The inaugural “Harmony of Nations” Music Festival set out to unite artists and audience members from First Nation, Métis, Canadian, and American communities in a creative, musical environment—and that’s just what it did.
“Our goals were to work towards bringing together the four cultures and we did do that,” said event co-ordinator Shannon Darby.
“We did that from an organization point of view, in terms of getting volunteers, we did that with the musicians, and we did that from the audiences point of view, too,” she added.
Held Friday and Saturday under the big tent at the waterfront, the festival featured a solid lineup of highly-regarded musical entertainment by award-winning singer-songwriters and up-and-coming local stars—ranging from folk and bluegrass to country and rock.
Both days also are filled with vendor displays, community performances, and interactive artist workshops.
“Overall, I think that everyone’s pretty happy about it,” said Darby. “We view it as a success.”
“I am very happy with the quality of the musicians; the commitment and talent of the volunteers; and the audience response,” echoed Wanda Botsford, a member of the organizing committee.
“I thought it was an awesome weekend,” she added.
The headliners were Chad Brownlee, a country music singer/songwriter from Kelowna, B.C., and Canadian icon Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Then there are a number of featured artists, such as Sierra Noble, Shy-Anne Hovorka, Nick Sherman, Jean-Paul De Roover, and The Woodpicks.
Local performers included Alex Marusyk, Larissa Desrosiers, Percy Bird, Ben Sletmoen, Sandra Lori Allan, Jeremy Jordan, Jerome Tuesday, Mike McCaig, and the Sloughgrass Family Band.
“One of our other goals was getting local musicians involved in the performances and having youth involvement,” Darby noted, citing they had a lot of young people out at the workshops, as well as some young musicians who performed.
“We gave them an opportunity to share the stage with seasoned acts, such as Buffy Sainte-Marie or Chad Brownlee,” she said. “I think people were happy to see that diversity.”
Botsford noted there were many highlights throughout the event.
“Each of the performers were truly great in their own way,” she voiced, although she particularly enjoyed the workshop by Buffy Saint-Marie, called “A Multi-Media Life.”
But she also enjoyed seeing the exposure some of our local artists received.
“For example, big name musicians lined up at the stage door to shake local musician Ben Sletmoen’s hand and to tell him that they had never heard anyone play the bass guitar the way he does,” recalled Botsford.
“Sandra Allan’s song about the ‘Harmony of Nations,’ with the children ribbon dancing in the opening ceremony, was absolutely beautiful, and was a custom fit to the event,” she continued. “Larissa Desrosiers and all of the children singing with her, made many of us in the audience cry.”
While Darby indicated attendance on Friday was a bit lower then they had hoped, they were happy with the crowd that came out on Saturday.
“It’s a learning experience,” she conceded. “Friday was a work day, for one thing, so we saw more people coming out on Saturday . . . In terms of audience, the people that did come out were very enthusiastic. They were a great audience.
“Even if the audience was smaller for Chad Brownlee, they were lively and enthusiastic,” added Darby.
And Darby noted she has heard only positive comments from the artists.
“I heard, largely from our hospitality crew that was working with them that the performers were happy,” she expressed. “They were very impressed with how we got everything arranged in our first year.
“They were comfortable, happy and felt very welcomed by the Fort Frances community,” she voiced, citing there were lots of comments about how everyone was friendly and helpful and that things were well-organized at the festival.
“So that was a big plus for us in our first year,” she enthused. “Everything went fairly smoothly. There were a few hiccups, again learning experiences, but we were very fortunate.”
Darby was pleased the festival was able to offer the daytime workshops.
“When it comes to funding through grants, you get a lot of attention if you are able to incorporate education,” she explained, referring to why organizers chose to include workshops.
“Plus, in our area, we have less opportunity to take part in such events and workshops unless who are willing to travel to a bigger centre or bigger music festival,” reasoned Darby.
“It just seemed like an easy and interesting thing to put on.”
Darby also said it’s another way for the audience to get a chance to interact with the artists and to get more out of their visit to the community.
Workshops included Métis and Ojibway activities, as well as learning about fiddler Sierra Noble overcoming bullying, the “Art of Looping” with Jean Paul de Roover, and song-writing with Shy-Anne Hovorka.
Members of the WoodPicks even taught local musicians how to play a bluegrass tune on the bass, fiddle, and guitar.
“I think the workshops gave insight into what their art was, what their lifestyle was like, and all the artists are great people,” Darby stressed.
“They were open to meeting the public and open to sharing their stories and interacting,” she added, citing they were very happy with the workshops and the participation they received.
“We had appropriate sized groups for the intimate setting of a workshop,” remarked Darby. “And all the artists and community groups that led the workshops were very professional and fun. I thought it was very key to making this festival a well-rounded experience.”
“I hope the workshops helped to motivate participants in the arts and gave them some technical knowledge that they may never have had access to,” Botsford indicated.
“The performances were memorable and such high quality that they were motivating for anyone in the audience to go home and practise their instruments,” she added.
Darby noted a decision has not yet been made as to whether the “Harmony of Nations” Music Festival will run again next year.
“We’re taking some time to absorb about another year,” she explained. “But we definitely had some great learning lessons.”
Darby said to improve the Festival they might look at ensuring it doesn’t interfere with the work day and also to go bigger—expand the festival site or expand the offering of workshops.
“We’re hoping that the good news about the festival will spread and will get greater interest because the music was amazing,” she enthused.
“I think one of our big successes this year was bringing in a great diversity of performers and types of music,” she added. “And they were all very skillful musicians. The performances were all really great . . .
“I think we were proud of what we could offer in our first year.”
She thanked the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship for help with the tent and the site, as well as the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre for helping to organize the workshops, which were held there for the most part.
In addition, she thanked the Town of Fort Frances and Couchiching First Nation for all their support.
“Couchiching did a lovely presentation to Buffy Sainte-Marie after her talk on Saturday,” Darby said, citing Chief Sarah Mainville presented her with a painting. “I think that will help make this experience memorable for Buffy Sainte-Marie.”
Finally, she thanked all the volunteers.
“We had lots of volunteers,” Darby stressed. “‘Harmony of Nations’ would not have come together if it wasn’t for these people who worked so hard.
“We had scheduled volunteers in terms of hours, but many of them stayed the entire day for both days,” she added. “They just dedicated so much time, so that was really wonderful.”
Botsford stressed that a festival such as the “Harmony of Nations” is a good idea for tourism and for a “staycation” for locals.
“I think this theme was particularly powerful because it helps to celebrate, and learn more about, our different nations,” she voiced. “Music is a fun way to share traditional and contemporary cultures and to hear different sound bytes of wisdom from different perspectives.
“Hopefully, it can help to build harmony between our nations, and change the trajectory for some of our youth,” added Botsford.