Words by Annie Bohling
Photos by Deb Andersen
Feb. 23, 2018
The 30th annual Folk Alliance International Conference was held Feb. 14–18 in Kansas City at the Westin Hotel at Crown Center. Hotel rooms are transformed (remove beds, add music…) into “private showcases,” i.e., intimate performance settings hosted by various groups and organizations. KZUM hosted the Nebraska Room boasting Nebraskan folk musicians. FAI also included performances in ballroom stages as well as classes, speakers and networking events.
There is so much to be said about the utter beauty of the Folk Alliance International Conference:
- The beauty of musicians from all over the world coming together to celebrate, support and connect with one another.
- The goosebumps, smiles, laughter, tears, dancing, peace, happiness, pain, hope, astonishment, gratitude and inspiration experienced through set after set of unique music.
- The music, the music, the music – so much raw talent and so many incredibly gifted songwriters concentrated into four days. Everyone went home with so much new music to enjoy. (See below for recommended acts.)
- The best late-night group jams I’ve ever seen.
- Making connections and friends. Musicians and others welcomed each other with open arms to their home city for a visit sure to be filled with great music, culture and people. Estonia. Anchorage, Alaska. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Montreal, Canada. Nashville. New York City. Kansas City. Denver.
- The opportunity to tell strangers about KZUM and Nebraska, to represent our great state, to share our art and our culture and to invite them to experience it and (please!) perform on our hometown stages. Explaining KZUM was a continual reminder of how impressive and magical this community radio station is. KZUM is a gem and many places aren’t so fortunate to have such a force in their communities.
- Basking in the most intimate settings for a musical performance. Hotel rooms worked as temporary, communal living rooms where audience members were as close to each other as they were to the performers. No raised stage, no distance and, often, no amplification.
- Walking down the hallways of the hotel and looking to the right and to the left and glimpsing into each room where musicians are pouring their hearts out. This went on for four days on three floors of the hotel.
Perhaps the greatest gift of FAI is this fulfilling, lasting, joyful, hopeful sense of inspiration that we take home – to the home in our hearts and the home in our communities. Musicians are rejuvenated and excited to write as they return home from this four-day festival (conference). All attendees are able to take home not only new music, new connections and the general high from the conference, but also new ideas.
As a community advocate, music enthusiast, writer, singer and public radio volunteer programmer, I am taking home inspiration in some exciting ways – personally and communally.
Personally, it gave me a boost to keep writing and singing and to learn to read and play music. It also gave me new friends and connections. But let’s talk about community.
In speaking with musicians, KZUM representatives started by explaining the station and gifting the KZUM Nebraska compilation CD, which they were always genuinely excited to receive. We told them, “send us your music and we’ll play it on the air! If you’re coming through Nebraska, you can stop in for an in-studio performance and interview!”
From there, the musicians often asked about performing on stages in Lincoln. I have the pleasure now of helping make that happen by connecting the musicians I spoke to with the booking agent of a logical local venue. Attending FAI led to future first-time performances in Lincoln.
The experience at FAI inspired me not only to bring new music to Lincoln, but to bring more diverse music to Lincoln AND to find more diverse music within Lincoln and advocate that it be brought to our core stages. I’m motivated now to help organize a multicultural music festival in Lincoln.
Many of us stereotype folk music as acoustic string music and think only of traditional American folk music. FAI was inclusive by defining folk music broadly and recognizing its definition as relative to every culture and country. Here are some examples of cultural music brought to the conference in Kansas City:
- Sjvata Vatra (translating to “Holy Fire”) is an Estonian power folk band that brought high energy and untamed performances to each of their sets at FAI. They also loved and frequented the Nebraska room, where they joined in on a late-night jam on Saturday and sat down with KZUM for a video interview and private performance. Check back soon for that video production.
- Radio Free Honduras is based in Chicago and spotlights the talent of lead Charlie Baran who is a famous musician in his home country of Honduras. The band fit about eight people onto their “stage” in the hotel room. Their set made people smile and dance.
- Cunao is a Latin folk band from L.A. that dares you not to dance, as Latin music usually does. They also joined in on the Nebraska room late-night jam. They were one of several Latin bands who performed in the Carnaval room hosted by Kansas City band Making Movies.
- Making Movies is a rock and roll band influenced by their roots in Mexico and Panama, as well as the Midwest. Sometimes they sing in Spanish and sometimes in English, but the music is always charged with emotion, powerful political messages and stories of struggle. Check back for an interview to be published with lead Enrique Chi.
- Black Umfolosi came all the way from Zimbabwe to share their self-taught acapella and traditional dance, which transported audience members to their home country.
- Mireya Ramos: From New York. Mireya has possibly the most beautiful and dynamic female voices I have ever heard. She was a guest vocalist at FAI and has collaborated with several groups. She formed the first all-female Mariachi band in New York and advocates for more female presence in music. Check back for an interview to be published with Mireya.
- Kolonien was a top highlight for people I talked to. I’m bummed I missed their set but excited to check them out. From Stockholm, Sweden.
- FAI also featured several musicians from Ireland and Scotland. Les Grande Herleurs (“The Big Howlers”) is a French trio from Montreal, Quebec that multitasked. The lead sang, played fiddle and tapped danced while sitting down.
- As Making Movies lead singer Enrique Chi put it, the diversity of music at FAI “has improved and has room for improvement.” Likely, the same can be said of the diversity of music happening on the stages in our hometowns.
There were hundreds of musicians to see at FAI. As I stepped into as many sets as possible and was blown away time and time again by each musician and band, it amazed me that there was so much more equally incredible talent happening at the conference that I didn’t get a chance to see. Here are some additional acts from FAI I recommend:
- Super Saturated Sugar Strings: From Anchorage, Alaska. Interesting, fun and beautiful, this group brought together strings, horns, percussion and vocal harmonies resulting much of the time in gypsy folk. They were charming and innovative.
- Kittel and Co.: Led by award-winning fiddler, violinist and composer Jeremy Kittel, Kittel and Co. is a swoony and jaw-dropping instrumental group seen at FAI as a trio featuring Josh Pinkham on mandolin and Quinn Bachand on guitar. Kittel has worked and recorded with huge names in every genre.
- Trout Steak Revival: As a bluegrass fan from Nebraska, this was one of very few names on the FAI lineup that I recognized. This Denver bluegrass group is flawless in their set. Most impressive was the group’s cohesion and mutual respect. Each member shined in each song with individual solos. All five of them are great musicians and can sing. No one person led the show.
- The War and Treaty: This group made me cry. They are the definition of soulful. Their hearts bled through their gorgeous vocals and moving lyrics. This is a husband and wife duo on vocals, keys and percussion, accompanied at FAI by two other musicians on guitar and bass. The War and Treaty seemed to be a favorite by everyone at FAI.
- The Mammals: Upbeat string music self-categorized as Indie roots and Americana, this group has been making music for nearly 20 years and includes a husband and wife pair. After all those songs heard in those four days, Ruth Ungar’s vocal solo performance of “My Baby Drinks Water” has been in my head.
A man and his guitar:
- Ken Stead: From Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Stead’s powerful and soulful voice hooked me and haunted my brain, along with his lyrics. “Hold on to what you love, love what you hold, you never know time will make, will make you let go.”
- Mitchel Evan: From Denver. Mitchel Evan amazes me with his poetry and his raw emotion in each set. He spooks the soul of an audience member by making and holding intense eye contact for a brief but seemingly everlasting moment while veins in his neck and forehead bulge and his heart and soul pour out in relatable, deep, human lyrics. Check back soon for a published interview with Evan.
- Jack Semple: From Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Semple is anything but a simple guitarist. Mouths hang open as he effortlessly blazes solos on his acoustic guitar. Blues junkies at FAI got a healthy dose of blues from Semple.
Final takeaways from FAI:
- Appreciate the lyrics. Lyrical storytelling is at the core of traditional folk music. Musicians are connecting humanity and spreading love and hope by writing about personal struggles and political injustice and spinning it positively and constructively. Poetry is one thing. Musicianship is another. The combination of the two fueled by talent, passion and dedication is one of the most special things on Earth.
- Art is the answer. Creative and artistic minds make their communities colorful, unique and interesting. Artists richen their cities. They are catalysts for tourism. They are catalysts for change. They use music and art to make statements of impact. They bring people together.
- We are all creative.
- Consider community. Cultivate community. Participate in community. Community used to be to me a fairly vague word that I felt was tossed around too loosely. It’s been cementing for me this year, and FAI is a huge part in that. Folk music is completely saturated in the idea of togetherness, of community. People I met at FAI like Mireya Ramos (creator of first New York all-female mariachi group), Enrique Chi (band Making Movies, youth music camp Mattie Rhodes Rocks) and Kevin Worrell (band Super Saturated Sugar Strings, project Parlor in the Round) are people who are not only great musicians but “ideas” people who are improving their communities by making projects come to life. They got me thinking: How do I want to be a part of my community? How can we work together to richen, enliven and innovate our community? How can we grow Lincoln and Nebraska? How will we develop our culture?
I want to give a huge thank you to KZUM for including me in the experience that was the 2018 Folk Alliance International Conference. More importantly, I want to thank KZUM for bringing Nebraska into the conversations and landscape of the conference. Thank you for bringing Nebraska musicians to the international celebration.Nebraska folk artists Jack Hotel, Mike Semrad and the River Hawks, Matt Cox, Will Hutchinson, Andrea Von Kampen, Hope Dunbar, The Fremonts and The Wildwoods made Nebraska proud and made the KZUM showcase room one of solid music and good energy. Thank you for creating community and public radio and for sharing local music. It was a pleasure to spread the magic of KZUM and the charm of Nebraska. Thank you to Folk Alliance International for creating an incredibly organized and powerful hub for communities to come together and share their magic.
Annie Bohling hosts “Story Strong” every Wednesday from 6 to 6:30 p.m. on KZUM. Deb Andersen is co-music director and host of “The Wimmin’s Show,” every Sunday, noon-2 p.m., on KZUM.