Fifteen years after I stopped partying with my parents, I finally came back to Folklorama in 2009.
I had two shocks in store. The first was that Folklorama was really, really fun. The second was that while I'd grown up, gotten a job, moved out and otherwise changed, the festival had stayed more or less exactly the same.
The same boot-whomping dances, the same sizzle of curry on a Styrofoam plate. The same murmur of conversations bouncing off the walls of high school gymnasiums. All of it replicated straight from some tucked-away memories of the mid-1980s.
The crowd hasn't changed either. On many nights and at many pavilions, a casual head-count showed that attendees over age 50 outnumbered younger fans by something like three-to-one. No disrespect intended to the bus tour and Freedom 55 set: they are eager consumers of an iconic festival. But let's not sugarcoat: Folklorama is less hip than hip replacement, as evidenced by the quizzical reactions of my friends when asked if they'd like to join me this year. "Folklorama? Wow. I haven't been to that since uh... hold on, let me text my mom. She'll know."
I'm not so bold as to think that everything depends on the approval of fickle Gen Y-ers. Right now, Folklorama is big and getting bigger, with attendance up by 5,000 this year, despite fewer bus tours. A cool quarter-million Canadians watched its kickoff concert on television. But if Folklorama wants to post the same success in another 41 years, it would do well to consider spicing up its present. Here, a few humble suggestions for what Folklorama could -- and maybe someday, must -- do to hit up a whole new demographic.
You say "party," we say "why"
MY father was 11 years old when the Korean War broke out in 1950. (Bear with me. This is going somewhere.) Americans cared about this. Only problem? Nobody in his medium-sized town in Michigan knew where Korea was. The whole town rushed to the general store to find a map of the world to learn where their soldiers were going: "Oh, it's sort of like China."
That was then. This is now. Now, youth are globalized by culture, technology and a sort of instinct. We consume movies from Japan, dance beats from eastern Europe, beers from Belgium and staple foods from North Africa. More of our peers are immigrants from more countries than any generation before us.
As the baby boomers age, Folklorama's puzzle will be to fit itself into an emerging culture where "global" is a redundant adjective and where everything is multicultural. Here's a hint: the same high school gyms won't cut it.
Maybe a party will. Right now, not many things at Folklorama could be accurately described as a "party." By reputation or effort, some pavilions do boast bumpin' soirees: on a blustery Saturday night, the German pavilion was packed with ale-infused revellers. But for the most part, it really does feel like partying with grandma. There's opportunity here.
Imagine something like a nightclub series, parties bearing the Folklorama brand and held at some hot club. The party rocks until 3 a.m. with modern and traditional music -- Korean dance pop on one night, pan-African electronica or South American DJs on another. Ambassadors in costume teach the steamy dancefloor some traditional moves, bartenders serve up regional booze and cocktails. If you have a pavilion receipt, you get discounted admission.
This could build a buzz, quickly. The Winnipeg Folk Festival scores every year with world-beat dance parties; why couldn't Folklorama do the same?
"Oh, look, honey, they have a sausage here too"
ONCE upon a time -- probably about the time Folklorama started -- I imagine that slurping stir-fry at Marigold was considered a culinary adventure.
Now, there appears to be an unwritten law stating that no fewer than four sushi restaurants may occupy a single city block. So what allure, then, in paying wallet-busting prices for a sad little plate of steam-table noodles?
Last year, in a Free Press review, I bemoaned the lack of lutefisk on the Scandinavian pavilion's menu. I was only half-joking; really, I was surprisingly disappointed. Globe-trotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain once wrote that every culture has a food it adores and nobody else can understand... y'know, stuff like fermented, rotted, or lye-soaked fish in much of northern Europe. Having the chance to sample some of these more exotic tastes would be a revelation at Folklorama.
But most pavilions do not offer their culture's more, um, infamous foods. Doubtless, these items cost more, could have import barriers and wouldn't sell the way those ubiquitous sausages do. Still, finding some venue -- a pavilion theme night, a special dinner-dance -- to bridge dramatic gastronomic gulfs would add a sorely needed sense of real adventure to Folklorama. Given a chance to experience Philippine cuisine, I want to hold my nose and bite into a balut. At the Mexican pavilion, I want to crunch down on grasshopper happy-hour. You still can't get this stuff at any corner restaurant -- so let's make Folklorama our chance to try something that's both exciting and authentic.
Let me guess -- grandma put you up to this
LET'S be blunt: at many pavilions, the standard of performance must be raised.
We sympathize. Not every ethnic group has the benefit of a Rusalka, an Asham Stompers or a Kapisztran, and expecting every show to feature world-class artistry would be asking far too much. On the other hand, by charging admission, pavilions are selling a product. And it drags down the whole festival when that product involves a group of sullen teens (or more uncomfortably, eager but woefully under-rehearsed adults) mincing awkwardly to some tinny recording.
This isn't a dance recital. It's the world's longest-running multicultural festival, for goodness sake.
We're not calling out any specific pavilion. If you've been to more than a few, you've seen this. And you've probably numbly walked out of the venue, torn between your disappointment and your guilt for being disappointed in a sincerely presented volunteer effort.
If logistics, finances or lack of talent hold a pavilion back from a high show standard, then it's time to look to innovation, not pale replication. Most Folklorama shows involve dancing, but there are a lot of other entertaining ways to show off a culture -- some even more educational.
Consider this: for all the sizzle and skin onstage, the Cuban pavilion hit took place at a little table on the side, where an expert cigar-roller from legendary Cuban brand Romeo y Julieta nimbly wrapped up a pile of perfect stogies. It was one of the more entertaining and authentic cultural experiences I had all fortnight, right up there with gossiping about whiskey with an Irish guy at his pavilion's whiskey snug and unwinding the Maypole at the Belgian pavilion.
I've talked to dozens of Folklorama fans about this in the last two weeks. All agreed they would gladly take a shorter show in exchange for more time to enjoy interactive pavilion experience and exhibits, even if it cost extra. I'd happily fork over $5 for a hands-on varenyky-making demonstration with a yakkity Ukrainian baba, or a few bucks to learn one of the dance moves I saw at the Ethiopian pavilion.
After all, there's one thing the globalized marketplace doesn't offer: real, immersive human connection.
And this could, and should, be where Folklorama finds its strength for 41 more years and counting.