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Tlellagraph: Haawa for a favourite festival

By Janet Rigg
(Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

By Janet Rigg

I’m back, excuse my absence.

“Oh no!” you’ll say, “We understand. You’ve been putting on the most wonderful music festival in the north. Voluntarily.”

But the reality is slightly different. Yes, I’ve been busy. Yes, millions of hours, billions of neurons went into executing the Best Festival in the North. Yes, I’m exhausted. But the truth is, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the water.

The weather has been so nice, so incredibly nice. We’ve been in the river or the ocean most days, often multiple times. I’ve been letting the Tlell River cleanse me of stress, the ocean of my sins. I’ve been having a great time.

The drought lingers on. Confession #2: I didn’t want the drought to end on music fest weekend. I knew we needed rain, but I didn’t want it to be that weekend. It was close, with a slightly wet Thursday, but the rest of the weekend was dry.

I know the music festival can be a bit of disturbance for Tlell, and not everyone appreciates the influx of islanders and tourists. Some people overdo it, and I know some lament the days when a half dozen hippies had a great time spinning in the wind. They mostly kept it down.

We used to have four speakers and eight lights on rickety stands. Those were the days: grassroots and simple. There were echoes of that this past weekend at Harmonie’s Half-Moon Fever. A stage, some tarps, a beautiful setting. I applaud that!

But some time ago, those who made the festival happen like that ended up with other commitments. And we saw an opportunity — an opportunity to showcase Haida Gwaii, Haida culture, and bring top-quality Indigenous and non-Indigenous acts to Haida Gwaii. We took everything up a notch.

We wanted the festival to be youth-accessible. I had my first transformative musical experience at a club in Montreal. I felt the interconnectedness of everyone on the dance floor. I felt my body. It changed my life.

So yes, the festival has changed. We try to bring something for everyone, but each festival takes on a life of its own. Sometimes more of one type of act gets booked than another.

But I think we nailed it this year. Between Blair Weinberg and Roeland Denooij, we got the best acts to showcase raw fun, and powerful talent. And there were spin-offs. Snotty Nose Rez Kids did an impromptu jam at the Skidegate Youth Centre because they drove by and heard Jason Alsop rehearsing. Mihirangi and her incredible dancers joined a workshop for Skidegate youth and a dinner in Old Massett. Maiya Robbie worked with another youth group and put on the EOTW Kids performance. The experience trickled into every community.

Yes, on the other hand, some patrons overdid it. Some were disrespectful into the night. But others had the best weekend they have ever had. Some were transformed. I was one of them.

I’ve been working the festival for over 10 years, but this was perhaps my favourite. My team was incredible. For a bunch of volunteers, each and every one showed serious dedication. Most were veterans, so they had their own experience to draw from. It was a thing of beauty.

Beauty that rose from the ashes like a phoenix. The house explosion in Charlotte the week before sent its own shockwave. Cait Blewett, a volunteer firefighter and my festival co-director for over four years, sustained a serious concussion as a result of that explosion.

When people are suffering from a concussion, they can’t move or think much, nor listen to loud music. What was supposed to be her last music festival, the final hoorah, turned into something she had to avoid.

I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that moment where you think that you have scaffolding, only to notice there is nothing between you and the ground. I was terrified of doing the festival on my own. But the universe took care of me. Alex Ryland, who left for Ontario last year, came parachuting in like the professional Festival Commando that she is, and saved the day. The team saved the day.

I was so emotional in the lead-up. The trauma, the “what ifs,” the cancelled ferries — it was all a bit much. But the weekend went great. We kept up with the chaos, for the most part, and already have a bunch of notes of what to do differently next year.

So to Tlell, to the islands as a whole, thank you. The festival brings serious exposure and economic benefits to Haida Gwaii. For the most part, it’s our own youth who overdo it there. That is an issue for each family to address.

The festival will continue to improve safety and quality of experience. We will continue to produce the most incredible and intimate festival experience, one that blends Haida and non-Haida together in a way that speaks of pride for who we are and where we live. Haawa.