NLFB 2017 Shines a Light on Indigenous Talent

Northern Lights Festival Boréal may just be the best music festival you’ve never heard of.

Based in Sudbury, Ontario, NLFB has been bringing the best in Canadian folk music to the shores of Bimitimigamasing (now known as Lake Ramsey) since 1972. With past performers including Stan Rogers, Serena Ryder and Digging Roots, the festival has built a reputation for presenting top-tier talent while celebrating cultural diversity and maintaining a strong sense of community.

This year's Northern Lights Festival Boréal lineup includes Juno winners Quantum Tangle.

This year’s Northern Lights Festival Boréal lineup includes Juno-winning duo Quantum Tangle.

This year (July 6-9), NLFB will shift its attention to Canada’s thriving Indigenous music scene. In addition to headliners like Buffy Sainte-Marie (Thursday) and A Tribe Called Red (Saturday), the festival has dedicated significant stage time and a series of off-site concerts to up-and-coming artists like Nick Sherman, Leonard Sumner, Quantum Tangle, Bryden Gwiss Kiwenzie, The Jerry Cans, Mob Bounce, Ansley Simpson and more. Thursday’s main-stage lineup is also exclusively Indigenous, and will feature the reunion of ’90s rock band No Reservations, an appearance from prolific Oklahoma poet/musician/author Joy Harjo, a short film by Amanda Strong and much, much more.

We recently chatted with NLFB Artistic Director Max Merrifield about the evolution of the the festival, this year’s focus on Indigenous talent and a whole lot more. Here’s what he had to say.

Tell us a bit about the history of NLFB and how it’s evolved over the years.

NLFB is Canada’s longest continually running outdoor music festival. Since 1972, it has taken place on the shores of Bimitimigamasing (now known as Lake Ramsey), on the lands traditionally shared by the Atikameksheng, Anishnawbek and Wahnapitae First Nations (now known as Sudbury). The roots of the festival are as a folk music festival. The styles of music presented have expanded significantly, but the ‘folk ethic’ has remained central: music that is relevant to the people, music that showcases the art of songwriting or playing an instrument. A festival on any given year can include folk and roots music, indie rock, world music, traditional music, rock n’ roll, hip-hop, storytelling, spoken word, dance, and beyond.

As with many grassroots music and arts festivals, there is something about the atmosphere that is difficult to describe unless you’ve been there. It’s a true spirit of community, creativity and celebration. It’s an all ages vibe, especially during the day, but it caters both to those who are looking for a great party, and to those who are looking for some low-key relaxation.

The festival has seen a lot of classic moments in Canadian music history, such as the writing and first performance of the classic folk song Barrett’s Privateers by Canadian folk icon Stan Rogers. Since the beginning, the festival has placed an importance on presenting a diversity of Indigenous artists (Willie Dunn, Kashtin, Susan Aglukark, Tom Jackson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nadjiwan and more) as part of its multicultural mandate. Most who attend the festival each year go to discover new music of different styles, cultures and origins.

What makes this year’s edition of the festival different than past years?

For 2017, I took over as Artistic Director. My dad was one of the festival founders and one of the first Artistic Directors, so it’s interesting that I find myself in this position. 

Through various conversations with friends and people within our community, the idea of doing a major focus on contemporary Indigenous musicians and artists came up. We had the opportunity to add a Thursday evening show to our normally three-day festival, and decided to do something special that night, featuring a multi-media show and a fully Indigenous lineup. It was important for us that there be Indigenous ‘ownership’ over the programming, so a team of Indigenous artists came together to curate the Thursday night concert. The committee consists of musicians Nick Sherman, Lisa Marie Naponse and Darlenya, curator/artist/NLFB board member Deanna Nebenionquit, and filmmaker Darlene Naponse. The collaborative process of programming this special concert allowed it to evolve into a really diverse and eclectic show. It exposed me to amazing artists I was not very familiar with. So the lineup for Thursday now includes: Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joy Harjo, The Jerry Cans, No Reservations, Quantum Tangle, and Mob Bounce, among others. It will also include short films by filmmaker Amanda Strong. It’s going to be a really amazing show. 

That being said, the Indigenous focus runs through the whole weekend, with additional performances and other artists such as: A Tribe Called Red, Leonard Sumner, Bryden Gwiss Kiwenzie, Ansley Simpson and others. We’ve also got a ton of other exciting acts like Whitehorse, Yukon Blonde, Andy Shauf and more. 

As you touched on, there’s a lot of Indigenous talent on this year’s lineup — not to mention the all-Indigenous Thursday lineup. Why was it important to go this route, and what steps were taken to make it happen?

The festival has always been very multicultural, and really tries to facilitate true cross-cultural communication and education through music. There have been years when Francophone artists have been really well represented, or years when Latin music was really well represented, for example. There’s so much amazing and important music being created by Indigenous artists today (some have referred to it as the Indigenous ‘next wave’), that we decided presenting something like this could have a big impact. As arts presenters, we want to entertain, but also to inspire and educate. For me personally, I just feel like these are inspiring, important, and captivating voices. 

Collaborating with the Indigenous Artistic Committee really expanded the horizons as far as the programming. That process gave us the reunion of First Nations rock band No Reservations (active during the 90s), and the appearance of Joy Harjo from south of the border. It provided diverse perspectives, and gave the programming greater meaning. This led to some really interesting and bold artistic choices that are getting a great response so far. 

Annual festivals are often about so much more than just the music. What can someone expect from attending NLFB, and what makes the experience unique?

Festivals are absolutely about more than just the music, although of course the music is the focal point. There is definitely something in the air during a festival that is difficult to describe. Even though the festival has grown over the years, it has always maintained a ‘grassroots’ feel. My dad calls it ‘that festival feeling.’ It can be a powerful thing.

In addition to music, we also present installation artists, storytellers, spoken word artists, family activities, artisans, vendors, a variety of food trucks. It’s really an arts festival, with music just being the dominant art form. 

Also, as a part of the ‘folk festival’ tradition, the festival presents what we call ‘workshops.’ The workshops are not so much instructional, but performance and education based. Basically we group together artists from different acts, based a particular theme, instrument, style or influence. These artists then often collaborate, and provide the audience with a bit of background on the music and how it came to be. For example, there will a workshop on the weekend called ‘Tradition Evolves,’ featuring Quantum Tangle, Leonard Sumner and Bryden Gwiss Kiwenzie, about how tradition gets interpreted and reinterpreted in music. 

Anything you’d like to add?

We’re always looking for volunteers to help out! If you’re interested get in touch, and you can earn yourself a festival pass. 

Visit our website at nlfb.ca to preview the lineup, check out the schedule, and purchase tickets. This year we also have camping and accommodations packages available, which are a pretty great value.

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