The Music of Multitudes: Some Favorite Performances at Folk Alliance International 2024

The Music of Multitudes: Some Favorite Performances at Folk Alliance International 2024

Written by Wayne Robins

Part One of this two-part series, "Folk Music Really is International," appeared in Issue 205.


With 162 official showcase performances and 639 different private showcase artists at Folk Alliance Interational 2024, which took place in Kansas City last February, it was sometimes difficult to decide what to see and when and where to see even a fraction of all the music available. I gave preference to those artists or arts organizations kind enough to have contacted me when the press list was sent out before the conference. FAI, despite being a magnet for performers, is a below-the-radar organization; it’s a niche that contains multitudes from guitar strummers to gospel, funk, jazz, Gaelic and British Isles old and new, Cajun from both Louisiana and the Acadian (Canadian) roots, and which many would describe as "world music." Here are some of the noteworthy artists that I saw. Note: though only a small percentage of readers open video attachments, I really tried to represent the music of these artists most folks have not heard.

Puuluup is the Estonian duo of Ramo Teder and Marko Veisson. They play homemade folkloric string instruments known as talharpas, which look like rectangular wooden washboards with strings be plucked, fingered, or played with a bow or slapped with a hand. One of them is tall with long blond hair, and facial hair like Robert Plant; the other is shorter, balder: think Paul Giamatti. The music is a seriocomic melange of Baltic folk tunes from the Middle Ages forward, reggae, Eastern European shtetls, John Cale turning LaMonte Young into dance music, the instruments rewired through electronic loops. They made up dances for the audience to move along with, some inspired by Yoko Ono/Fluxus directions: place your feet on the floor. Lift one foot up. Put it back down. When people wonder what the songs are about, the answer is often, "sports. Cross-country skiing." ("One song is called "Pink Skis.") Why? "It's much more interesting to sing about sports than...agriculture." Somewhere in between was "a song about forestry." They are said to sometimes sing in a language they made up, but I was skeptical, and they understood that, saying that only about a million people in the world speak Estonian, so outside their native country, who would know the difference?



The Wildwoods: Acoustic trio from Lincoln, Nebraska. Andy Vaggalis plays upright bass; Noah Gose sings and plays acoustic guitar. Chloe Gose sings and plays fiddle. Chloe had sent me an e-mail inviting me to a showcase, and discovered, no surprise, that a journalist pal from the Lincoln Star-Journal is a mutual friend. Their music is gorgeous: I was floored, remembering how beautiful three instruments and voices can be. Think of the purity of the early Fleet Foxes; I shouldn't have been surprised when I found the Wildwoods covering "White Winter Hymnal."

They exchange verses on a refreshing version Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." After their set, I huddled with the band and said: "No artificial ingredients." And one said, "we should put that on the label of our next record. Their latest album is Foxfield Saint John (2023).



Karyn Oliver: Ft. Worth, Texas. Sure, she's a folk singer. And her songs: "Lay Your Burden Down," "Jenny," and "In Galveston," are deftly crafted and resonate in the heart and mind long after the last notes fade. These are also the first three songs on her album, Cherchez la Femme, in which the musicians, producer, engineers, everyone who touches the project, is a woman. It doesn't feel like a forced statement: it just happens that she's doing her part to hire women for recording studio jobs that had always been handed down, by tradition and exclusion, to men. Oliver also has stature, long, natural-looking, honey-colored hair, and the kind of elegance you might see not in a neighborhood folk music club, but in an artist-in-residency of the boutique lounge of a five-star hotel. I don't know what the Dallas/Fort Worth area offers, but New Yorkers of a certain age might think of a combination of Reno Sweeney's downtown, Michael's midtown, and the Cafe Carlyle uptown. Folk City would have been alright for her, too. The City Winery chain would be downright plausible.



Cast Iron Shoes. "Folk songs for lonely tumbleweeds" is the self-description of Texas "badass" fiddler, singer, and songwriter Nicole Ridgwell. She opened one of her sets with "Don't Let Me Go Back," just her and her fiddle, alternating instrument and vocals. If one were to invent a story about Ridgwell, it would be this song, with its sense of exile from a small town, the shame of returing. (She lives in Austin, Texas.) She's got a full-throated voice, not afraid to push it to her limits; I didn't want to mention Janis Joplin until Ridgwell did in a post-FAI conversation: "I love Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Janis, Ma Rainey, Gillian Welch, Bessie Smith, Dolly, Elizabeth Cotton, Odetta, Alison Krauss, Mavis Staples, Dorothy Love Coates, Tammy Wynette, Rhiannon Giddens (especially her Carolina Chocolate Drops days)."

Cast Iron Shoes is also sometimes a band with other musicians, but at FAI she was fine solo. "Speed Trap" was like jug band music, without the jug, but with that loosey-goosey vibe that makes you want to tumble along through the tumbleweeds.



Nani. I was intrigued by Noam "Nani" Vazana as soon as I heard she sings in Ladino, the nearly extinct language of the Jews of medieval Spain, and the Sephardic Jews of Morocco and the rest of the Middle East. As a kid, I was fascinated by exotic languages, Ladino in particular, because of its peculiar blend of sounding like Spanish, but written in the Hebrew alphabet. (The distinction, according to what I could find on the internet, is not too dissimilar from the relationship between Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi, or Eastern European Jews, and German.) In a chic black dress, accompanied by a guitarist who played appropriate flamenco, North African, Hebraic and Arab melodies, Nani was both a musical-anthropological original and a bold, self-deprecating entertainer. The one song I could make out from the titles was "Una Segunda Piel," which on the stage she presented with plenty of "doot-de-doot" scatting. As if being a millennial singer-songwriter writing-and-singing in Ladino performer is not original enough, she said on stage, she pulled out a trombone. Note to Nani: I tried to download her latest Ladino album, Andalusian Brew, from her Europe-based website for 15 euros, but the site would not accept my address information because my state and ZIP code did not match. What may or may not be a compilation album, Nani Ke Haber, is on Spotify.



El Pony Pisador, and Pau. Two essential artists I saw from Barcelona. El Pony Pisador sings in Barcelona’s official Catalan language. This five-instrument/five vocalist string band includes acoustic guitar, ukelele, fiddle, banjo, and bass. In a chat after their set, they explained the Celtic roots of the northeast Spanish province of Galicia, north of Portugal with an Atlantic coastline. Celts or Celtic-rooted people had lived there thousands of years ago, BCE. But when El Pony Pisador formed circa 2014, they were chasing the modern Anglo/Gaelic folk and rock sound, from the Clancy Brothers to the Dropkick Murphys. And then they began adding on: Tuvan throat signing, American bluegrass, southern Italian tarantella. In showcase, they shifted tempos with alacrity, from very slow to very fast, like horses going from canter to trot to gallop. Skilled comic entertainers, they led the audience in so-called "dances," which might involve keeping your feet still, hips straight, and swaying upper body from one side to the other: That's it. Their commitment to Anglo-Irish folk music is strong enough that in 2023, they released a seven-song album called The Longest Pony, with Bristol, England, traditional band The Longest Johns.

El Pony Pisador takes its name from the Catalan name for an inn in The Lord of the Rings. They are stellar musicians still in the process of discovery. Their mix also includes music from their travels: Greek, Mediterranean, North African, singing in Catalan. As one of them put it, when they hear something fresh in their travels, they "like it, learn it, bring it back." They keep adding, which can get mixed audience reactions. When they played in the British Isles, the reaction was, like, you guys are good at this, but we've got many bands that can do the same thing as well or better. Back home in Barcelona, if they stray too far afield from Celtic music in Catalan, people may say, "Why are you not playing the Catalan music?" Their answer is, to find the right balance for the right audience while continuing to grow as musicians. "We like to learn things we can then express, as Catalans, as Mediterranean musicians."



Their friend, guitarist Pau Figueres, also played a fascinating set, combining traditional flamenco with electronic loops he played with foot pedals. The idea of having to perform using four limbs, and bringing flamenco into 21st century club and mood music, was a singular accomplishment.

Moneka Arabic Jazz. Since FAI 2025 will be in Montreal from February 19 – 23, I had to shuffle my schedule to catch a few Canadian acts. Moneka Arabic Jazz is a group led by Ahmed Moneka, who grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, and is of Kenyan-Iraqi heritage. Prejudices? He's had to deal with a few, including death threats for appearing in a film about homosexuality. He found asylum in multicultural Toronto, where the MAJ is based. There were a lot of players and instruments on the stage: an oud for that Middle Eastern vibe, sax, electric piano, guitar, fiddle, drums, and Ahmed at the mic. (Before they started to play, a host pointed out MAJ's agent in case anyone wanted to talk to them after the show.) The music started with a Caribbean mashup of ska and calypso, with a heavy dose of funk, and some Captain Beefheart/Frank Zappa guitars. There was some Lonnie Liston Smith-style space funk, dancehall rhythms and raps. The mashups kept coming, Andy Mackay-era Roxy Music saxophone, Tunisian songs, sounds of the souk, riveting funk, no belly dancers.

Sirène et Matelot. Like Cajun music? This is the roots of French Louisiana music, the Eastern Canadian region once known as Acadia. The duo of Patricia Richard and Lennie Gallant formed in 2019, dedicated to preserving and performing the Acadian roots music of Prince Edward Island and the other French-speaking areas of Atlantic Canada. The music will be familiar to anyone who ever heard a rootsy Louisiana band, with an emphasis on songs about the ocean and the effect of pollution and global warming on those communities. Gallant's hearty timbre reminded me of Warren Zevon's voice, as he sang "Sur le Minnehaha" and others that reinforced their connection to community and its resources.



Bruce Sudano. Bringing it all back home for me, Brooklyn-born Sudano was keyboard player for Alive N' Kickin', which had a hit with "Tighter, Tighter" in 1970. His next band, Brooklyn Dreams, featured Donna Summer (on "Heaven Knows") and they appeared in the movie American Hot Wax with one of Kenny Vance's first iterations of the Planetones. Summer, disco's great mass appeal and crossover artist and Sudano co-wrote her hit "Bad Girls." They married in 1980, and remained a couple, raising three daughters, until her death from cancer in 2012. (Sudano now has nine grandchildren.) Although a keyboard player with his earlier bands, Sudano now plays guitar and has returned to his first love, songwriting. "Songwriting saved my life," he said at lunch one afternoon in Kansas City. After Summer's death (they had been married 32 years and together for 35), he said, "songwriting was where I felt at home, where I was comfortable. It gave me a sense of purpose and meaning," along with his Catholic faith.   

"That's what led me to the folk world; this was a community where I was welcomed," he said of the singer-songwriter substance of FAI. Sudano's new album is Talkin' Ugly Truth, Tellin' Pretty Lies on his own Purple Heart label. Though he has released solo albums since 1981, the new album, he says, is more built for his voice, his guitar, and songs. He remarried four years ago to a woman named Francesca, who has a New York art gallery; he divides his year between Los Angeles and Milan, and in Italy, he has a band. He calls them "my Italian band" or "the Milan band."


This article originally appeared in Wayne Robins’ Substack and is used here by permission. Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the 
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