Established In the winter 1975 when Alaska was in its teenage years of statehood, the Alaska Folk Festival has grown to become a central event in Juneau's local music scene.
Welcoming artists of all levels of proficiency, the festival now boasts more than 140 acts, as well as dances and workshops. Just over half of this year's performers are from Juneau, but others are coming from as far away as Arkansas and New York.
Folk Fest President Greg McLaughlin, who has served on the board in various capacities since the mid-'80s, said it is part of the spirit of the festival to allow everyone access to the stage.
"Pretty much everyone that puts in for a main stage set gets on, that's been the tradition," he said.
Though the festival is grounded in the rich diversity of the 15-minute-act structure, often the element that creates the most buzz every year is the identity of the guest artist. Set up in part as a way for local musicians to pick up new skills through workshops, the guest artists are chosen from a list of recommendations and then voted on by the Folk Fest board. Though some years have seen big-name acts, most of the guest artists are not household names (and this is by design).
"Mainstream we try to stay away from. With commercialization comes a need to satisfy the market, and when you do that you lose something," McLaughlin said.
This year's selection, the Québécois band De Temps Antan, was suggested by three local women who heard them perform at Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Wash. The three, Kathy Fanning, Sally Donaldson and Nene Wolfe, are part of a local band called the Bevels, and say they were immediately drawn to the exuberance and technical brilliance of the three musicians.
"They're very dynamic and engaging, and extraordinary musicians," Fanning said.
McLaughlin said he was already familiar with their music, as he travels to Québec every summer, and knew they were a solid choice.
"I know they put on a good show, so when Sally and Kathy came in with that suggestion I thought it was wonderful," he said.
The three men in the band, Andre Brunet, Pierre-Luc Dupuis and Eric Beaudry, play traditional Québécois music, a blend of French, Irish and Scottish influences.
Brunet sings and plays fiddle; Dupuis sings and plays accordion, harmonica and Jews harp; and Beaudry sings and plays guitar, buzuki and mandolin. Brunet and Beaudry also use their feet as instruments in an unusual percussive step that is a trademark of the genre.
The name of the band, De Temps Antan, is a play on words with "de temps en temps," which means "from time to time" or "once in awhile," which was fitting, Brunet said, because when the band was formed the three men were playing with La Bottine Souriante, and didn't play together very often.
La Bottine Souriante (the smiling boot), formed in 1976, is an institution in Quebec, Wolfe said. The 10-piece band includes fiddle, accordion and guitar, as well as a brass section, piano and bass.
"People who are part of it are like the top players in Québec," she said. "If you are a part of that band its like being part of the Chicago symphony."
The members of De Temps Antan played with La Bottine Souriante for three years together before forming their own band. Beaudry still plays with both.
Like La Bottine Souriante, De Temps Antan draws on the rich traditions and culture of Québec, and embodies an attitude that is communicated through the songs.
"Traditional music is the people's music... It's about the feeling that we have to love life," he said.
Brunet said that the unique position of being French in the midst of English influences has forced the Québécois to hold on to their traditions more fiercely.
"You have to be strong and to prove that you're a community," he said. "This is where Québécois spirit in the music comes from."
Quebec was under French rule until 1763 when it became an English colony. In 1774, the English loosened their reign, in part to give the French no reason to ally themselves with the colonies in New England. This allowed the return of the language, religion and system of law that had previously been in place. Retaining the language, in particular, was essential in maintaining a strong cultural base.
"That has kept the tradition alive, especially the song tradition. You can go into a pub in Québec ... and somebody will start to sing a song and ... its amazing, everybody knows the words to every song." McLaughln said.
An influx of Irish settlers increased in the late 1840s as famine and disease drove many to escape Ireland. The Irish and French cultures intermingled, and their combined influence can be heard in the music of Quebec.
Brunet said the band members have taken traditional songs and made them their own.
"With the years, the songs have been transformed to be more our songs and our story. It's the same subject as the songs we would hear in France," he said. "There are (also) a few songs that we sing that come directly from Brittany and Normandy."
Recently, Beaudry was given an incredible gift: a collection of old tapes of French country songs, some of which are extremely rare. The tapes came from a French village, Saint Come, and include recordings of Beaudry's grandfather. Going through them has been a labor of love for Beaudry, as well as an important ethnological exercise. The band has incorporated some of the music into their repertoire, infusing it with their own energy.
The role of family in preserving and communicating Québécois music is an essential part of the tradition. Brunet's father and grandfather were steeped in the tradition, and Brunet, his brother, and two cousins all carry it on.
"I grew up with this and ... it is still a way of life," Brunet said.
His 7-year-old son has already begun the process of experimenting with the different instruments.
Brunet said the band is excited to share their musical knowledge and their culture with the Juneau community.
"The joy of life to Québécois is contagious. We love to play our music," he said.
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