Diversity is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Spokane.
For those who think it’s a culturally desolate place, the Fall Folk Festival is a multicultural oasis.
The 15th Annual Fall Folk Festival, presented by the Spokane Folklore Society is showcasing a cultural cornucopia of traditional music, dancing and crafts from around the world this weekend.
Hundreds of performers, mostly from the Inland Northwest, played folk, blues, bluegrass, swing, acoustic Americana and more. And that’s not including the groups of musicians jamming throughout the halls of Spokane Community College, where the festival is held. There were banjos, taikos, accordions, ukuleles, bagpipes and fiddles. There was tango, tap dancing, belly dancing, swing dancing, contra dancing and clogging, just to name a few.
“Where can you go and see such a variety of music?” said Joe Connellan, who has attended the festival with his wife, Sandi, for the past 10 years. “There’s a little bit of everything.”
The festival even featured a group of tap-dancing grannies, aptly named Tap Grandmas. Don’t be fooled by the name – those grannies can move.
Not all the performers were from the northwest, though. A group of Kenyan Maasai, the Osotua Le Keekonyokie Dance Troupe, traveled from Africa to perform and sell handmade beaded jewelry. They came here to raise money to send back home to Kenya, which has recently suffered a severe drought that has decimated livestock herds.
The troupe’s goal is to share their traditions with other parts of the world and raise money to improve education, water and sanitation in their community and help Maasai families rebuilt their herds.
Their performance, like the others, gave festival-goers a glimpse of their lives, their values and their heritage through singing, dancing and storytelling. One of the dances they performed is traditionally done when the warriors return from a successful hunt. One dance represented a hen protecting her chicks; another called for hope.
The two-day festival is meant to promote awareness of the many cultural and ethnic traditions in the region, said Sylvia Gobel, the festival’s director.
“It’s as many folk traditions as we can pull in,” she said. “That’s what we strive for – the most multicultural we can get.”
The festival got started 15 years ago when a group of people who attended Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival “religiously” decided they wanted to start something similar in Spokane, Gobel said.
“We wanted a way to celebrate cultural diversity here,” she said. “We wanted something so our performers here could have a venue.”
Gobel said there were many talented and diverse artists in the area who didn’t have a stage on which to perform.
“They’re here, they’re just hidden,” she said.
The first festival started small and was held at the Unitarian Universalist Church. It quickly outgrew the church and moved to Glover Middle School. Eight years ago the festival, which now draws about 6,000 people each year, moved to SCC where organizers say it will likely stay for some time.
With all there is to do at the festival, one might think there is a price tag attached. But organizers have kept it free by volunteering their time, fundraising and getting grants and donations to offset the costs.
“We’re really committed to keeping it a community event,” said Linnell Cergl, a festival committee member. “We want to keep it open to everyone.”
Sandi Connellan said the festival’s accessibility lends itself to a more diverse crowd.
“We love the symphony, but not everyone can go to the symphony,” she said.
“Music is for everyone,” she added. “It’s not just for the elite. It’s a gift … available to anyone and everyone.”