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Folk Alliance International to take folk music back to its activist roots

Folk singer Ani DiFranco will appear Friday, Feb. 17.
Folk singer Ani DiFranco will appear Friday, Feb. 17.

The theme of this year’s Folk Alliance International is “Forbidden Folk,” an idea that harkens back to the days when folk music was a voice of rebellion and activism.

The idea seems inspired by the current political landscape, but organizers came up with it in 2015, before the ensuing presidential election. Aengus Finnan, the alliance’s executive director, said the theme was chosen to awaken something in participants in ways previous conferences hadn’t. (“Planet Folk” and “Cultural Crossroads” were previous themes.)

“People left last year talking about how positive (the conference) was,” Finnan said. “I want that same level of energy, but I don’t care if people leave happy about this one. I’d like it to be the way you leave a good movie and you need some time after to think about it and really dig into it and you think, ‘What just happened? I got upset about … something.’ 

To that end, this week’s conference at the Westin Crown Center is presenting six Spirit of Folk awards to artists known for their activism, including Ramy Essam. He is the voice of the Arab Spring, whose song “Irhal” was called by Time Out magazine one of the “top three songs that changed history.” Essam, who was imprisoned and tortured for his activism, has been living in exile in Sweden since 2014.

The conference has also scheduled two speakers well-known for activism: Billy Bragg, a British singer/songwriter and avowed social activist; and folk singer Ani DiFranco.

Both of their speeches will be preceded by artist-in-residency programs that involve music and the penal system.

The first, before DiFranco’s speech on Friday, is a film that documents blues singer Rita Chiarelli’s visit this week to the Topeka Correctional Facility, where she organized a women’s choir.

The documentary was done by Mikal Shapiro, a Kansas City songwriter/musician and filmmaker.

“It challenged my assumptions of what I would be witnessing,” she said Monday night, after the first day of filming. “I didn’t know quite what to expect because I’d only seen the inside of prisons on the big screen or on television. The real deal is another whole story, and I want to document that other story.”

The second program will be a performance by Kansas City Latin rock band Making Movies, who composed music to accompany the reading of a poem by Kansas City police officer Octavio “Chato” Villalobos. The poem, “Brown Eyes in Blues,” addresses Villalobos’ role as a cop in Kansas City’s Latino community: “My job is my love, though my soul screams ‘how could you?’/Why can’t I be appreciated for all that I am giving?/Why am I so proud to get shot at and spit on for a living?”

“We were already friends with Chato,” said Enrique Chi, the band’s guitarist and lead singer. “He’s a big fan of the band, and we’re a big fan of Chato, so pairing him with us was natural and easy.”

For some music inspiration, Chi and his brother, Diego, spent a day at the Lansing Correctional Facility, a deeply affecting experience.

“We wanted to figure out a way to avoid delving into a cheesy jazz-poetry kind of thing,” Enrique Chi said. “We wanted to create some unique way to convey the weight of the poem, which addresses the conflicts of being a police officer in the community he grew up with. He chose that role to help his community, but he is also making decisions that put people behind bars.”

At Lansing, he continued, they talked to an inmate who’d been there for 35 years.

“He must have done something really serious to be in there that long, but he was a real sweetheart, a human being who plays bass in a prison band. That kind of exchange brought out his human qualities: He made a horrible mistake, but he’s a human being, a man who loves music and works a job. It’s hard to explain, but experiencing that and recognizing what incarceration does to someone and what it takes from them was really heavy.”

By the time they visited the prison, Chi and his bandmates had already started composing music for the poem. The visit changed their approach.

“It made me push it into a darker and more experimental place, to try to capture more the weight of the system,” he said. “We tried to create some of the sounds of the environment. The metal doors shutting was a big inspiration. We’re trying to figure out how to re-create that sound. A proper drum set isn’t the right way.”

For Shapiro, making the film about a women’s prison choir changed her perspective on the power of music and its role in our lives.

“I was reminded of how music can effortlessly reach across divides,” she said. “People want to sing with each other. Like wolves howling at the moon — it’s communal and instinctual. In or out of jail, people are bound by their own constraints. Rita Chiarelli connects in such a direct and human way with the inmates through the music, we are all set free a little.”

Finnan said that folk music has strayed from addressing issues like the penal system and law enforcement, which often involve race, and it’s time to change that.

“It has absolutely been muted for quite some time,” he said.

“Sure, some artists have had their causes and done noble work speaking their mind and playing their part, but for the most part there seems to be a tendency to worry what the audience will think or bristle at having paid to hear. Consequently, an independent artist who is just trying to pay the bills and figure out how to maintain an audience can default to a less probing narrative in their work and show.

“Yet, some of the more successful artists are those who simply light their trust ablaze for all to see and be warmed by.”

Chi said the prevailing political and social climate has inspired the band to express its views on certain issues.

He mentioned a tribe in his native Panama, a tribe in which political and spiritual leaders have to be singers.

“I thought that was a beautiful concept: People who create laws must have a music sensibility,” he said. “It inspired me years ago to realize that if I’m going to be in front of people, I should have a social sensibility and try to provide something more than just entertainment.

“The album we are getting ready to release in May was already in that wavelength, but as the last year or so unfolded, it made us want to sharpen our message and make it more clear. The message we feel most aligned to is the concept that everyone is an immigrant. It’s not just an American thing. Anti-immigrant rhetoric and fear is the antithesis of what we think makes being alive special and beautiful.”

Finnan, who is also a musician and songwriter, hopes the “Forbidden Folk” theme awakens in more folk musicians the recognition of music’s potency and its power to effect change.

“Folk music, as the music of the people, has an intimacy unlike other genres. It is up close and personal, literally nothing between the artist and audience at time, so it can be an intense delivery mechanism,” he said.

“I think that as a community there could be more solidarity and impact if we started to re-embrace some of the activist roots of our musical forebears, including Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and countless others who didn’t shirk from saying it like it was or expressing how they felt.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Kansas City Folk Festival

Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Westin Crown Center

Rise Up Singing, an unconventional “all-faiths sing-along,” will jumpstart the festival on Sunday morning at the Westin Crown Center. More than two dozen performances by musicians from Kansas City and around the globe will take place on six stages during the seven-hour celebration that concludes the annual Folk Alliance International conference. British troubadour Billy Bragg, octogenarian blues man Bobby Rush and Kansas City rock band Making Movies are among the participants.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19. Westin Crown Center. 816-221-3655. $30 in advance.

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