I spent the weekend at the Folk Music Ontario conference near Toronto’s Pearson Airport—along with about seven hundred and fifty of my closest friends, colleagues, fellow artists, supporters of music, and believers in a better world,
FMO, as we call it, is as much an idea, or a sense of place, as it is an annual event.
Imagine a temporary village cheerfully crammed into an airport hotel. Every corner of the place bustles with conversation, connection, and creativity. Fiddles and accordions, ukuleles and mandolins, banjos, basses and guitars are brought to life in a wild harvest festival of song and dance. Artists, bookers, promoters, volunteers, funders, and organizers mingle. Our particular goals and stories may differ, but in general we are believers in the power of music to unite, to empower, and to enlighten.
These are people who have committed to creative expression, the sharing of culture, and the creation of inclusive spaces. Some are shaggy sweaty smokey banjo players. Some are wistful singers of traditional ballads. Some rock out to big blues riffs and some conjure angels with heavenly harmonies. Some rap, some loop, some shout, some recite, some scream and some whistle. If I’m not mistaken a few of us even yodel.
Some carry briefcases and sweat over financial statements so that others can make the music. Some speak legalese while some drawl in a country twang. Some have deep pockets; some are damn near broke. Some swim through bureaucracy so that tenderhearted mystics can find funding to make beauty. Some have worked to find ways to be delightfully different and some have struggled terribly just to try to fit in.
Many have known great suffering. Many have known great privilege. As a group we have worked to recognize that, to appreciate that we are not disenfranchised because of activist leanings or social democratic principles or just plain sensitive spirits. We have worked to accept that working in musical forms largely unsupported by industry and popular taste does not make us helpless.
The difficulties that we endure in making music, building audiences, fostering dialogue, and creating communities are not a sign that we are weak—especially when we are so evidently thriving. The pure unbridled expression of hundreds of people raising their voices in a glad cacophony reminds us just how strong we are at heart. The work we are doing with our showcases, our awards, our dialogue with other groups and our continual reshaping of our bylaws, policies and practices shows both humility and courage. We begin to recognize that we—yes, we who might have seen ourselves as marginal, overlooked, or unsupported—have the privilege of opening doors for others.
It was a gathering of inherently hopeful people, people who empower themselves by working toward what they would like to see in the world.
Around us, the planes took off and landed at Pearson airport like so many mighty birds; the expressways of Toronto crawled with the traffic of our urban sprawl. On the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee people—until a generation ago the finest farmland in Canada—not even a blade of wild grass can be seen for miles; only concrete, asphalt, buildings and bright lights. Somewhere to the south, Lake Ontario shimmers, almost forgotten.
The nearby strip is dotted with international style hotels specializing in distinctive sameness. High-rise buildings and chain restaurants run chockablock.
On Saturday night, down the street just a little ways, our current Prime Minister desperately rallied with his allies, the disgraced former mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, his brother and the ranks of so-called Ford Nation. A crew of musicians from among our ranks boarded buses to the scene, joyously exercising the privilege of peaceful public protest.
Meanwhile, in the restaurant right next door, two men were shot, one fatally. Bullets littered the parking lot. The police locked down the Lone Star restaurant and surveyed the grisly scene as the music played on into the night. The TVs behind the hotel bar showed the surreal spectacle of a deadly crime scene, right on our doorsteps. We struggled to speak to what had happened, horrified by the suddenness, the closeness. Some of our own friends responded first after the shots rang out. Any of us might have been killed by a stray bullet.
How might such a thing happen, and how could it happen in the vicinity of such unbridled joy? The obvious response was that they were strangers to us, both the victims and the murderers. Maybe it was a gang thing, or a mob thing. These men were not banjo players, not arts presenters. Not hopeful activists holding signs aloft. Not, we might speculate, members of our village.
Except, of course, that they are. That’s what we’ve been talking about. That’s what we’re working to do, is to open that circle in which we feel so cherished, so honoured. We are not on the edge. A bastion is not an option. We who live with love among us, who have the privilege of mutual support and belief, and the honour of creative gifts, we who have the vision of diversity and inclusion… we have to understand that this community was not made up to exclude, any more than to be excluded.
So we must hold in our hearts those who have been wounded, killed. And those who have killed—what desperate lives led them to brutality? What was their village?
Widening the circle, we embrace those who have lost territory to farms, and those who lost farms to runways and roadways, and those who travel on them. Those who have sought to divide us with hatred and those who have sought to unite us with love. These too will be brought into the circle because we have no other option; there is nowhere we can go other than this Earth, and no one we can share it with except all of us and all of Creation.
I stayed up late all weekend, shunning sleep, swigging beer, making music, hearing songs, sharing stories, hugging friends. It was one hell of a party. It was also one heaven of a righteous effort, and it doesn’t stop there. “Bring it home with you,” we sometimes sing as our gatherings draw to a close, and we prepare to go onward into the world at large. Bring it home with you.
Tomorrow is election day in Canada. Let’s bring it home with us.