By Betty Carpick
My first experience with festivals began at Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, Manitoba when I was ten years old. The grandstand performance included Ukrainian dance groups, choirs, orchestras, soloists, and musicians decked in traditional clothing. The headliner was Al Cerny, an energetic fiddler who I’d never heard of. I was naïve about popular music stars, Ukrainian and otherwise. I got totally absorbed in the pulse of the festival with its glorious expression of heritage, culture, and traditions. The atmosphere, the colours, the music, the food, the crowds, and the sense of community held a strange power over my emotions. Neurochemical bliss flooded my brain. I was happy.
As time passed, I began to appreciate complex aesthetic beauty on an intellectual level and became more discerning. Since the 1960s, the multi-billion-dollar festival calendar has expanded to cater to everyone. I’ve attended indoor and outdoor music festivals from cultural to learning, from national to seasonal. Sometimes I went was because a festival suited my tastes; mostly it was because my friends were going. Festivals can be great places to hang out, see favourite artists, eat delicious food, do a little dancing, and people watch. Attention to the lineup, the access and location, security, food and drink, ambiance, cleanliness, and the respectfulness of the crowd makes for good times. After all, festivals are a diversion and hopefully, provide inspiration and pleasant memories.
I’ve had good times and bad times at festivals. I experienced a euphoric trance-like state while listening to Ornette Coleman at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. I wearied of the crowd’s predictable slide into inebriation for the two weeks that I worked a photo booth at Oktoberfest in Winnipeg. I lived in a 1920 Chevy truck as a carnie-wannabee at the Morden Corn & Apple Festival. I lost my Praktica 35mm camera at the Calgary Stampede. I enjoyed artisanal food and drink at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, one of the world’s largest gastronomic festivals. I delighted in the mosquito-eating dragonflies hovering above the crowd at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
I’m not a veteran of the festival scene in any way and I’ve realized that the very act of attending many festivals isn’t for me. Every festival-goer experiences gripes like long lines, grubby porta-potties, lack of shade, and poor sight lines. Accepting a balance between the sweet moments and the inconveniences is part of what you pay for. But, the logistics, the homogenization, the environmental impact, the focus on revenue streams, and the unpredictability can put a damper on the vibe. For some reason, many corporatized festivals have retained their counter-cultural stature. They spin a fantasy about non-conformity while catering to the status quo and not encouraging diversity and inclusivity. Joni Mitchell, a Woodstock absentee, wrote in her festival anthem, “Think I’ll join a rock and roll band. I’ll camp out on the land. I’ll try and set my soul free.”