The Northwest Folklife Festival was particularly joyful for me this year and that’s saying something, as I have been involved as a performer in almost every Folklife Festival over its 45-year history. Folklife always offers an opportunity to see friends from near and far as all the different communities in my Balkan music and dance scene converge – Croatians, Bulgarians, Balkan dancers, Balkan choirs and more. Whether it’s meeting for a beer in the beer garden, attending friends’ performances or getting on stage myself, so many new and joyful memories are created each year.
What was so extra special about this year? For one, I was invited to emcee the cultural theme showcase concert at Bagley Wright Theatre, “The Power of the Human Voice through Song,” fabulously curated by Folklife Programs Director Kelli Faryar. As a life long singer, choir director and singing teacher, this theme is particularly close to my heart. This is one of a very few universal themes that unifies humans in a ever more divided world. It was so much fun meeting the artists before the show to ask them questions mining for interesting tidbits to use in my introductions. Icing on the cake, I couldn’t have been more proud to introduce my own choir, Bulgarian Voices of Seattle Women’s Choir, as part of the show. Golly, I was practically bursting with pride. All the women in this choir were born in Bulgaria. They range in age from 25-82 and have developed a close bond through singing and sharing our lives. They looked so beautiful in their traditional costumes and sounded fabulous in that excellent theater. 72-year-old Penka Encheva even received a standing ovation from the audience for her solo. What a moment!
Speaking of Grandma Penka, here’s another reason I found Folklife so extraordinary this year. She was featured in two more events! First, she taught a traditional Bulgarian singing workshop attended by 67 people. It was deeply moving to see her surprise and delight. This is a woman who came to the United States in 2010 at age 67, leaving everything and everyone behind in Bulgaria, to help care for her grandsons in Renton. She had been a singer in Bulgaria as a young woman, but followed a different professional path, becoming a middle school biology teacher in Bulgaria. She thought her singing life was long over, but joining our choir brought it back to her. Can you imagine how it felt for her to see 67 mostly Americans turn out to learn songs from her, to receive a standing ovation at a major festival AND have a documentary film about her screened at SIFF.
The Bulgarian Cultural and Heritage Center of Seattle and I produced a 30-minute documentary about Penka entitled “Tazi Baba / This Baba” directed by the talented local filmmaker originally from Bulgaria Bogdan Darev. Folklife screened the film on Monday after Penka’s singing workshop. She was absolutely beaming as she answered questions from the audience in a panel with Bogdan and me. All of this is like a miracle to our Penka.
Finally, it was an incredible privilege to be able to share my insights and experience on a panel entitled, “Building Community By Singing.” Janet Stecker, Fred West, Earle Peach and I have years and years, basically our entire lives, worth of creating and leading people in song. How wonderful to have the opportunity to speak on something that we believe in so deeply. Where else but Folklife?
Come Monday night I was completely exhausted, saturated, fulfilled and basking in a rosy glow. Thank you to the staff, board, artists, volunteers, donors, sponsors, audiences and families. We are so lucky to have this community-powered festival in Seattle!
Blog post by Mary Sherhart, Friend of Folklife. Mary Sherhart is one of America’s leading teachers and performers of traditional Balkan vocal music. Learn more about Mary’s folk art.