A Folk Fest At Fifty

RFF director Sandra Butel reflects on the meaning and value of art, beauty walks and Regina’s best festival

Music | by Stephen Whitworth

Regina Folk Fest
Victoria Park
Aug. 9–11

This is the Regina Folk Festival’s 50th year. That’s an amazing milestone for any organization but pretty incredible for a music festival.

As those who love and fear for them know, annual music festivals face a ton of challenges, any of which can swiftly escalate into mortal threats. Weak ticket sales, awful weather, capricious funding shortfalls and miscellaneous unpredictable acts of god (wildfires, floods, heatwaves, werewolves, volcanoes) can without warning undo decades of work and leave a festival in shambles.

So yes. Five decades and Regina’s beloved downtown summer music festival is still going strong? Wow. Also woot.

There’s gotta be 10,000 ways to celebrate this milestone, the best one being to buy tickets and go and have a great time. I’m going to assume most of us are doing that anyway. So personally, as the company-mandated writer of this year’s Prairie Dog story on the fest, I figured I’d interview long-time festival maestro Sandra Butel.

And what better way to do an interview than to take a stroll with Butel on one of her beauty walks?

Butel calls them “beauty walks” because she sees them as a conscious effort to get outside, away from stress, and appreciate the beauty of the world around her. If not an antidote, these beauty walks are at least a reprieve from the stresses of work, the news and whatever else is conspiring to make her life a bummer on a given day.

For our beauty walk, we strolled from the RFF’s Scarth Street Mall offices to Wascana Park before heading to a coffee shop to talk with the recorder turned on. Along the way we talked about music, American politics, bands I haven’t seen even though she told me to, bands she doesn’t like even though I think she should, and most of all how the whole world is super mean to Generation Xers like us.

Turns out I’m probably not the most relaxing beauty walk sidekick. Rant-walk, maybe. Then again we saw adorable rabbits, fuzzy goslings and glorious pelicans, which made us happy.

We ordered coffee beverages and I turned on my recorder for a short interview. Here it be, edited for length and, slightly, for coherence. Hey, it was a long walk okay?

So Sandra, I don’t know where you were born, where you grew up or any of that stuff. What’s your story?

I was born in Southey Saskatchewan, past the valley on the other side. My mom was my elementary teacher, my dad was my principal in high school. You know everything you need to know now. My parents were both really involved in the community in their church, my dad called bingos at the local bingo hall. So I’ve always had that sense of community and community building. I look back at those ladies in the basement making food and remember how that was a good feeling — that they’re all working together.

My parents also listened to a lot of CBC when I was a little kid, and I credit that with finding culture.

Which do you identify more with: the programmer who loves artists and music, or the organizer who builds community?

My interest in art is in how it impacts the community. The artist is a way to touch the audience. The best place for me to watch music is in a place where I can see the line between artist and audience, and the energy that’s being exchanged. For me that’s what it’s about. Yes, I want to respect the development of artist’s careers and keep in mind who’s been working hard, and keep up with the trends and bring the artists that people like. But ultimately it’s about whether that artist can deliver an impactful show. Will the audience feel transformed by what they see and hear?

But you talk about community first.

I think the real value system the festival can bring forward is building an alternative place for us to be. A place that [considers] accessibility, gender balance, honouring and empowering Indigenous people and people of colour, and LGBTQ. Like, a place for everyone. That’s what lies behind all of it. The value has to be building a positive place for people to be. It has to be.

That suggests that one of the most important aspects of the festival, to you, are the free shows.

The free shows are a way for us to give back to the community and allow for access to a whole bunch of different people. It started a little bit as an accident when the festival moved downtown in 1985,and they had it all for free for a few years, and there was some rule about the Cenotaph not being fenced off. We’re all really dedicated to it. It’s really beautiful to have all those people gathered together, and it’s not about who has money. It’s my favourite part.

The main stage is something totally different. They’re both beautiful experiences, but daytime holds a pretty special place.

Have you done studies on the festival’s economic impact?

We did one a few years ago, I think in 2015, we worked with Economic Development Regina to do it. And in 2015, which was quite a few years ago in terms of our growth and size, our economic impact in the province was like $5 million, and the weekend of the Folk Festival is half of that. That’s a pretty significant economic impact, and I imagine it’s grown since then.

The arts have good economic impact, but we’re up against the idea that we’re entertainment and the last thing to get to, even though the arts do build community in a real way.

To me, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s important to talk about economic impact of the arts, but the arts has more value than that.

There’s obvious intrinsic value, and there’s lots of studies that have been done on the benefits of music to people’s lives. Those things exist as well. They might not be what the bean counters want to hear about, but if you’re sitting on the grass in Victoria Park at the festival, you’re feeling it. You know what the benefit is.