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Mining The Country's Musical Motherlode At The Montana Folk Festival

Derek Pruitt
New Orleans's Stooges Brass Band leads a second line parade around the Original Stage to kick off the 2014 Montana Folk Festival.

One of the largest free music and folklife festivals in the Northwest whirls into uptown Butte this weekend. 2016 marks the sixth annual Montana Folk Festival, an eclectic outdoor confluence of traditional arts and culture born from the three-year stint of the 70th - 72nd National Folk Festivals in Butte, 2008-2010.

Friday through Sunday evenings, July 8-10, the sights and sounds of this convergence of music, folklife, art, and food are sure to be mesmerizing. The experience of walking (or riding) up and down the hill, watching the crowds - and the weather - smelling the food, and hearing the music seems to transform this section of the nation's largest National Historic Landmark district into The Richest Sensory Hill on Earth.

You can dance for hour after hour at the dance pavilion, frolic with kids at the family stage, answer your "How DO they make that, anyway?" questions at demonstrations in the Montana Folklife area, or browse arts and crafts at the festival marketplaces.

The food courts, like everything else, represent cultural traditions from across Montana and the country.

From the grounds of The Original Stage, the magnificent vista puts on its own show.  (Place bets with your friends on how often the performers at The Original will pause between numbers to gaze into the distance and proclaim it the most beautiful concert setting anywhere.)

The Original Stage during the 2016 Montana Folk Festival.
Credit Michael Marsolek

But the breadth and organic vitality of the music is what makes this festival unlike any in Montana. Here's a preview of a scintillating handful of the nearly two dozen music and dance groups performing at this year's festival.

De Temps Antan ("from times long ago") is a Québécois "super-trio," comprised of three former members of the long-lived and much-beloved group, La Bottine Souriante. Éric Beaudry, André Brunet and Pierre-Luc Dupuis apply "uncontrolled laughter, deep-rooted couplets and sudden, impromptu shifts" to the irresistible “tac-tic-a tac,” stomp-happy traditional music of Québéc.

“The cimarrón is the bull that knows no rope, corral, nor iron, the steer that has not been lassoed nor branded and ranges free on the savannas and surrounding forests. That concept always struck me; nothing can be closer to the creative spirit that constitutes the essence of plains music, than that feeling of freedom.”— Carlos Rojas, leader of Grupo Cimarrón

He could be describing Montana. Harpist Carlos Rojas leads Grupo Cimarron, a contemporary música llanera outfit of harpists, guitarists, singers, dancers and percussionists from the cattle country of Colombia's Orinoco plains. Their joropo songs feature distinctively fast picking and syncopation, dancing and exuberent singing.


Combine a Hawaiian lap steel guitar, a sitar, and a veena. You've got something approximating the series of guitars created by Debashish Bhattacharya, the extraordinary Hindustani slide guitar player. In his hands, the instrument simultaneously sings, drones and accompanies the many collaborators who have eagerly sought him out.  Here, Bhattacharya is joined by his daughter, Anandi Bhattacharya, on vocals and his brother, Subhasis Bhattacharjee, on tabla.


The Cree and Salish singer Fawn Wood's music reflects this year's festival theme, "Native Voices: The Varied Expressions of Montana's Native Peoples and their influence on the Heritage of Montana." https://youtu.be/tRY3X_vqLoc" target="_blank">Gary Small, Northern Cheyenne guitarist, songwriter, singer and bandleader (and Nammy award-winner) shares insightful songs, illustrating them through powerful Santana-esqe guitar playing.

The name "Michael Doucet et BeauSoleil" is more or less synonymous with "laissez les bon temps rouler." What's not to love about a https://youtu.be/xpct_HTgAaM" target="_blank">trio version of the best-known Cajun band in the country?

The Montana Folk Festival is a free event, providing access for all to participate together with no financial barrier.  Staying admission-free is a strategy to create the most inclusive, wide-reaching arts experiences for people of all ages and cultural backgrounds in the region. Of course, the festival is not free to put on, so you're sure to see volunteers carrying buckets, encouraging you to "pony up" your donations.

If the idea of honoring living traditions of ethnic and folk music and culture from across the multicultural United States sounds stuffy, you're in for a https://youtu.be/JbqPyF513pg" target="_blank">surprise - or maybe a fresh surprise every hour. Tradition doesn't exclude innovation. While the musicians booked for the festival with the help of the National Council for the Traditional Arts are considered preeminent within their genre - many have been nominated for (or won) Grammy awards, or been honored as NEA National Heritage Fellows - they're also seasoned performers (even the twelve-year-old Fiddlin' Carson Peters) who know how to engage an audience.

At any given time over the weekend, as those endearingly diverse sounds zing at one another across uptown Butte, the eclectic nature of the festival belies a unifying zeitgeist that's present on all six stages. The artists here share a "love of the game" passion for the music they play and the traditions they live and breathe -  whether it's onstage for pay, or in the kitchen or the backyard for fun. For them, ultimately, it's all about presenting arts and culture as a way of life.

Montana Public Radio is proud to be a media partner with the Montana Folk Festival. MTPR's Michael Marsolek will be enjoying the music, introducing some of the acts, and as always, talking with listeners. We hope to see you there!

Get a good photo at the festival? Share it with us and we'll add it to our photo album. Tag @mtpublicradio on Facebook, twitter, or Instagram, or email us at contact@mtpr.org with MTFolkFest in the subject line.

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