Ten weeks and counting
Folk on the rocks celebrates 20 years

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 12/00) - After a rocky start, Folk on the Rocks organizers will be moving mountains to make the 20th anniversary music festival a success.

Christopher Foreman, hired in January as festival director, resigned for personal reasons. But after a bit of scrambling, a replacement was found.

Mike Yakabuski -- a former Northerner returning from a hiatus in Ontario -- will take over the reins.

"I came up North in '86 to work as the recreation co-ordinator in Rae-Edzo. And I also worked in Fort Simpson till about '91 or '92 with MACA (Municipal and Community Affairs), sport and recreation, as the recreation officer for GNWT working out of Fort Simpson with the Deh Cho communities, Fort Liard, Wrigley, Jean Marie River Nahanni Butte. Then I left the North from that time till about now," Yakabuski says.

The new festival director returned North for personal reasons.

"And the job fell into the type of work that I'm trained for ... a special event, organizational type of job," he says.

Yakabuski says starting work on the festival a mere 10 weeks before the festival weekend, which will be held July 14-16 at the Long Lake site, is somewhat daunting.

"In some ways we are thrown into the fire. We're lucky that we had some funding come through for some support staff. Melanie Bryant started as assistant director just over the past week. And we have a volunteer co-ordinator (Natasha McCagg) that's coming on board as of May 15."

"The whole board is thrilled that we have three individuals with some great skill sets to carry off the festival this year," says Folk on the Rocks president Shauna Yeomans, adding she was ecstatic things are coming together.

Yakabuski says there are many new things being done this year, both to celebrate the festival's anniversary and ensure its longevity.

"I think with the festival as a whole, if I can use some of the comments from our president Shauna Yeomans, what we're trying to do is secure it as a more long-term thing and help the festival grow."

This year's headliners include Sharon and Bram for the kids; Kevin Quain and the Mad Bastards, a Celtic mariachi garage band; Connie Kaldor, who played at the very first festival; The Pinters from Newfoundland; the ever more popular Lucie Idlout from Iqaluit; and the Damnations TX from Austin, Texas.

Many more performers will be announced in the coming weeks.

On a nostalgic note, the program for this years Folk on the Rocks will include a pictorial history.

"(The program) will talk about the festival, from its early beginnings, performers from the past and people that were involved as well," says Yakabuski.

One of those first people was Rod Russell.

"Some Yellowknifers now think Rod Russell is a wizard," wrote Marina Devine in the festival's third-year program.

"It all looks very suspicious: here's a lanky, bearded individual, frequently seen in strange attire (at the very least mismatched socks), who lives out past the airport in a home faintly reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein's ... and who routinely pulls folk festivals out of thin air. He also juggles."

Russell worked his magic in 1980, when local folk musician/recording artist Ted Wesley couldn't quite get the festival off the ground.

"I think it's an extraordinary kind of testament of the resiliency of the community there that it's been sustained for so long," says Russell, who left Yellowknife for a round-the-world trip after the third festival wrapped up in '82.

Today he is part of a software development team in Vancouver, B.C.

"Things come and go, but if they resonate with the community and fill a need..."

Remembering the first year, Russell says it "was absolutely nuts."

"In fact I have very little recollection of the festival itself because I was so burned out. And I certainly wasn't the only one in that kind of condition."

Russell also remembers the festival had to earn the trust of the community.

"There was a community of people in town who understood exactly what we were trying to do and were a part of it, and who were enthusiastic about making it happen. But there were people in the community who really didn't have a clue what we were about. There was a large level of distrust.

"One of the important things that was accomplished that first year was really communicating to the community as a whole what this was about. That this wasn't a rock concert with whatever peoples' worst imaginations run wild. But once that initial misgiving was overcome, I think that was part of making it possible for it to endure for such a long time."

And as Devine wrote in the 1982 program:

"At 7:00 p.m., on June 20, 1980, Ted Wesley began the opening set of the first Folk on the Rocks music festival. A modest crowd, numbering perhaps a few hundred people suitably equipped with Muskol and bug-jackets, had assembled. As the evening, and the weekend, progressed that crowd grew to over a thousand..."

Last year, 3,000 people attended the three-day festival, which can still be described the way it was in the program:

"Take 200 enthusiastic volunteers, 100 mellow musicians, and about 1,000 appreciative listeners. Stir gently, and pour out over a million-year-old Precambrian rocks. Garnish with the Midnight Sun, and add a few mosquitoes for a truly Northern touch."