Folkmoot expands into three new counties

Last year Cindy Gilbert took her Polk County band students to China to perform. This year she is bringing the world’s music to them — thanks to Folkmoot USA and its drive to expand its presence in Western North Carolina.

Gilbert jumped at the chance to host an international folk group at the high school’s 750-seat auditorium at Columbus, one of Folkmoot’s three new venues this year. As the Polk County High School director of bands, Gilbert knew the value of a Folkmoot performance and agreed to help make it possible when the local arts council couldn’t.

“I really try to bring any type of cultural art, especially cultural music, to my kids and to my community,” the award-winning band director said from her home in Landrum, S. C., just across the border from Polk County. “I was willing to do whatever they needed me to do.”

That is just the kind of enthusiasm Folkmoot’s board of directors was looking for when it decided to expand Folkmoot’s international reach in Western North Carolina, receiving a $37,500 grant to do so.

“This was a grant that was received a year ago,” said Karen Babcock, Folkmoot’s new executive director. “Last year’s festival expanded into three new venues and this year we’re adding three more.”

Besides Polk County in the Tryon/Columbus area, performances will be held for the first time at Burnsville Town Center at Burnsville in Yancey County and Moore Auditorium at Mars Hill College at Mars Hill in Madison County.

This year’s festival runs from July 16 through July 26 and features performers from Serbia, Greece, Netherlands, Romania, Mexico, Togo, Spain and Israel. Host sites are Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Maggie Valley, Canton, Clyde, Highlands, Bryson City, Cullowhee, Asheville, Columbus, Burnsville, Marion, Mars Hill, Flat Rock and Franklin.

Debbie Lavela, Folkmoot’s ticket manager, said the 36-member board was looking to expand Folkmoot’s footprint in Western North Carolina to generate new audiences for the festival and help raise its profile and ticket sales — stifled by a sluggish economy and rising gas prices.

Even with ticket sales and support from Friends of Folkmoot and sponsorships, not all expenses were being met, said board member David Stallings. But board officials hope that new grants will help the organization to reach fresh audiences and untapped financial supporters.

“We have a very smart board,” Lavela said. “We knew we had to expand into some new counties, into some places we had not been, some new areas like Polk County. Burnsville just wanted us, so we knew we were going to have the support from the local people.”

George Nero, auditorium manager for the Burnsville Town Center, credited Sen. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville), for recognizing a good fit. The Burnsville Town Center opened in 2005 and seats more than 400 people, serving as the area’s convention, community and performing arts centers.

“Joe Sam really had the idea of putting us together,” Nero said. “We had an economic development summit for [Yancey] county at the center ... and he was talking about what a nice place this would be for a Folkmoot event. We agreed we’d really love to have one and we could probably get the crowd to come. This area is supposed to have the highest number of artisans per capita in the United States. That’s everything from pottery makers to dancers to musicians to everything. We have a built-in audience and should do fairly well with group sales. We’ve already had several sell outs with bluegrass and gospel groups.”

Queen said expanding Folkmoot is the next step for the 26-year-old festival, which officially became North Carolina’s International Folk Festival, thanks to legislation he crafted and pushed through the legislature.

“We’ll go as far as time and our radius allows us to sleep and eat and gather our wits about us,” he said.

Expanding Folkmoot also makes a “big difference in the way Western North Carolina thinks of itself,” he said.

“We are hosting the world. We are a world-class place. It’s great to have different counties pull together for Folkmoot. It’s our state’s official international festival and it’s a regional festival,” said Queen.

The Toe River Arts Council, which promotes the arts in Yancey and Madison counties, was so happy to have Folkmoot its members spearheaded the group sales effort and recruited volunteers to serve as ushers and help in other positions.

In Polk County, six of Gilbert’s band students will serve as ushers during the performance, and her school-based volunteer group, Friends of the Band, will sell concessions at intermission. It’s a win-win situation, Gilbert said, in more ways than one. “It’s a wonderful auditorium, plenty of room and very convenient for the public. The kids will be there in their dress clothes and it will help them with their community service,” she noted. “They’ll help elderly people get to their seats and show them up to the balconies.”

For Folkmoot to expand, the board had to look carefully at ways to shuffle and trim performances in other communities, with minimal negative impact and without raising ticket prices, a task the board performed remarkably well, Lavela noted.

“The only thing we really eliminated this year was Stecoah Valley in Robbinsville. Stecoah was the longest distance we had to travel, and that was a problem,” Lavela said. “We just couldn’t make the schedule fit this year. We’re still on good terms and just because we didn’t go this year doesn’t mean we won’t go in the future. Considering what we had to do, I really think it turned out great.”

The board also cut one of two performances at Blue Ridge Community College at Flat Rock and reduced the number of countries that will perform at various Haywood County venues, Lavela said, sending those one or two shaved from the Haywood County schedule to Burnsville, Mars Hill or Polk County.

“We’re scheduling Family Night again this year because we really believe in that,” Lavela said. “It’s an interactive family performance on the lawn. People bring blankets and children have the freedom to run around. Two countries will perform and afterward the performers will come down off the stage and show dance steps and answer questions.” (For a complete Folkmoot schedule, check the Web site at or see the schedule in this section.)

Getting kids outside and away from a computer is part of what drove Gilbert to so eagerly accept the job of introducing Polk County to Folkmoot.

“We’re in a technical age and these kids are sitting around playing computers and video games and it is definitely a discovery time,” she said. “But these things (international performances) are not really brought around to them unless it’s on the Internet. But to see it live is a totally different perspective.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for everybody. My kids get the opportunity to see this entertainment from all over the world. They are not having to travel anywhere but to the high school. You can’t get any better than that.”

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