayou was also perhaps overrepresented with three acts. And all the big headliners, Marcia Ball, Cephas & Wiggins and Ralph Stanley have played in town recently, and do so frequently. The gospel groups offered a nice variety of the tradition with an a cappella group, shout band and large church choir, but other black music was missing. There could have been more African, like Afro-beat or Afro-Cuban, not to mention Caribbean and Latin music. Where was the salsa, cumbia or samba? And how about a stage dedicated to bands taking traditional music in new directions? It could have featured newgrass, like Charlottesville's Hackensaw Boys, Afro-beat, even electronic music or turntablists — remember what Moby did with the blues?

Obviously it's hard to please everyone, but the schedule seemed either too niche (as in the case of music from Cambodia and Nepal) or too heavy in more common genres (like bluegrass or bayou). Yet some of the most ethnically specific performers also put on some of the most interesting shows. The Mexican mariachi group, Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, seemed to be the favored act by those who saw them. And the Cambodian dance group, Khmer Classical Dance Ensemble, also dazzled with their pageantry.

The biggest disappointment was the lack of diversity in the audience. Even during shows of "black music" like acoustic blues duo Cephus & Wiggins (who play the theme song to Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show"), there were few African-Americans in the audience. The ratio was a little higher for the Virginia Gospel Traditions show, but not much. City Celebrations already has a deplorable record for attracting diverse audiences to its Friday Cheers concert series. But unlike Friday Cheers, this is a festival with diverse enough schedule to attract both black and white. How about marketing to the black community; and why not start by recruiting volunteers through black churches and community group? Ralph Stanley was probably the wrong poster boy to attract that crowd, but Tidewater's Paschall Brothers could have done it. Luckily we've still got two more years of the National Folk Festival to work on it. S

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