Meet the folks: Brooklyn Folk Festival celebrates 10 years!

Meet the folks: Brooklyn Folk Festival celebrates 10 years!
Bill Steber

It’s great music, folks.

Jug bands, banjo players, Moroccan folk stars, and the best fiddler in Brooklyn will all take the stage at the 10th Annual Brooklyn Folk Festival next weekend. The three-day festival, happening at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights on April 6–8, offers a chance for musicians from Brooklyn and from around the world to play traditional music for a generation that craves authenticity, and not the slick sounds of over-produced pop, said one of the fest’s headliners.

“There’s always a trend in societies that are sick of popular music and popular culture to go to folk culture,” said Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. “I think that time is about now.”

The visually-impaired banjo player, who grew up playing traditional African-American folk and blues in Los Angeles and now lives in Queens, has played every year of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. He keeps coming back to hear the diverse sounds of real New Yorkers, he said.

“It’s a home festival in my new home and hometown,” said Paxton. “New York is a diverse place, and the music is gonna match it, especially folk music — the music of real people.”

In addition to Paxton, who will play the main stage on Saturday night, the festival will feature more than 45 musical acts, featuring folk music from the United States, Europe, and Latin America. For its 10th year, the show brought back some of the best Brooklyn and New York City artists to perform in the past, said the festival’s founder.

“We tried to bring back our favorite performers from the 10-year history of this festival,” said Eli Smith, who lives in Red Hook and will perform with his band the Down Hill Strugglers. “And we wanted to strongly feature Brooklyn and New York City artists.”

Smith said he is particularly happy to have Paxton return to the festival, and to host Brooklyn bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves, and local Afro-Colombian group Bulla en el Barrio.

Game on: The annual banjo toss is one of the Brooklyn Folk Festival’s most beloved events.
Brian Geltner

Another local group, the Grammy-nominated Innov Gnawa, is excited to play its Moroccan “gnawa” music at the Brooklyn Folk Festival for the first time this year. Listeners will spot a similarity between the traditional Moroccan string instruments and the old-fansioned American banjo, said one band member.

“I think there will be new faces that have never heard gnawa music,” said Samir Langus, who lives Bensonhurst. “The way we play the sentir is like how you play the banjo.”

In addition to music performances, the folk festival will host workshops, documentaries about folk music, and the beloved banjo-tossing competition, where contestants see how far they can hurl a banjo into the Gowanus Canal. And for the first time, fiddlers will have a chance to compete before a panel of their peers to determine who is on top, and who plays second fiddle.

“We’re gonna try and find out who the best fiddler in Brooklyn is,” said Smith.

Over the last 10 years, the musical extravaganza has grown enormously, and last year brought almost 4,000 visitors to St. Ann’s Church, said Smith — a much larger space than the 100-seat Jalopy Theatre, where the festival started, and which still presents the fest. He attributes the vast increase in the genre’s popularity to people fleeing sterile suburbs in search of something authentic, and finding it among the many folk musicians here in Brooklyn.

“I think young people and artists are fleeing many parts of America and coming to Brooklyn and New York City looking for something real,” he said. “They’re trying to play some music that’s more down home and human.”

“Brooklyn Folk Festival” at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church (157 Montague St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, www.brooklynfolkfest.com). April 6–8 at various times. $25–$85.

Reach reporter Adam Lucente at alucente@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_Lucente.
Going down: Brooklyn band the Down Hill Strugglers is among the many local acts playing at the folk festival.
Down Hill Strugglers