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Mitch Podolak – Creating a community

I received an email today from Mitch Podolak sharing the news he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Brandon University.

For anyone growing up in Winnipeg or tuned into the folk music scene in Canada, Mitch is a familiar figure. A visionary character that dared to have crazy dreams and convince others to come along for the party!

Mitch Podolak with his mandolin

Mitch Podolak (Brandon U News Photo)

I was born in the year of Woodstock – 1969. If such a flower power event could happen in a pig farm in upstate New York, why not a provincial park just outside of Winnipeg?

Why not indeed. The thing is, Mitch and fellow founders Ava Kobrinsky and Colin Gorrie didn’t just create a music festival, they created a sustained community that remains vibrant today. Mitch went on to found the Vancouver Folk Festival (1978-) and support other folk music festivals in Calgary (1980-), Edmonton (1980-) and Nova Scotia (1997-2013). He also was a catalyst for creating the West End Cultural Centre in 1987 breathing new life into an old church in the inner city.

It was only when I left Winnipeg did I realise how privileged we were to have such a rich cultural and musical environment. We took for granted the winter Festival du Voyageur (1969-), Folkarama (1970-), Winnipeg Folk Festival (1974-), Fringe Theatre Festival (1980-), International Children’s Festival (1983-), Jazz Festival (1990-), New Music Festival (1990-) and many more… all of which flourish even today.

In no small part, the energy and commitment that sustains these festivals year after year is the inclusive social and community based spirit of volunteering – a core philosophy behind the Winnipeg Folk Festival Mitch, Ava and Colin created.

Winnipeg Folk Festival 2013

Winnipeg Folk Festival 2013

When I returned from India to Canada in 1996, a highlight of those years was the opportunity to contribute to the Winnipeg Folk Festival through leading an amazing team of 200 volunteers responsible for ‘Site Security.’ We affectionately dubbed it the ‘Fun Management’ crew as our philosophy was to help everyone enjoy the festival by reducing the kind of  challenges that would undermine just that.

Even after returning to India in 2003, I kept coming back for the Folk Fest – most recently in 2013 for the 40th anniversary. There I had the tremendous honour to be part of the ’40 years of people’ workshop with Trudy Schroeder, Colin Gorrie, Rick Fenton, Pierre Guerin, Karen Dana, Mitch Podolak and Brian Richardson (left to right).

2013 Winnipeg Folk Festival - 40 Years of People

2013 Winnipeg Folk Festival – 40 Years of People

These folks and many others fuelled the amazing the music and cultural scene of Winnipeg. With a population of 780,000, it seemed everyone had someone in their family or friend circle with band rehearsals taking place in the basement to while away the long cold winter nights. Venues aplenty also existed to hone the talent further in front of small audiences and then, if you got really good, you could graduate to the festival circuit across North America.

Back here in Bombay, there are fledgling indicators the music scene is gaining ground. However with over 20 million people, you can still count on your fingers the venues and festivals where live original music is performed. The reasons why and the remarkable efforts to change this is a whole other topic, however it doesn’t change the underlying message – it takes a couple crazy coots and an even crazier amount of effort and sustained dedication to make things happen!

So bravo Dr Podolak!! You are one curmudgeon who created more than just a folk music festival – you created a cultural community across generations.

You proved it can be done… And we need a few more folks like you to keep kick-starting forums for creativity around the world!

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4 Comments

  1. Well written congratulatory and informative piece! The photos from the festival look like it’s in a gorgeous spot with all those trees.

    • Birds Hill Park is a gorgeous slice of nature near the city. I used to really enjoy going there for site set-up (and even tear down) as it transforms from nothing into a place that supports some 80,000 people. I’ve also gone on picnics there completely different times of year and enjoyed it even more!

      BTW – Mitch really is a character – as cantankerous and contrary as they come! Which I say with great affection. 🙂

      • Do people camp for the festival??
        And the world needs more characters! That’s what make life interesting and it’s also the people that often prompt change and make things happen.

        • Yes and yes!! 😉 The festival campground is an instant village that springs up practically overnight and all a part of the experience. Of course, you can commute from the city but… half the fun is living out there communing with the weird, wacky folks alongside the wonder of nature. 🙂

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