It’s the 50th anniversary of the Northwest Folklife Festival this Memorial Day weekend. Things have changed a lot over the past half-century. But they also haven’t. Just look at the photos.
“We have quite a few from 1972, and it’s odd how familiar they are in the style, even the hairstyles,” said Kelli Faryar, Folklife’s executive artistic director.
“It doesn’t actually seem that different,” added Reese Tanimura, Folklife’s managing director. “The styles have come back around and it’s people gathering. And, actually, I feel like looking back, they had a fairly diverse representation of cultures at that first festival as well, so that’s sort of an important thing to notice — that the communities that have been here have been here for a long time, and they’ve been involved for the duration.”
“For sure, generations of families,” Faryar said.
Things may look the same here in 2021, but a lot has indeed evolved since that first festival, which drew 300 people. For perspective, the last in-person festival in 2019 drew more than 250,000.
Like last year, Northwest Folklife — which celebrates the arts, cultures and traditions of Northwest communities — again will be held virtually this year, Friday through Sunday, May 28-31, at nwfolklife.org. Though society has begun to open up, festival organizers made the decision late last year to keep things virtual in 2021, perhaps surmising how difficult our dismount would be as we navigate out of the pandemic. And there probably always will be a virtual component going forward after some 40,000 visitors from 86 countries tuned in last year during the first virtual event.
“That to us was a whole new audience,” Faryar said. “All of a sudden the festival is extremely available no matter where you are in the world. And that was just a moment of when we imagined what the next 50 will look like. It will be hard to not include that worldwide audience that came in through 2020’s experience.”
The 2020 experience was something on the verge of frantic for organizers. Over time, long-running festivals gain a rhythm with the same people performing the same jobs in the same way year after year. But as you’ll recall, we went into lockdown a little more than two months before the 49th edition, held annually at Seattle Center.
Naively, Faryar joked, they asked how hard could it be to air videos with a host?
“But it is a lot more challenging, and perhaps it’s because it’s still so completely new to us,” Faryar said. “I think we’ve been able to really adapt and evolve to bring the festival to this digital platform. But the physical festival, there was just many, many years of, ‘This is how it works,’ and knowing who’s doing what. And for the artists, too: ‘I’m going to bring my guitar and that’s it, I’m good to go.’ And now we’re talking a bit more about how to place your iPhone in the correct light. It’s very, very different.”
Last year, festival organizers largely relied on artists supplying videos and other content for the livestream (though there were some innovative moves like a participatory dance via livestream). This year, with the advantage of months to plan instead of weeks, they took the opportunity to create their own content, recorded at places like Seattle Center’s Broad Street Green, Pier 62, the Duwamish Longhouse and The Center for Wooden Boats, to mix with that submitted by artists.
Programming will air on six channels on the Folklife website, including a participatory channel with dances and workshops, an on-demand channel and one with 50th-anniversary content that will include town-hall-style discussions as well as live and prerecorded performances.
In addition, there will be a virtual marketplace and a treasure trove of historical and archival content, including an archive of posters and a festival timeline.
Tanimura said while everyone hoped to gather together in person this year, there are still so many questions that many may have stayed away. The virtual festival allows us to connect at a time when it’s still very hard to do so.
“This digital presentation sort of showed the stretching reach that an old analog organization can have and the boundaries that you can cross,” Tanimura said. “A lot of folks had families in those countries and were telling them, ‘Tune in and you can see what we do here, up in the Pacific Northwest.’ And so that sort of provides this interesting connection at a time when it’s really hard, when folks are feeling disconnected and siloed.”