Festival of American Fiddle returns in virtual form

Brennan LaBrie
Posted 7/2/20

Centrum’s annual Festival of American Fiddle Tunes is back this year as “Coviddle Tunes,” a condensed, virtual version of the 44-year-old festival with workshops and concerts free …

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Festival of American Fiddle returns in virtual form

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Centrum’s annual Festival of American Fiddle Tunes is back this year as “Coviddle Tunes,” a condensed, virtual version of the 44-year-old festival with workshops and concerts free to the public. 

The return of the festival, which was originally canceled in early April, can be attributed to the old-time fiddle music of the Tohono O’Odham people, and an email sent in late May.  

Centrum announced the postponement on April 1 of all summer 2020 programs, from Fiddle Tunes to the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues festival, citing health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The staff and volunteers of Fiddle Tunes set to work ensuring that the original program for 2020’s festival would translate to next summer, and its invited faculty retained. 

But one longtime Fiddle Tunes participant and Coupeville resident Moe Bowman reached out to fellow long-time volunteer and participant W.B. Reid about continuing the annual Wednesday evening jam session of Tohono O’Odham fiddle tunes, called “Gu-achi,” that Reid and his wife Bonnie usually organize. Reid and Bowman learned the Gu-achi tunes from fiddlers from the Tohono O’odham Nation who have come to Fiddle Tunes for over 30 years.

Reid loved the idea and immediately reached out to Fiddle Tunes program director Peter McCracken and four other long-time volunteers to organize the remote jam session. Someone had the idea to bring back the popular “Hat Party,” and the ball kept rolling from there.  

“This thing came together really fast,” McCracken said. “There were a lot of moving parts.”

The group spent the month of June putting together a virtual festival that would work for a wide audience of people whom they anticipated would be returning for work, with a weekend packed with as many workshops and concerts as is typical of a normal day at Fiddle Tunes, and a whole week of evening programs following that. The festival would even commence with the usual opening greeting from McCracken and artistic director Joel Savoy, and would conclude a week later with a virtual closing ceremony.  

Faculty members were invited to host performances, workshops and lectures over Zoom and Facebook Live, and many accepted. Coviddle Tunes partnered with “Quarantine Happy Hour,” a Facebook group with more than 11,000 followers created this past spring to provide live concerts each night of the festival. As usual, any faculty or participants could add “wild card” sessions into the free slots between workshops, to teach a song or tell a story, by adding it to the ever-changing “bulletin board” — this year in the form of a Google spreadsheet. A virtual “lounge” chat room was created to replicate the hangout space and command central at Fort Worden’s Building 204.

Even the jam sessions and parties, staples of the festival that fill the air of Fort Worden late into the nights of the festival, were brought back in a unique way. Participants in a Zoom conference call take turns leading a tune while everyone else plays along, as Zoom can only handle one source of audio at one time. Anybody can host their own jam session or party; all they have to do is run their jam idea by the organizers. 

“We haven’t turned anybody away so far,” Reid said. Parties centered around Cajun, Tohono O’odham, and Quebecois music are scheduled for the rest of this week.

Radio shows by local fiddle players, including McCracken, KPTZ, were included in the schedule as well. Every event in the program is free of charge, and participants are encouraged to donate to the virtual tip jar via Paypal.

Soon after preparations for the festival started, protest spread across the country and world after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a Minneapolis police officer May 25. The festival’s organizers saw the moment as an opportunity to use the festival to shine a light on the contributions of Black Americans to fiddle music and the historical exploitation of Black musicians and the marginalisation of them in the fiddle community.  Three workshops on these topics were held this past weekend, along with a violin vigil on Sunday night for Elijah McClain, a Black teenager killed by police in Aurora, Colorado last August.

The group organized the workshops with the intent to create informative and uncomfortable dialogue amongst the primarily white participants, with the goal to “make people think,” Reid said.

The issues discussed are sometimes difficult to digest, organizer Charmaine Slaven said, but added that she believes “tackling it as a community will make it more digestible and approachable for people who can't tackle it on their own.”

Reid hopes the workshops will get participants to question why, for a tradition rooted in Black American traditions, there are so few people of color at events such as this. 

All proceeds given to the virtual tip jar go to two nonprofits that work for “social justice on behalf of people of color,” according to the festival’s website. Campaign Zero researches and analyzes policing practices across the country as well as assisting with police accountability campaigns and legislation. Wa Na Wari aims to “create space for Black ownership, possibility, and belonging through art, historic preservation, and connection.” 

On a conference call on the morning of Friday, June 27, the planning group was busy finalizing the festival that would start just hours later. Topics included how to save and record live streams, the virtues of using Venmo or Paypal as the virtual tip jar, and how to prevent the hackers plaguing Zoom calls worldwide from breaking into theirs.

The meeting may have involved more discussion of technology than usual, but Reid said that it was not unlike their usual, last-minute debriefs. 

“It’s kind of always like this,” he said. “We’ve all been doing fiddle tunes for a long time. We know how to do this, we know how to get along,” Reid said. 

Reid believes that the team’s camaraderie has helped the festival go “fantastically well” so far. 

“I don't think we’ve had a single event that hasn’t had some sort of technical glitch, but everybody rolls with it,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had a single event that was trashed by it.”

While acknowledging that an online festival leaves much to be desired when compared to the lively in-person festivals of years’ past, there are certain perks to this format: inclimate weather being irrelevant, for one. 

“I wish I could claim credit for the rainy weekend we’re having in Seattle, because I think it's really helping our attendance quite a bit,” he said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s the first time in my life I was ever happy with rain at a festival.”

Centrum is also offering an alternative to its postponed 2020 Writers Conference with five days of “Summer Online Intensives” made up of morning and afternoon workshops of up to 10 people, with a fee of $400. It will be held from July 13 to June 18, and more information can be found at www.centrum.org

The Port Townsend Ukulele Festival, which McCracken also directs, has committed to an online alternative in September, as well.

To participate in Coviddle Tunes workshops or watch recorded sessions from the past week, go to https://Coviddle Tunes.org/ and check out “Quarantine Happy Hour” on Facebook.

Leader writer Maria Morrison contributed to this story. 

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