Thursday, November 20, 2008

Remembering Estelle

Last night I was part of a wonderful evening at Hugh's Room celebrating two of my musical heroes and friends-- Ken Whiteley and Estelle Klein-- as they were inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.

Estelle was the visionary programmer of the Mariposa Festival for many years, during it's "golden era." She is widely credited with developing the idea of the folk festival workshop to it's apex, and she's had a huge influence on folk festivals across North America. Ken Whiteley has been a driving force in the Canadian folk and roots music scene since the late 1960's, as a multi-talented musician, producer, children's performer, mentor, and organizer. I will write more about Ken in a future post, but today I want to focus on Estelle.

I moved to Toronto after the heyday of Mariposa, but I was fortunate to get to know Estelle a little bit in the few years before she passed away. My friend Dave Barnard and I were the honoured people who got to interview her on stage at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals when the Estelle Klein Award was established and she became the first recipient. We spent many hours in conversation leading up to that interview. We talked about her early life and introduction to folk music, how she thought about programming the festival, and her work after leaving Mariposa. In truth, we barely scratched the surface, but those conversations opened my mind to the many possibilities in programming an event like Mariposa.

What came through to me was about more than workshop titles or who she put on a stage together. It was about a whole way of looking at culture, not just as entertainment, but as a vital, living expression of people's lives and experiences. She was genuinely curious about the connections between music, art, crafts, language, food, dance, history, and politics. When she brought performers, crafters, and dancers to the festival, she wasn't just interested in the final product they were presenting (the song, the dance, the craftwork). She was interested in the context of their artistic expression-- where their sensibility came from, the community that they lived in or were raised in, how they learned to sing/play/write/paint/dance etc., what historical or personal events influenced their art, and how all of that might be connected to someone else's life experience or artistic expression-- and to the life experience of her audience. Her choices about workshop programming grew out of that curiousity and that impulse to connect different threads of people's music, art, and dance.

She thought about themes that could carry through the programming and connect different elements. She was as interested in craft, dance, and storytelling as she was in music, and she worked hard to integrate each of those elements into the festival in a way that was respectful and joyful. She helped develop an extensive First Nations area at the festival that was far ahead of its time. Similarly, she brought "world music" to the folk festival long before the term had even been invented. And as Ken Whiteley noted last night, her commitment to equity carried through every aspect of the festival-- from the standard amount that all performers were paid (regardless of stature) to the respectful treatment given to everyone involved with the festival, whether they were performers, crafters, or volunteers.

The result of her vision and her creativity was an absolutely incredible event that had a profound influence on all of the people who participated - artists, volunteers, and audience members. When I speak to people who attended Mariposa during those years, there's an almost universal sense that it changed their lives in some way or another. Some talk about seeing musical influences like Mississippi John Hurt or John Prine. Others talk about making lifelong friendships and becoming part of the folk community. Still others listened and learned from the ideas at Mariposa and went on to produce festivals and events of their own.

It's hard to overestimate the influence of someone like Estelle. There is much more that could and should be said. I'm just grateful I got to know her a little bit, and happy to have been part of last night's moving tribute to her lasting legacy. Thank you, Estelle Klein.

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