7/25/2013 - The word “folk” is a kind of Rorschach test. Depending on who’s asked, it can suggest a Putumayo CD on a Starbucks counter, Sing Out! magazine or the Blue Ridge Mountains. Few, however, think of break dancing or a Dominican carnival parade, but both are represented in this year’s Lowell Folk Festival lineup.
Held over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, July 26 through July 28, the event presents talent drawn from all over the world, and some from right in the region’s back yard. All perform on multiple stages in Lowell’s downtown Boarding House Park. Admission is free, thus offering the curious a chance to discover new, unexpected delights.
To be sure, plenty of the kinds of performers one associates with the 25-year-old festival, like balladeer Sheila Kay Adams and the bluegrass band Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, are included. But a wider array of cultural traditions is reflected — even those being born right now.
Distances collapse; cultures collide and a mass hybridization occurs, one event organizer said.
“There has been this thought — ‘These things go back hundreds of years' — but traditions are created as people come in contact with one another,” festival spokesman Phil Lupsiewicz said by telephone recently. “Break dancing is something that on the face of it people might say, ‘That's not folk.’ But it is; it’s really a generational thing. You see more of these hybrids coming out in the world today.”
By looking to urban centers, circus culture and other unlikely places, the festival challenges the notion of what “folk” is while helping a new generation become aware of the traditions it is building right now, perhaps even unbeknownst to it.
“People don't want to use that word, yet so much of what's going on today is in that category,” said Lupsiewicz. “There’s this blending, and really creative things are coming out. The great thing is that we've been doing a few of these things over the past couple of years and it’s let the audience see that it’s not one thing; it doesn’t need to be categorized.”
Lupsiewicz has worked with the festival for 17 years, serving in his present position for the past eight.
“In that time period our producing partners have come together [and] it’s been a real experience working with the different groups,” he said. “We have created the marketing committee, so there's no one person who takes the lead [and] we all bring different strengths. That, I think, has really worked out very well.”
Modern technology is in the mix. Mobile phone users can better experience the festival using a web app that organizes the event into categories. With 21 performers each appearing multiple times in a variety of locations — even in the street — the ability to build a personal calendar is handy. Missed Jesse Lége and Joel Savoy’s Cajun music performance on Saturday night? A quick glance at the app locates a Sunday afternoon set.
With Lupsiewicz’s many years of service, one might expect him to have a favorite act, but he professes to be a fan of everything offered at the festival. Further, he says, his favorite moment isn’t really musical.
“I get excited at 2 o’clock on Saturday,” he said. “Because that’s when the festival is long underway, all the stages are up, people are out — I can actually sit back and say, ‘Yes, I had something to do with this.’ … They're not coming to see anything I did, but I helped get the word out. That gives me great satisfaction.”