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Fall Folk Festival marks its 20th year of performances

For 20 years, the Spokane Folklore Society has presented the annual Fall Folk Festival of traditional music, dance and arts reflecting the region’s diversity. 

The 2015 festival will be held Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14 and 15, at Spokane Community College, 1810 N. Greene.

Vicki Ball, Carla Carnegie, Dave Noble and Leone Peterson helped organize the first Fall Folk Festival in 1996 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane. Despite a severe ice storm then, it was one of the few places in town that had power.

In four years, the festival outgrew the church and moved to Glover Middle School, supported by a federal Lights On grant encouraging use of schools. Outgrowing that space in 2003, it moved to its current location, Spokane Community College. For its 10th anniversary in 2005, the festival expanded to two days.

Mary Naber was the festival coordinator for many years.  Sylvia Gobel has been festival director for 14 years. 

Both are involved because of their commitment to share the kind of cross-cultural experiences they gained from travel and living abroad, and from their appreciation of the intersection of culture with music, dance and arts.

The free festival draws about 5,000 people and features about 100 performing groups, representing Celtic, bluegrass, blues, African, Asian, European, Middle Eastern, and South American music, as well as other genres and cultures.

There are eight performance stages, 30 folk, traditional and ethnic craft vendors and artists, plus art workshops.

The main hallway becomes Music Jam Central with impromptu group performances and open sessions happening simultaneously.  Often participants just meet each other a few minutes before sitting down and pulling out their instruments to play together.

The Saturday schedule features a live KPBX Radio show.

A traditional New England Contra dance closes the festival on Saturday and Sunday.

Mary and Sylvia told how their lives have intersected with their commitment to the Fall Folk Fest.

Mary, a special education teacher, was chair from the first years until about 2003 when she went to Japan to teach for two years with Spokane’s Sister City program. 

Since returning in 2006, she has helped recruit about 300 volunteers—from a pool of 450—for fund raising, set-up, sound, check-in, cleanup and more.

Her interest in different cultures emerged growing up in Sonoma, Calif.  Her grandfather hired Mexican workers to help on his prune and grape farm.  She went into the fields with them, learned Spanish, and appreciated their foods, music and family life.

Her curiosity about Mexican cultures and other cultures grew from there.  After completing studies in math in the 1970s at San Jose State University, she taught English in Mexico.

She moved to Spokane in 1984 and earned a master’s degree in special education at Whitworth in 1995.  For 18 years, Mary taught children with learning disabilities and did behavior intervention for Spokane District 81.

When she first came to Spokane, however, she worked a while repairing IBM typewriters. 

After repairing the typewriter of the minister at the Spokane Buddhist Temple, she began attending.  Now she facilitates a meditation group there to promote calming the mind and positive thinking.  Noting that her favorite prayer is the prayer of St. Francis from her Catholic roots, she said, “If we did what our faiths taught, we would be better off.”

In 1994, she bicycled with Bike Africa for two weeks in Zimbabwe.  After teaching in Japan, she went two weeks with the group in Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya.

“I love culture.  I like to go to areas and see what the rest of the world is like,” she said.

Mary hopes that by presenting music, art, dance and songs from other cultures, people will gain appreciation of diverse ideas, rhythms and people.

Sylvia was library assistant for eight years with the Spokane Valley Public Library and since 1984 has worked at Spokane and Spokane Falls Community College libraries.  Her passion for folk cultures started in elementary and junior high school in Spokane when international folk dance was part of the schools’ physical education program.  At the time, the Silver Spurs were sponsored by the school district.  She enjoyed their concerts in the schools.

Sylvia attended Western Washington University, where she earned a degree in French in 1972.  She immersed herself in folk dance, which was popular in colleges then.  She took classes and participated in college and community groups.  During college summers, she encountered many foreign travelers, while working as a waitress at Yellowstone National Park, and wanted to visit their countries.

After graduating, she lived two and a half years in Europe, first in France, studying, living with families and tutoring their children in English, then in Finland and Norway.  She also lived a month with a family in Algeria.

Returning to Spokane in 1976, there was no community international folk dance group, so she traveled to Pullman to participate in their group. In 1980, the Silver Spurs’ new director, Cathy Dark, started a community folk dance group in Spokane and started Schastye, a performance group.  Sylvia joined it when it performed at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, which is held on Memorial Day weekends.  She performed in other folk dance groups and attended that festival every year.

She has traveled often, recently going on a folk dance tour of Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia.  Two years before, she went with the Unitarian Church to visit its sister church in Transylvania, Romania, and then to Budapest, Hungary.  She visited Mary for two weeks in Japan; a friend who was working in Peru, and relatives of friends in Greece.

“Understanding and appreciating other cultures helps us understand and appreciate our own culture.  Differences and similarities are fascinating,” she said.

“The most common feedback on the Fall Folk Festival is that people had no idea there were so many talented performers and artisans in Spokane,” Sylvia said.

Donations and $5 buttons sold at the festival help cover costs of about $20,000 for renting the space and sound equipment, and for security and publicity.

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Copyright © November 2015 - The Fig Tree