While cultures clash across the world stage, the local stages in Waynesville and across Western North Carolina are set for a higher purpose. Since 1984, Folkmoot USA — formally known as the North Carolina International Folk Festival, Folkmoot USA — has brought performers from around the globe to share their music, history and heritage with each other and with us.
Folkmoot, an Old English word meaning “meeting of people,” is one of the best-known international festivals in the world. This year’s festival is “more important than ever,” says Jackie Bolden, executive director of Folkmoot, in light of all that has occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Each year, 10-12 groups are selected to participate in the festival from the hundreds who send in video applications. Despite the September attacks, this year has been “similar [to] other years in terms of applications,” says Bolden.
The first thing the festival planners look for when considering applicants is whether that culture has been represented at the festival before. This ensures a unique mix of cultures each year. Quality is also important; only the best are chosen to attend Folkmoot.
“The 19th Folkmoot USA promises to be as exciting and colorful as the others have been,” says Bolden. “The groups we are working with are all high-quality performers who are correct in presenting their cultures’ traditional dances.”
Planners also strive for diversity among the groups at each year’s festival. The groups slated to attend this year come from Egypt, Israel, Macedonia, Manchuria-China, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, the United States and Uzbekistan.
Performances cover a wide range of subjects, from “how people make a living in a country,” explains Bolden, “and how they celebrate holidays” to commemorating battles and other events in the history of the culture. Israel’s group will cover a variety of subjects, including Hasidic dances, while Spain’s will include an orchestra and flamenco dancers. Mexico’s contingent is from the University of Monterrey and includes the largest dance troupe at this year’s festival. Macedonia’s team is known for its ornate silk costumes, while Turkey’s is known for its depictions of traditions stemming from the Ottoman Empire.
Unfortunately, not every group invited to the festival actually makes it. Weaknesses in the world economy have already forced groups from Brazil and Tahiti to postpone until next year, while the group from Mongolia was unable to secure any flight leaving for the United States until just two days before the festival ends. Spain will definitely be there, but Manchuria is still having trouble.
“I’ve probably seen more economic problems this year than I have in the last 15 years,” says Bolden. “Whenever the U.S. economy is shaky, it means things are worse most everywhere else. Several groups have told me they want to come, but the money that is usually available from their governments or other sources just isn’t there this year.”
Fears that new laws concerning border security would make it difficult for some performers to secure visas have gone largely unrealized.
“Everything is not completely arranged with Egypt, but their embassy in Washington is working with us,” notes Bolden. U.S. immigration laws had already become “very strict” over the past three years, according to Bolden, so Folkmoot organizers must work extra diligently to help the groups finalize their travel arrangements.
Participants from Muslim countries have not shown any concern over how they may be treated once they arrive in the United States, despite a rise in American xenophobia following the attacks. Immediately after Sept. 11, Folkmoot officials received letters from past participants in the Palestinian territories and groups from other Arab countries sending condolences.
“Turkish pilots are flying NATO planes for the U.S. right now,” says Bolden. “Turks see the U.S. as a friend. The Egyptians may feel differently [about safety], but if so, there has been no indication.”
Once they arrive, the performers can expect to be treated like family, no matter where they’re from. In previous years, Folkmoot has used space in Waynesville Middle School to house the performers. This will be the first year in which the performers will stay in Folkmoot’s new permanent home in the former Hazelwood Elementary School. Renamed the Folkmoot Friendship Center, the facility will not only house the performers for the two weeks of the festival, but also serve as a year-round community center. The hope is to continue Folkmoot’s mission of bringing people together to spread understanding beyond the two weeks of the festival.
“We hope it will be a source of pride for everyone,” says Bolden. “For performers, we hope to create a place they can feel at home for the duration of the festival. We will display the flags of each country outside the building, and the main hallway will be lined with artwork and items we have received from various countries through the years.”
Even while governmental relations falter, Folkmoot USA stops us at the brink of completely shutting our doors to the world, and shows us what we stand to lose.
“Every year, every day, we somehow, somewhere, need to build bridges,” declares Bolden. “People are more alike than not. We strive for the same things.”
Folkmoot USA, featuring hundreds of performers from roughly 12 countries, kicks off on Friday, July 19 at 1 p.m. with the Parade of Nations in downtown Waynesville.
Celebrate the World Opening at the Stompin’ Ground in Maggie Valley that night, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $20. Highlights include the WNC World Tour on July 20 at 7:30 p.m. at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium; World Friendship Sunday on July 21 at 2 p.m. at the Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska; and World Friendship Celebration (7:30 again) at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium.
For a complete schedule of events and more information, visit www.folkmoot.com or call toll-free at 1-877-FOLK USA.