Folk music and dance returns to C-U


By christina como

The C-U Folk and Roots Festival runs for its seventh year this weekend. It will be open to the public for five days, commencing with a free show by the Cornstalkers Cajun Band and Cedric Watson and his band on Thursday at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

“We have over 30 workshops, dances and sing-a-longs, so that’s kind of my favorite part of the festival,” said Brenda Koenig, festival founder and director of seven years.

“Young people are introduced to a whole new instrument. People who are originally involved in folk music coming together, being inspired by new approaches, visiting artists, using the festival as a catalyst for their artistic journey.”

Koenig said she created the festival out of her interest to use the arts as a way to form a sense of community. Initially trained as a classical violinist, Koenig said she was inspired by her encounter with folk music at the Old Time Jam from Chicago’s Old School of Music during her time in college in the 1990s.

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    “There was no music, no music stand (at Old Jam). It was all about creating a community and creating a kind of a communal groove,” she said. “Something about that really struck a chord with me. I love the idea that music was an opportunity to come together to strengthen relationships, to come together as a community and make a cool thing happen.”

    Before Koenig founded Folk and Roots in 2009, she was a board member of the Urbana Country Dances and helped organize events. But she said it was clear to her that she really wanted to run festivals.

    “There’s not really many opportunities to see this wide of a variety of performers in one place,” Koenig said.

    Matthew Winters is also on the booking committee for the festival. He said he attended the first two festivals as a spectator and then got involved during its third year. Winters said he has been a fan of all different types of folk music his entire life.

    “I grew up going to concerts, folk festivals,” he said. “In college, in NYC, I ran a coffee house at Columbia University. I also had a radio show, an old-time string band program.”

    Winters discussed how the festival provides an opportunity to show off music venues in downtown Urbana.

    “The fact that we have a festival gives us the opportunity to bring in big out-of-town acts,” he said. “But it’s also a great opportunity to put our local talents on display. There’s a whole slew of wonderful talents here in Champaign-Urbana, here in central Illinois … (It’s) all very community driven; everybody who’s involved with the festival is a volunteer.”

    Although Winters is excited about all of the performers, he said he is especially looking forward to the performance by John Gorka, a singer and songwriter from Minnesota.

    “He’s one of the big names in the singer/songwriter world since the early 1990s,” Winters said. “I’m really excited to have the opportunity to bring him here.”

    The Pickin’ Illini is a folk string band and Registered Student Organization that will perform at the festival on Saturday night. Tom Allen, a graduate student in LAS, has been president of the Pickin’ Illini for two years. He said he volunteered at the festival last year, and it helps them get the word out about their band.

    “It’s a really good chance to get off campus and broaden our horizons a little bit,” Allen said. “To get people from different age groups and backgrounds that you might not normally meet around campus. It’s a cool opportunity to get involved with musicians around town. That’s one thing that I really like about it, and I try to get our club to be a part of it for.”

    Koenig said folk music is for everyone, and with all of the participatory activities like workshops at the festival, students and community members should check it out.

    “We have everything from early jazz to bluegrass to. It’s the amazing diversity of artists, people from all different walks of life and different kinds of music.”

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