Yesterday I chanced upon a sign that said Northwest Folklife Festival 2015. While America remembers its war heroes, and there is a mad rush to get out of town for the three day long weekend, right below the famous Seattle Space Needle, is a celebration of folk music, ethnic culture and its influence on contemporary arts and lifestyle .
I have not been to the festival since the last 2 years, but the color, music and the bustling of life that I had witnessed on my first visit to Seattle in 2012 is still fresh, as if we walked those crowded grounds yesterday. I had never imagined to see such a crowd here in Seattle. It was like a durga puja mela (well maybe a slightly wilder and calmer one).
So, flashback to the summer of 2012 and imagine me and my travelling companion (lets give him a name; let’s call him lazywiz) as we descend the steps outside the space needle and look around. We have multiple fliers in our hands and in vain do we rotate our heads in all directions identifying which way to go next. There is the option to buy another expensive entrance ticket (we are still converting Indian rupees to American dollars in our heads) to the EMP museum, but we get sidetracked listening to these street performers playing on weird looking wooden hollow pipes. A strategic sign placed before them says tips are appreciated, and you are more than welcome to buy their music cds. We pick one up, not knowing there are numerous choices coming up.
We start walking towards the general direction the crowds are heading. The day is just starting to get the right kind of warm. The sun glowing above is not yet too strong. We have no idea that this is a music festival. All we see is a riot of colors, all kinds of people from very young to old, one even with the greyest of Gandalf like beards. There are camps set up, and shady nooks and corners filled with what resembles my idea of the hippie world. Of course, this world is only what I can imagine from the films I have watched.
Every few steps we see bands setting up their instruments, most of which I have never seen before, let alone heard performed live. There is a scramble as the choicest locations are filled. The vendors, with there local goods and finger food, also line up. Surprisingly, there are veggie options too. Corn on the cob and candy floss make my mouth water and for some minutes am distracted. All this while lazywiz has been clicking photographs like a man possessed (some of which have made it to this page). We quickly mutually decide to drop the other destinations we had planned to visit that day. We were going to stay and savor this madness, choas and fun.
A large crowd assembles before this band. They have the most interesting attire and bizarre posters. A violin, a drummer on some plastic buckets, accordions and what resembled the instrument Salman Khan plays in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Shahrukh Khan plays in Dilwale Dulhani Le Jayenge. Then the lead singer starts to sing. The crowd claps along, a few people start to dance. More people thronged closer, but as the density of population grew around us, instead of claustrophobia, we have a sampling of freedom. There is an untamed unrehearsed air to it all. Exhilarating would be the right word for it.
Ever sensible Lazywiz points out we should probably start moving on, so we did. I am amazed at how different genres of musicians, some professional some perhaps just like you and me (assuming you are as novice as me in the world of music) have all come together. Travelled from different states to get here.
At a rather secluded quaint corner a choir practice is on its way. We are handed the music to sing along. Crescendos, pianissimo, fortissimos… A dignified lady sitting with her back held straight on the piano. How could this exist right next to the tawdry, rather wild looking, groups I had just witnessed mere feet away? Part of me said, music does transcend barriers.
Our lunch is from a stall selling pizza per slice. I get one with mushrooms and pineapple. A big piece, not too warm, that I eat overlooking this huge fountain space. The fountain looks like a piece from a futuristic movie. Tiny toddlers are running between the sprays of water, followed by mothers who surprisingly were not harried or worried. My feet are killing me and the rest is much desired, but there is still a lot we hadn’t seen. The groups on the road were good, but I want to go watch the larger performances in the lush green gardens. In the midst of all this a teenage ballerina danced. The basket in front of her, with a single rose and a note, was for money she was collecting to sponsor her education. I might be making this up, but I am pretty sure she wanted to get into the Julliard.
As the day wears on, the people get a bit more out of control. Lazywiz swears he could smell marijuana in the air. I have no idea what that is supposed to smell like, so I will go along with his observation.
One of my favourite performance was a band on stage that has a handsome looking singer in a crisp white shirt. The beat is catchy and soon the lawn is filled with couples dancing. Near me, an exotic woman in a beige peasant skirt and a white cotton top sways evocatively. I swear I feel like I have entered into a movie. And that was even before this man, with a pair of shades on, catches her by the waist and gyrates along.
Exhausted physically, but with a mind that had been infused with energy and creativity we sit down close to the entrance. Finally, we see the flying banners.
The Northwest Folklife Festival. That is what this was.. Later, I would come to know it happens every year. A three day extravaganza which is an experience one should not miss out. We saw so much in a few mere hours. It was like being transported right into a world of a myriad of lifestyles. The poor (not figuratively) ragamuffin bands, the ones who had made it big, the classy jazz, the wild rock, busy organizers, lazy drugged bystanders. There were even a few with a sign for free hugs and I still don’t know what that could even possibly mean! The fantastic part, this lifetime of an experience was all for free.
Check out the Northwest Folklife Festival at the Seattle Centre this memorial day weekend. And tell me if your day was as vivid and glorious as mine was.