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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A love of international dance and music keeps Fall Folk Festival legacy alive

By the late 1960s, international folk dancing and music were widely popular on college campuses. That wave echoes today in a variety of cultural performers returning to the Spokane Fall Folk Festival.

After two years as virtual, the free event at Spokane Community College offers live entertainment Saturday and Nov. 13 from about 80 performers. The variety includes Scottish pipes and dancers, Japanese drumming, Chinese music, Spanish guitar, African, Middle East and Bulgaria dances, bluegrass music and audience-involved contra dancing.

The chance to see artists who bring the world’s folk heritages to one place is what draws visitors each fall and keeps the festival strong, said Sylvia Gobel, its director for more than 20 years.

Her involvement actually goes back to the festival’s first year, in 1996, when she volunteered. By the event’s second year, Gobel joined the organizing committee and has played a role ever since.

“People who are interested in traditional music, international music, cultural music and ethnic groups are drawn to the festival the most, I think,” she said.

“I’d say what’s kept it going is we just have had an incredible response from our local musicians in the community, and from the local people who discovered the festival and continue to come. What impacts me the most is when people come up to me and say, ‘I just never knew there were so many talented musicians and artists in the Spokane area, and such a variety.’ “

Gobel fell in love with international folk dancing during college, and her appreciation has never dwindled. She studied a year in France and visited several countries on folk-dancing tours. That was where she heard live music to accompany the dancing; she often first learned folk dances to recorded music.

“Most communities don’t have all these bands readily available to play,” she said. “That was my entrance into it through international folk dancing when I was in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when it was really popular.”

Many folk artists today don’t have a lot of chances to perform live, she said. Offering that opportunity is part of the mission of Spokane Folklore Society, a nonprofit volunteer organization that sponsors the festival and is dedicated to the preservation of folk music and culture.

The regional festival was modeled after Northwest Folklife, held in Seattle on Memorial Day weekend since around 1971. For many years, Spokane fans of international performances went there each year, Gobel said, and the event grew. Eventually, there wasn’t enough room for Spokane-area folk artists to perform there, and people here started talking about a local festival.

“Around 1996, a group of people got together and we started a small festival, and it’s still happening.”

They held the beginning festivals at the Unitarian-Universalist Church, but as the event grew it moved to Glover Middle School for a few years. In 2003, the festival moved to SCC.

Gobel said this year’s festival is slightly smaller, with about 20% fewer performers registered, as people ease back into indoor events. But the schedule is full and still offers a variety of folk music traditions and dance.

Other activities include workshops, storytelling, jam sessions and craft vendors. Gobel said she’s most looking forward to hearing live folk music again.

“It’s a wonderful experience for both the artist and the audience. The energy between them is very important, and it’s been lacking for two years.”

For more information, go the website, and click on the schedule icon for a lineup of artists and stage locations each day.