Summer of silence When COVID-19 put the kibosh on festival season, we lost part of what makes Winnipeg special

It’s said that Winnipeg has two seasons: winter and construction.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/06/2020 (1085 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s said that Winnipeg has two seasons: winter and construction.

But those who watch our city come alive in June, July and August know Winnipeg’s two seasons are actually winter and festival.

In a normal year, we’d be gearing up for the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, which was supposed to kick off on Thursday. We’d be dashing between venues, splashing in the puddles left behind by June thunderstorms, to catch the next act lighting up the Cube.

Performances in Old Market Square are a staple of the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, which unofficially kicks off the festival season every year. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files)

As June gave way to July, Manitoba’s country fans would load up their RVs and flock to Dauphin’s Countryfest for a rowdy weekend of music and Back 40 beer pong.

Misty Manitoba-made memories

Did you meet your soulmate under the stars at the Winnipeg Folk Festival? Was your life changed by a jazz fest set? Has your family been involved in Folklorama for decades? Have you been pulled onstage at fringe? Did you camp in the Back 40 at Countryfest and live to tell the tale?

We want to hear from you.

To help make the Summer of Silence a bit more bearable, we are gathering festival memories from Free Press readers, and will be sharing some of them over the summer in both the pages of the paper and our website. Send your stories to

The second weekend of July would bring with it the Winnipeg Folk Festival, four days and nights of musical discovery and connection under the big sky at Birds Hill Park.

Back in the city, the Exchange District would soon be wallpapered with colourful flyers, heralding the arrival of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival and hundreds of theatre artists from around the world.

And then, as the August heat set in heavy, community centres all over the city would be transformed into lively pavilions, each celebrating different cultures during the two-week run of Folklorama.

But this, of course, is not a normal year. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has pressed pause on festival season.

There will be no revelry at Selo Ukraina or Birds Hill Park this year, no swapping of beer-tent recommendations at fringe.

No paper plates piled high with cabbage or spring rolls at Folklorama, no Bhangra dances or taekwondo demonstrations set to K-pop.

The cancellations, as they were announced over the spring, were one heartbreak after another — especially in a city that’s plunged into cold and darkness for half the year. The promise of festival season is what gets many of us through.

And it’s not just the artists we won’t get to see or discover; we’re also mourning the temporary communities these events create among people who only see each other once a year — or never again.

We’re mourning that moment when the lights go down before the first note rings out, the act of experiencing something fleeting, something that won’t exist again in exactly the same way, together.

Rain or shine, Countryfest fans are always out in full force. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Instead, just a stretch of unfilled calendar days, a blank space where summer used to be.

Also, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. As a longtime denizen of the Free Press’s Arts & Life team, festival season has always meant working a lot — and not without some minor complaint (yes, I know, it’s “fun,” I don’t work in a salt mine, etc. But look: trying to accurately capture Bonnie Raitt’s set to deadline while mosquitoes fly into your mouth, or agonizing over how many stars to give an earnest but ultimately not very good one-person show isn’t without its challenges).

Jenny Lewis performs at the folk fest in 2015. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

When 2014 was dedicated The Year of Music in Winnipeg, I will confess that I silently wished, in an exhausted haze, for a Year of Nothing.

Well, here it is, the Year of Nothing. And it sucks. Not having any festivals to cover is much, much worse than having too many festivals to cover.

Even the stressful memories are good, in retrospect. In 2014, I was dispatched to cover Countryfest — and it rained the entire time. I’m not talking a sprinkle. I’m talking a torrential and relentless downpour that threatened to derail the whole weekend. Former Free Press photographer Boris Minkevich and I became an unintentional comedy duo in the pit, as I, a five-foot-four woman, attempted to hold an umbrella for him, a six-foot-seven man. I learned that Countryfest fans are just as community-minded as folk fest fans — shout out to the young woman who offered me a straight-from-the-bottle shot of grape Sourpuss at 1:45 in the afternoon — and that truly anything can be used as a beer receptacle. Or a raft.

I have been dazzled by too many folk fest performances to count in such a small space, but Jenny Lewis, Courtney Barnett, Jeff Tweedy and Aimee Mann rate high among them. I was there when ukulele hero Jake Shimabukuro managed to blow the speakers — with a ukulele — and I was there when a Prairie thunderstorm whipped through and sent Wilco packing. I was there to witness how a village steps up to care for the roving toddlers, cheeks streaked with sugar from Whales Tails, chasing iridescent bubbles.

Young and old share in the unique experience that is the Winnipeg Folk Festival. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

I was there for St. Vincent’s transcendent set at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival. I was there, laughing and crying in darkened theatres alongside my fellow Winnipeggers at fringe while theatre artists broke all kinds of barriers. I was there, at the Greek Pavilion, bonding over white wine with a group of senior ladies who’d come up from North Dakota on a bus tour.

I was there. We were there.

Many festivals are pivoting this year, offering smaller, virtual versions — festival season at home. It’s a snack, to tide us over for when we can gorge ourselves on live events whenever it’s safe to gather and share an experience again. (By the way, when we get back — because we will get back — thank all the volunteers whose passion makes these festivals, and all the other festivals I didn’t mention, possible.)

“In today’s world of fear and unease and social distancing, it’s hard to imagine sharing experiences like these ever again,” Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl wrote in his own elegy for festivals in the Atlantic. “I don’t know when it will be safe to return to singing arm in arm at the top of our lungs, hearts racing, bodies moving, souls bursting with life.

Dancers take the stage at the Chilean Pavilion during last year's Folklorama. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re human.”

That’s exactly how I feel about festival season. We will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re Winnipeggers.

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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