Anyone can make music, and at Folklife, they do. Throughout the Seattle Center grounds this weekend, at least one rhythm moved through the crowd: Rhythm tents, freestyle beatboxing, and impromptu drum circles appeared out of nowhere.
This year's 37th Northwest Folklife Festival outlined very specific guidelines governing where street performances could entertain, as well as crowd control tips, a sound limit of 85 decibels, a long list of don'ts for equipment, and a permit required to sell CDs. Despite these regulations, Folklife annually attracts a multitude of unusual petitioners, musicians, and characters that are the unsung essence of the festival. I mingled with (well, was crushed by) the crowds in an effort to find the best, the weirdest, and the answer to the question, Why do people come back to Folklife year after year?
A quintet of barefoot men dressed in animal skins used traditional African congas, gourd shakers, wood blocks, and other percussion to beat out a danceable beat for the assembling crowd. A bluegrass group parked in front of an ATM played their washboard, banjo, guitar, and gutbucket in a way that would make Louisiana Bayou natives proud. Groups playing combinations of guitars, harmonicas, violins, panflutes, saxophones, Hindustani sitars, Chinese stringed huqins, and drums played simply to have fun and make music, seemingly unaware of the coin-filled music case in front of the crowd. The enthusiasm of the performers was infectious, giving way to frenzied dance circles of dreadlocked teenagers and fanny pack-toting soccer moms alike.
Playing the most unusual instrument, as tall as a grown man, a musician manipulated the vibrations of copper wires with a bow. Several lengths of wire were strung vertically against a hollow metal sphere to amplify the sound. The performer, a man attired in tiger print, used a bow to create sounds similar to a wet finger on the rim of a crystal wine glass.
It's easy to attend Northwest Folklife and not see one of the 650-plus acts on any of the thirteen stages. The atmosphere alone attracts all sorts of people, which makes it an excellent venue to spread a message to the masses. People adorned in red, white, and blue urge the crowd to register to vote and make their voices heard. Christians with banners list off the saving graces of Jesus and the sins that will send you straight to damnation. A bearded man in sandals passing out leaflets asked me to volunteer for Hempfest and asked if I'd heard about Virginia Mason's discrimination against medical marijuana users.
But the most inspirational message was the self-dubbed Free Hugs Guy. The Free Hugs movement began in Australia as one man's quest to make strangers, and himself, feel good. No strings attached, nothing to be worried about, and not a joke — just a free hug to anyone who wants one. The Free Hugs Guy said he was an official member of the campaign, and came to Folklife because there were a large number of strangers who could use a hug. This got me thinking; why do so many people, faced with the limitless competition from SIFF and Sasquatch, come to Folklife?
The answers to this question are as varied as Folklife attendees themselves. A young teenager in highlighter-colored accessories looked at his friends for support, grasping for the "correct" answer, and then said, "I've been coming to Folklife for as long as I can remember. I guess I keep coming back for the atmosphere, and the people. Folklife attracts the best kinds of people from Seattle." Yes, but what kinds of people are those? I see every possible age, race, and style of person imaginable.
A shirtless twentysomething man with pierced nipples overhears my question and answers: "Hackeysack, man. I come for the hackeysack." He holds one up. "People will always walk up to you and join you. If you had asked me the same question ten years ago, I would have answered exactly the same." Now we're getting somewhere — an unchanging, time-warped venue for Northwest natives to use their natural friendliness and familiarity to bond over their quirky interests. An elderly woman eating ice cream says she comes "for the variety of music from all over the world I wouldn't get a chance to hear otherwise. And, of course, the street performances."
As for me? I came to find people like her.