Winnipeg Folk Festival Kicks Off 36th Year

Posted on

By Jen Zoratti

Tamara Kater is one of the proudest Winnipeggers you’ll ever talk to -- and she’s not even from around here.

The 38-year-old Montreal native took the reins of the Winnipeg Folk Festival as executive director last December, replacing longtime ED Trudy Schroeder who is now at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Prior to her current gig at the Winnipeg Folk Fest, she was executive director of the Ottawa Folk Festival, where she spearheaded a successful revenue diversification strategy.

So what made her decided to apply for the Folk Fest job in the ‘Peg? Turns out, the city itself played a big role.

“There were so many things. I’m passionate about folk music, and I’m passionate about festivals. I felt like I really found my calling at the Ottawa Folk Festival,” Kater says, over the phone from her Old Market Square office. “But I had the opportunity to visit Winnipeg a few years ago and I really fell in love with it. So when you combine all those things, it was win, win, win.”

Though Kater’s first trip to Winnipeg was in 2007 -- and her first Folk Fest experience was in 2008 -- she immediately felt like she belonged here.
“That was one of the things that struck me,” she says. “I had this overwhelming sense that I had to live here one day. I feel really proud to live in Manitoba. It’s a privileged place for me to be to be able to say, ‘You have a great thing going here.’”

One of the greatest things we have going on here is the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Running July 8 through 12, this year’s bash at Birds Hill features performances by a whole host of musical luminaries, including Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Loreena McKennitt, Arlo Guthrie, Neko Case, and Xavier Rudd. Homegrown heroes such as Alana Levandoski, Don Amero, Dominique Reynolds, Jackpine, Dust Poets, Big Dave McLean, and new Manitoban Ridley Bent will also take the stage. The children's tent will also be packed with local acts, including performanced by the legendary Fred Penner, Mr. Mark, and Alphabet Soup.

Manitoba acts can be heard throughout the weekend but Friday will feature a new way to highlight homegrown talent for audiences. During the last performance on Friday, every stage will feature local music. Festival goers can catch concerts by Amero and McLean as well as workshops featuring Levandoski, Reynolds, and Jackpine. This is a great programming addition not only for local music fans but for those who may not be as familiar with the incredible talent coming from their own back yard. Click here to download at PDF of the daytime stages schedule.

Now in its 36th year, Folk Fest is a defining summer tradition for many people (non-Manitobans included). There’s something magical that happens when thousands of people converge under an endless prairie sky to listen to some of the best music in the world. And for Kater, that’s what makes the festival experience so unique.

“It’s the same thing that makes a lot of other festivals special – it’s community,” she says. “It’s people saying, ‘for five days, we’re going to live together, hang out together and listen to similar music.

“I think there are things that are unique to Winnipeg, certainly the love and appreciation of folk music. People really seem open to discover new things and really recognize the importance of that.”

The upcoming festival is the first one Kater has helmed in Winnipeg, and it hasn’t been without its challenges. It’s a bigger event than she’s used to -- the Ottawa Folk Festival brings in 6,000 attendees daily while the Winnipeg Folk Festival attracts roughly double that.

The WFF is one of North America’s oldest and biggest folk festivals, and as such, has a steadily burgeoning audience. Dealing with Folk Fest’s growth has been Kater’s biggest challenge.

“In the last two days, we’ve been dealing with the fact that the festival campground is sold out,” she says. “I think that’s the biggest example of how growth and sustainability is a challenge. We can’t expand the size of the campground, but we have more people who want to come. But it’s a good problem to have.”

That said, as Folk Fest continues to expand, Kater is working to ensure that it retains the values it was built on.

“I’d like for us, as we get bigger, to remember that we’re an organization built around people and music,” she says. “It’s very important we don’t lose sight of that.”

Keeping the folk in Folk Fest isn’t Kater’s only vision for the WFF. Another primary objective is making the event a sustainable one.

“One goal is to improve the site itself, so it continues to sustain growth,” she says. “We’re looking at redeveloping the site so there’s access for shuttle buses. Transit will become the most pleasurable way to get to the site.

“We’re also looking at improving raking and drainage at the main stage for a more enjoyable audience experience,” she continues.

“I hope for us to continue to be leaders in terms of our green initiatives. We want to improve the carbon footprint of the festival.”

Kater also points out that the work the WFF does goes beyond the second weekend in July.

“We talk a lot about the summer event, and it’s certainly the pinnacle of what we do here,” she says. “But we work year-round producing concerts with Folk Exchange, as well as workshops designed to teach and develop young artists. I’d like to further develop those things.”

For the protective Folk Fest purists -- there are more than a few out there -- rest assured that Kater wants to continue to make the festival better, not radically different. She takes her job as ED very seriously.

“It’s a great honour,” she says. “I feel like I’m the keeper of something very precious. I in no way at all take for granted how special this organization is.

“There’s a great history here -- and that’s the great challenge, trying to achieve that balance. You have to remember where you came from, but you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.”

First printed in the volume 18 no. 2 of the Manitoba Music newsletter.

Click here to read more about Indigenous acts at this year's festival.

Click here to see the Folk Fest schedule.

Read more news