New England Folk Festival
at Natick High School, Natick, MA
(19-21 April 2002)

It wasn't even necessary to go inside. Music and entertainment started long before the doors at the 58th annual New England Folk Festival in Natick, Mass.

In the courtyard of Natick High School, scores of sword, Morris and other folk dancers gave lively displays of their craft. Closer to the doors -- incongruously nestled by a small row of portable toilets -- close to two dozen musicians ran a free-for-all jam session, and the music there was so fresh I hesitated to ruin the spell.

But in I went. Weaving through the maze-like building, it seemed that music, be it a vocal performance or dance group, was everywhere you looked. Crafters and other vendors lined the halls and, where space was available, impromptu jams appeared like magic -- often so close as to be overlapping. And then there was the food, a cafeteria packed with international cuisine from haggis, neep and tatties to Transylvanian stuffed cabbage hearts.

While NEFFA, as the festival is affectionally called, doesn't boast big names or elaborate stage shows like some festivals, it's focus is broad and full of possibilities. At any given moment there were 10 musical alternatives to choose from, including staged entertainment, vocal and instrumental classes and workshops, and dances (with and without instruction).

I attended the festival on Saturday, the second of three festival days. Over several hours, I found plenty to choose from (when I wasn't huddled in one of the many hallway jams). I got to see the Song Swap by the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston. I watched Ed Abelson teach a "tricky Balkan dance" to an eager audience. I sat in on Barbara McOwen's Scottish jam. I saw Norwegian folk troupe Roroslaget in action. I stood in awe as young dancers demonstrated Irish, Armenian, Chinese and a variety of other world folk dance style.

I also found time to peek in one workshops such as Ryan Thompson's Fiddle for Beginners, Mance Grady's Absolute Bodhran, Craig Edwards' Southern Solo Styles and Paul Mulvaney's Basic Irish Tinwhistle.

A chilly afternoon rain sent a good number of musicians and patrons inside, but it failed to dampen the energy of the courtyard dancers.

Dancing is a major focus of NEFFA, and dancers were everywhere you looked. Their enthusiasm was boundless, and many were unable to resist a few lilts and frolics as they passed the various jams. But they never lingered long -- there was always a dance somewhere down the hall to get to. And dancers surely packed the dance halls, moving patterns of color and the swish of many feet providing a counterpoint to the music.

I'm glad my trip up through New England coincided with NEFFA. It was a pleasant, easygoing way to pass a day of music.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 4 May 2002