Celebrating the Artists (and Evading the Issues?)

Musical genres such as folk, blues, jazz, classical and world music, are in part valued by their supporters because they offer an alternative to the glut of musical distractions disseminated by the mainstream (i.e. monopoly capitalist) entertainment industry. Professional musicians and the enterprises that support them (recording companies, performance venues, festivals etc.), are driven to carve out niches for themselves in the competitive world of the cultural industries.

 One tactic is the genre-oriented award show, which provides recognition to artists and other players in a given segment of the music business. Whereas the mainstream Canadian music industry has been well-represented for decades by the glitzy JUNO awards, niche music awards are a relatively new phenomenon.

 Take the Canadian Folk Music Awards (CFMA) for example. The CFMA acknowledges that folk music takes on many forms and that contemporary artists are expanding the genre. It rightly aspires to recognize achievement in all the styles found within the multicultural world of Canadian folk and roots music.

 A glance at its sponsors provides an outline of the “industry.” Prominent among the patrons are the copyright collective SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada), two government-funded arts agencies (the Canada Council and FACTOR), and the inevitable bank (TD in this case). However, the initiative and driving force comes from several long-established non-profit folk festivals (Mariposa, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary), as well as the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, several folk clubs and music stores, a music magazine, an indy record company and a summer folk music and dance camp.  

 The CFMA’s seventh annual awards gala, held at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre on December 4th, was hosted by CBC radio personality Shelagh Rogers and Quebecois musician Benoit Bourque. The bilingual format was refreshing. Rogers and Bourque spoke their separate lines without translation and occasionaly slipped into good-natured ‘franglais’. Welcome too was their acknowledgement that the awards were being held on the traditional land of the Mississauga First Nation of Port Credit.

 The emcees oversaw the presentation of awards in 20 categories, and the event’s producers filled the spaces in-between with a talented lineup of performers. The full-house (about 400 people) was impressive when compared to Canda’s National Jazz Awards, which were last given out in 2009, and were cancelled largely due to poor attendance. Musicians gathered around the “folk and roots” banner appear to have more cohesion, perhaps because they reflect stronger elements of Canadian nationalism (with a multicultural twist) than in the jazz community.

 The selection of gala performers showed that organizers were attentive to regional and cultural diversity as well as artistic accomplishment. Veteran Vancouver blues singer Jim Byrnes and guitarist-producer Steve Dawson led things off with some down and dirty blues. Maritimes singer-songwriter Rose Cousins, like Byrnes a previous CFMA winner, held the audience spellbound with her mix of sad songs nicely offset by an engaging comic banter. Toronto’s African gospel acapella group Soul Influence impressed with its sophisticated arrangements and tight harmonies. Neo-traditional Quebecois ensemble De Temps Antan generated strong audience response with a game performance that transcended audio difficulties. Ever-popular Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt, accompanying herself on piano and harp, and joined by guitarist Brad Hughes and violinist Hugh Marsh, was entrusted with the finale.

 The big winners, with two CFMA’s each, were Nova Scotian Dave Gunning (Traditional Singer and New/Emerging Artist), whose songs frequently evoke working-class experience, Quebecois ensemble Genticorum (Ensemble of the Year and Traditional Album for Nagez Rameurs), and Canadian music icon Bruce Cockburn (Contemporary Soloist and Contemporary Album for Small Source of Comfort). Also noteworthy among the recipients was Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia (World Solo Artist for her album Am Zameen: Common Ground). In her acceptance speech Ahluwalia paid tribute to the contemporary multicultural folk festival. “I learned to play music in India,” she told the gala crowd, “but I learned to collaborate musically at the festivals in Canada, and to not be afraid of different styles and genres, to know that I had something to offer.”

 Amid all the congratulatory hoopla this observor was struck by the absence of a defining characteristic of the music in previous eras. Outspoken concern for social justice and opposition to militarism, as folk music historian Gary Cristall pointed out in his 2008 CBC Radio series “The People’s Music”, was an important feature of the music when it came of age in the Fifties and Sixties. Groups like The Travellers and The Milestones arose out of left-wing organizations and unions. Singers like Bonnie Dobson (“Morning Dew”) and Buffie Sainte-Marie (“Universal Soldier”) were passionately anti-militarist. Does the “people’s music” still exist in today’s folk and roots music community?

 In an age characterized by global economic and environmental crisis, attacks on the working-class, and unpopular imperial wars, but with growing protest including last Fall’s cross-Canada “occupy” movement, how is it that the annual awards ceremony of the “people’s music” fails to reflect the temper of our times? The Canadian folk music scene appears to be self-involved, perhaps a little complacent, even calculating, as if in fear of provoking the wrath of a right-wing federal government and jeopardizing the flow of its share of arts funding.  

 One award winner’s album did carry political overtones, but you wouldn’t have known it, because its aggressive political content was ignored at the ceremony: Bruce Cockburn’s “Small Source of Comfort.”  Canadians have been inspired by Cockburn’s political stands in the past – notably his 1980’s work that exposed the complicity of the IMF and World Bank in perpetuating underdevelopment, and the criminality of U.S.-sponsored counter-revolutions in Central America. It’s disappointing that this talented musician openly supports Canada’s role in the U.S.-NATO imperial war in Afghanistan.

 CFMA judges honoured an album with an instrumental piece called “Comets of Kandahar” that perversely likens a celestial phenomenon – historically replete with mythical portent – to the glowing tailpipe cones of NATO jet fighters in the evening sky. Another song, “Each One Lost,” displays a compassion for fallen Canadian soldiers that’s sullied by a chauvinistic declaration: “some would have us bow in bondage to their dreams of little gods who lay down laws to live by.” To this insult Cockburn condescendingly adds “all of these inventions arise from fear of love and open-hearted tolerance.”

 Cockburn’s pro-imperialist drift is a barometer of our current malaise. It reflects the contradictions within the contemporary Canadian peace movement as well as the opportunist drift of the NDP towards collusion with an aggressive military bloc that it had long (and rightly) opposed. There is urgent need for a nation-wide conversation about Canada’s commitment to the NATO war machine. Otherwise there will be many more ramp ceremonies for Canadian soldiers, not to mention countless grieving relatives of the victims of our firepower. A folk music community that reaffirmed its historic roots in the fight for peace and social justice would play a significant role in that conversation.

 Wally Brooker

 From People’s Voice – Feb 16-29, 2012

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