Here's What's Happening at the 2019 Folk Alliance International Conference

Buffy Sainte Marie
Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs onstage at the 14th annual Americana Music Association Honors and Awards Show at the Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 16, 2015 in Nashville, Tenn.  

Starting Wednesday (Feb. 13) and for the next five days, almost 3000 delegates from 35 countries will take over nine ballrooms at Montreal's Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth hotel — famed location of the John Lennon-Yoko Ono bed-in 50 years ago — for the Folk Alliance International Conference. Next year it will be held in New Orleans, Jan. 22-26.

Three juries — Canadian, U.S. and international — selected the 180 "export-ready" artists, who will perform and network at this "amazing family reunion as an event," executive director Aengus Finnan tells Billboard.

The conference kicks off with the International Folk Music Awards tonight, and also includes the International Indigenous Music Summit, the Ethnomusicology Summit, and panels on "songs that ignite change" and "a call to decolonize folk music," for example. Buffy Sainte-Marie, who will receive the People's Voice Award, and John Kay with photographer Tom O'Neal, are doing feature interviews. Tanya Tagaq is delivering the keynote, with Lynn Miles heading the CommUNITY Gathering: Mental Health and the Music Industry.

"People have traveled from around the world to spent five days doing professional development and ultimately to find artists to work with, or as artists to find team members or festivals to be booked into," says Finnan.

That said, he spoke to Billboard to shed light on this genre that has a strict definition and yet no stylistic boundaries, as well as explain why the terminology "world music" is no longer acceptable — and how you can participate in the bed-in no matter where you live... even from the comfort of your own bed.

How wide-ranging are the styles? There are always grumblings when rock and hip-hop acts are on Bluesfest. Has yours expanded?

Unlike that, where there is a genre in the title like blues or jazz, at a folk festival you can have a blues artist followed by a bluegrass band, followed by a singer-songwriter. They are all folk in that they are the music of the people and a place. That banner of folk is less about a specific sound and more about an ethos and the tradition of storytelling for people and place. So folk music of Estonia is very different than the folk music of Columbia, just as the folk music of Nova Scotia is very different than the folk music of Alaska or the folk music of downtown New York is very different than the folk music of the Ozarks. There is a much broader range. Everything from Appalachian to bluegrass, Celtic, cajun, Indigenous, Latin, it really is quite large but, ultimately, it's acoustic in nature, must be based in tradition, although very contemporary, but there's an authenticity and a style of delivery that is universal.

Folk Alliance International also signed on to PRS Foundation's Keychange campaign to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022. How did you do this year?

Last year we hit the 50-50 goal, which is a 2022 goal under the Keychange initiative, so we met that goal last year with our official showcase programs. We committed to doing it with artists on stage, but also our MCs and our panelists across all the panels. That's a major milestone and long overdue. It's quite easy to do. There are so many incredible women working in this industry.

There have been festivals that say "We can't find enough great female or female-fronted acts" or "there aren't enough female executives for panels and keynotes." You've proven otherwise.

It's not that tough. It takes changing up the Rolodex and asking the question every time we go to do something. It's easy to default to what you know. It takes a bit more digging, but there are women across every aspect of the industry who are not just making inroads but have been leaders throughout their lives and trailblazers in the industry and field and plenty are following them who are incredible artists and industry representatives in their own right.

I took a photo myself just as we're setting up, our three production leads -- Jennifer Roe, Kylee Lambert and Mollie Stephens -- are all women and they're in charge of the entire male tech and sound team. It's three women leading the entire setup and production of this entire conference.

What is the focus of Tanya Tagaq's keynote speech?

The focus of her keynote is related to our theme through the entire program, the spirit of creativity. She'll be talking about, Why do we do this? Why do humans gather to hear an artist perform or to explore artists? Where do those ideas come from and how were they influenced? How does craft get developed? Where does spirituality intersect with the creative process? And, then, the counter to that -- what is the cost?

Another presentation that's being made at our Community Gathering this year is being led by Juno Award winner Lynn Miles. She will be talking about the darker side of the creative process and how many of the factors of a musician's life, or within the cultural sector, can lead to anxiety, depression, addiction. That's something that we need to have a collective conversation about. This mystique or misconception that an artist has to be tortured in order to create good work is really unfair to the art and to the artists themselves. What we need to do is look at that community support so that that's not the case.

What's in the Ethnomusicology Summit?

There are two summits this year. One is the Ethnomusicology Summit, that's being hosted by Smithsonian Folkways and the Society For Ethnomusicologists. That is to debate the colonial nature of the 'world music' term. 'World music' gets used to describe people from other places creating that music, which really is an 'us and them' colonial view. If you use that same paradigm, if you live in Colombia or Madagascar, and you are singing the folk music of that country, well then bluegrass is world music. So their discussion will be around a more universal and inclusive approach to terminology to refer to the folk music of various countries.

The other is the International Indigenous Music Summit.

All of the indigenous programming this year is the culmination of five years' worth of programming, showcasing and a panel development. It's independently produced and it's 100 percent indigenous-led and it's for indigenous artists and industry. That's not a panel that people drop into to learn about programming indigenous artist; this is really a day-long international meeting of indigenous artists and the industry to talk about the challenges and successes, but also the state of the field for indigenous artists within the music industry, and ideally for recommendations to come out that Folk Alliance can learn from and the music industry at large can reflect on.

John Kay of Steppenwolf and photographer Tom O'Neal, together, are the feature interview. How do they fit into a folk conference?

Tom O'Neal did a lot of different album covers, including the Mamas and the Papas and worked with John Kay and Steppenwolf. What's exciting there is John grew up in the Yorkville scene [famed one-time folk district in Toronto] and blues was his music. He was there in the early days when Buffy Sainte-Marie was first coming through singing "Universal Solider" for the first time. His roots are in that acoustic and blues realm. Obviously, his career took him into a completely different sonic direction, but not unlike John Oates of Hall & Oates, who last year was one of our guest artists, he had been a folk singer and was inspired by blues music back in his early days, long before he became part of that pop duo. But what's fascinating is to see these legends and senior artists coming back into this space and revealing their roots and returning to that more acoustic tradition.

Who are some of the other folk acts performing at the conference that you're excited about?

To me, what's exciting are a lot of the artists that people may not have ever heard of and will never forget once they see them. One of those bands is from Estonia and they're called Trad.Attack! if I had to pluck one artist as an example of the renaissance in the folk music world. Because this is not a revival. This is not a continuation of something from the '60s and '70s. There is a full-on renaissance underway across the world in terms of young artists that are taking tradition and, in this case with Trad.Attack! ancient folk songs from Estonia, bringing to it a real contemporary sound and approach in terms of appeal for multiple generations in terms of sonic access.

Perhaps coolest of all, you are re-staging the famed bed-In on Saturday morning.

That is the other exciting element of the conference. This marks the 50th anniversary year of John and Yoko Ono's bed-in and where they wrote and recorded "Give Peace A Chance" after multiple days of gathering politicians and media and thinkers to discuss peace. This year, on Saturday at 9:30 AM eastern, we will be live streaming the world's largest collective presentation of the song "Give Peace A Chance" with artists throughout the hotel in their own bedrooms, all live streaming their version from their beds. And then, obviously, we will have an official broadcast from the room itself and the bed in the bed location where the song was originally performed. Then we have artists and fans who have signed up from around the world to also live stream at the same time, no matter what time it is, from their beds as well. Everyone is using the hashtag #givefolksachance.

Who's going to be in the actual room?

We have a series of artists and we're waiting on word for a special guest. I can't confirm anyone who will be in the room, but we are going to have a "We Are The World" moment in terms of multiple artists and guests in the room at that time. There is also a panel specific to this. Jone E. Athey who has all of the rights to the photos from the bed-in will be leading that panel and showing an exclusive screening of the photos from the original bed-in. There's a book that has been printed in collaboration with the Fairmont.