The National Folk Festival is five days in a perfect world

Preparing for its 53rd birthday, the National Folk Festival is set to plunge fans into a dazzling realm, offering a diverse series of concerts and immersive entertainment. 

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‘‘It’s an experience beyond a concert,’’ director Pam Merrigan explains. ‘‘There’s a vibrant streetscape roving with performers, participatory activities, themed bars and music.’’ 

Sprawling across Exhibition Park in Canberra, the National Folk Festival will transform the space into a purpose-built village, with the stages and campground pulsating with wonderment. ‘‘We call it five days in a perfect world.’’

The National Folk Festival is the longest running festival of its type, and it sure knows how to put on a show. ‘‘It started in 1967, and used to travel from state to state, before permanently moving to its current home.’’ As a fully established festival, it has built up a momentum of core followers that annually add it to their calendars. ‘‘If I can get people to experience the festival just once – they’ll come back. It gets under peoples skin.’’ 

What makes the National Folk Festival a stand out event is its ability to submerge and involve those who attend. ‘‘The nature of the festival is inclusion. It’s one of the few events where patrons can find a way to interact with the artists,’’ Merrigan says. 

‘‘A lot of performers jam into the night … and patrons can join in either as spectators or play musical instruments. This doesn’t happen at other events around the world, and is something other festivals are trying to emulate.’’ 

Folk embodies the inclusive attitude the festival successfully creates, fusing styles together and expanding how music and culture is understood. 

‘‘Folk embraces a lot of different genres,” Merrigan explains. “It’s not specific and I try and open up the great diversity of [the genre]. It is influenced by traditions, which are part of what it does, but it is also an expression of contemporary society. People want to hear the bands and experience that, but also have the opportunity to make their own music.’’ 

Across the festival’s 20 venues, attendees can get involved in an array of activities ranging from community arts workshops to daily Zumba classes, and poetry slams, all within the close proximity of the bustling village. 

Integrating over 750 concerts into its program, the National Folk Festival offers a scope like no other, causing a contagious hype that spreads throughout the site. 

‘‘A lot of the acts we book are big overseas, but because they don’t get to tour here you get some that aren’t as well known,” Merrigan says. “In the six years I have been running the program, you notice a buzz spreads through the festival … ‘Have you seen this act?’ ‘Did you hear that?’ As artists grab the attention of audiences, their next performance becoming bigger than their last.’’ 

With more acts still to be announced, the current lineup gives a glimpse of the festival’s calibre. ‘‘Every artist has a quirk that sets them apart.’’ 

Pam describes some acts she is personally looking forward to, which fans should not miss. ‘‘Irish Mythen is an artist I have been desperately trying to get for years. Her stage presence is fantastic as she sets up a wonderful rapport with the audience and expresses themes of our contemporary society. She is a real folk troubadour.’’ 

Other acts causing anticipation to bubble are festival favourites Nancy Kerr and James Fagan as well as Freya Josephine Hollick. ‘‘Freya Hollick is an emerging artist that came onto my radar,” Merrigan says. “I think she is going to be a real drawcard for the festival, and one of those artists who will cause a [real] buzz.’’ 

Hollick has been busy year in 2018, releasing her new album Feral Fusion and explains the oft-overlooked importance of the folk genre.

“Folk music sometimes gets a bad rap, but none of what I do, or any other artist regardless of genre does, would be possible without the folk music of countries across the world,” Hollick explains. “Without American, Celtic, French and African folk music we would have no Bob Dylan or Dolly Parton, and without them so much of contemporary pop music wouldn’t exist.”

Hollick will share the stage with other names such as The Exciting! McGillicuddies, Candice McLeod, The Dorsal Fins and The Praashekh Quartet, just to name a few. 

The National Folk Festival is on over the Easter long weekend from Thursday April 18 to Monday April 22 at Canberra’s Exhibition Park. Tickets are on sale now from the festival’s website.