That appetite for discovering new things about old cultures is what has always drawn me to Folkmoot, the international dance and music festival that begins July 19 and goes on for 12 days in and around different parts of Western North Carolina. The festival is about bridging cultures, fostering international understanding and learning new things.
I was heavily involved in Folkmoot, now in its 35th year, for more than a decade. I was a volunteer, then a board member, then the board president, and then a volunteer again. Although I’m no longer formally involved with Folkmoot as a new generation of leaders has taken the reins, I am still a huge supporter.
The reasons I think this festival is still important for Western North Carolina are numerous, but the positive influence it has had on a couple of generations of young people is reason enough for people in this region to support Folkmoot. I’m talking about the kids who volunteer or work for the festival, or those who attend events, perhaps mingle with performers, and become enamored with learning more about the world we live in.
That spark has changed lives, and I know dozens of young people — most of them now adults — whose choices of a major in college and a career afterward have come directly from their early experience interacting with Folkmoot performers.
Parents and teachers who see that hunger for international knowledge in these kids help feed it, as we did with my own kids. Soon they are studying abroad, visiting museums and cathedrals, hiking mountains and walking historic trails, reconnecting with performers they met here and making new friends, learning languages and new cultures, becoming worldly and adventurous and confident in their abilities to go out in the world and make a difference. It’s a beautiful thing.
There’s a contingent that looks at a 35-year-festival and says perhaps it has run its course. The world is a smaller place than it was back when the Iron Curtain separated much of Eastern Europe from the rest of the world, when relations with China were almost non-existent, when travel visas were easier to get before 9/11 and when Muslims and Hispanics were not vilified for the transgressions of less than one-one-hundredth of 1 percent of their brethren.
To the contrary, there’s never been a time when a festival founded on the values that Folkmoot embraces was more important. I won’t list them all here, but check out the infobox with this story that lays out Folkmoot’s official “values.” Never has there been a better time in this country to work toward a better understanding of the world around us.
Folkmoot is having a hard time finding ways to be self-sustaining. Ticket sales don’t nearly cover the costs of the festival and keeping the Folkmoot Friendship Center operating year-round. The board of directors and staff are turning Folkmoot into more than the annual festival. It now hosts international friendship dinners, has created a “cultural conversations” series, and has performances and concerts in the auditorium and in the cafeteria year-round.
Still it’s a struggle. Funding entities have very specific criteria, whether it’s attracting overnight visitors or producing a tangible economic impact. I believe Folkmoot does both, and that many visitors plan their trips in the latter part of July because they know they can take in a performance or two.
But Folkmoot is an asset to the region in many intangible ways. It’s hard to measure the value of cultural experiences and their impact on a community and its residents, which also makes it difficult for funding entities to support this festival. In looking at Buncombe County’s Tourism Development Authority guidelines, it’s obvious that our neighbor to the east — which collects millions more in room tax revenue than Haywood — has recognized this reality.
Here’s an excerpt from their grant application that awards money annually to festivals new and old: “Festivals and Cultural Events across Buncombe County enrich the quality of life of residents and the experiences of visitors. They enhance our lives by accentuating the diversity of arts and culture embraced by our communities. These festivals and cultural events are also economic drivers that attract out-of-region visitors, but also us, our neighbors and our friends who are all seeking unique and authentic experiences.”
“Authentic” and “unique” experiences for visitors and “our neighbors and our friends.” That sizes up Folkmoot well. I just hope that as this festival seeks to find solid financial footing in the coming years, we recognize the gem that it is.
• Folkmoot finds strength in diversity and embraces differences.
• Folkmoot recognizes the importance of cultural exchange to create peace, prosperity and understanding.
• Folkmoot is inclusive and does not represent any one political or religious perspective.
• Folkmoot honors and celebrates creative expression.
• Folkmoot preserves cultural heritage and cultivates opportunities for community education and prosperity.
• Folkmoot recognizes that a community’s arts and cultural assets are a strong tool for economic development and an essential element of sustaining and improving quality of life.