• Cesar Benzoni

Westport Folk & Bluegrass Festival - Uri Kohen talks about the 15th edition of the festival


Despite being an American style of music, bluegrass quickly spread and generated fans and connoisseurs all over the world. Europe was developing a unique scene and several festivals started to appear in countries like France, England, Italy, Belgium, and Ireland. One of Europe's top festivals takes place in the small, welcoming town of Westport. This year, the festival will take place online next weekend (11th, 12th, and 13th of June), giving the opportunity for people all over the world to participate without leaving their homes. The event will also be streamed on the channel of the world's leading bluegrass venue, the Station Inn. To bring more of the atmosphere of this wonderful event to our Brazilian audience, we spoke with Uri Kohen, creator and organizer of the Westport Folk & Bluegrass Festival.


 

BRBMA: First of all, we would like to know more about you and how you got started in producing this festival.

Uri: I arrived in Ireland in 1998 from Israel, following my childhood dream of living in Ireland. I always knew I was going to live in Ireland, I'm not sure why, but I always knew. When I lived in Israel I worked as a sound technician, but when I came to Ireland I didn't want to do audio or shows anymore. I just wanted to work in a pub. After a few years, in 2004 I formed my production company Electric Cave Productions. The company's idea was not to make money but to produce shows in Westport, and the main idea was to invest in the quality of productions, so in the beginning, we just did some tributes and small shows. We only used local artists, because the idea was to change the attitude towards concerts in the town. So there was a lot of investment in posters, in local newspapers, in sound. It would no longer be just for people sitting in the corner of the pub. It was more about you coming to see an event, and then I started doing bigger events. We had a really big event in order to raise money for people who suffered from the tsunami, all kinds of events.

I wanted to make a big event, you know? At the time I didn't know about the existence of bluegrass, I had never heard of this type of music. I was a big follower of folk music, I liked Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, many of the artists that were influenced by bluegrass, but I didn't know anyone from bluegrass. So when I was looking to make this big event, someone told me that bluegrass was a good idea, and I really liked it! I asked which was the best bluegrass band in Ireland and someone told me it was a band called The Lee Valley String Band from Cork. I called them and asked if they would like to play a new bluegrass festival, and I was very smug (laughs). I wouldn't say arrogant, but I would say "yes, I'm having a festival and it's really important". They agreed and we did an event with just three shows, one on Friday, one on Saturday and a small one on Sunday, and it was a huge success because the people in Westport really showed up. A lot of people from the Irish Bluegrass community came to see what was new - why someone from Westport we've never heard of decided to do a bluegrass festival - and everyone came to support us and that was really nice of them. At the time I was just thinking about doing just this event, but it was so successful that we decided to do a second year, in 2008, and then we brought in the then leading bluegrass band in Europe at the time, called Four Wheel Drive, with members from Germany, Holland and Belgium, as well as other bands. The festival was very successful again, but without financial success.


And then in the third year, again, I brought in the other best band in Europe at the time, from the Netherlands, called Bluegrass Boogie Man. And again it was an excellent festival, but not very good financially. In the fourth year, I had to stop and raise funds as I was funding it all by myself, with the help of some friends, but without any committees. It was just me. We managed to form a committee of four people and together we started to get a better view of the festival - what kind of band we want; what kind of festival we want to do. One of the main things we decided on was the fact that the festival is only indoors, and every year we would add one more venue if necessary. We didn't want the thought of "the festival is a huge success, we're going to bring in a lot of people and make a lot of money". It wasn't about that. It was about creating an atmosphere in the town, supporting, promoting the town of Westport, which is a lovely town, introducing bluegrass to people in Westport, and introducing Westport to bluegrass fans.


So we continued that way, and each year we were able to bring in bigger artists and get more spaces, and change our approach, investing more in the website, in social media, in local and national media, in the whole image of the festival, creating shirts, selling merchandise, etc. That's how we make it happen, and now we're definitely among the biggest bluegrass events in Ireland for sure. This year is the 15th year of the festival.


BRBMA: This is a festival that relies a lot on personal relationships and interaction. How was it to adapt to this Covid-19 situation and create an online event?


Uri: So obviously the festival was mostly about interaction and people coming from literally every corner of the world, both musicians and music fans, being able to bring people from the US together with people from Barcelona, or Norway, Ireland. And I think bluegrass is very much about the music itself and about playing and improvising together. It's a very good thing. Sorry, I'm kind of changing the subject, but the good thing about bluegrass is that it's about sharing your knowledge, not compete. The musicians are very receptive. If you're not very good and you're sitting in a jam session where there are a lot of great musicians, they will find a way through the music for you to understand that. That you might have to leave, because they're going to play something harder, but they're never going to tell you directly and they're never going to make you feel unwanted.

So that idea was really what drove the festival, and doing it online, in a kind of cold and non-personal way, was a very difficult thing for us. In the year 2020 we already had the entire schedule closed. We had ten bands from the US, we had bands from the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland... It would be really big. And in the end, what we did was ask six or seven bands to record one or two songs especially for the festival, and we broadcast those songs at the exact time the bands were going to perform at the original event. We also have a huge YouTube archive of every festival since the first year in 2007 with pretty much every show that's ever played at the festival. So we were able to broadcast through Facebook these specific shows at the time they would be happening.


There was an interaction between people and musicians, but everything in writing. For me, it was a bit empty. This year we waited until almost March to make a decision about what we were going to do, so we decided to create three scenarios, and we thought - if Ireland opens for business, let's do a live event; if Ireland is open for business, but people cannot come from abroad, let's do such and such; if everything is closed we will do it online. And then, in early April, we decided that we would probably have to go with option number three and started creating an online event.


We were very lucky that earlier this year to be partnered with the Claremorris Folk Festival here in County Mayo, and through the Arts Council, we got a Grand to buy streaming equipment. I contacted the Station Inn in Nashville and asked - as I knew they do shows there every night - if it would be possible to have one of the bands play for about 20 minutes, destined for our festival. They said it's a good idea, but they had a better idea - they have their own TV channel, with a lot of subscribers, and they could stream the entire festival through that channel automatically. The Station Inn is the number one bluegrass venue in the world and is now associated with the Westport Folk & Bluegrass Festival. This is huge! Two days after the first conversation with the Station Inn staff, I knew that one of the top bluegrass bands in the US at the time, The Po’ Rambling Boys - Grammy nominees - was going to record their own show there. I know their mandolin player. So the three of us talked and they agreed to give us 20 minutes.


We realized that the recording quality would have to be a very high standard. So it was a collaboration between Station Inn as a venue and TV, Westport Folk & Bluegrass Festival, Claremorris Folk Festival, we also recorded at a pub called The White Horse in Balincolin, County Cork, and we also recorded a show in Belfast. It was also possible to order special concerts, so instead of just asking a band to come and perform at the festival, we set up some shows specifically for our event. A great example in this case, who is one of the main figures in the Irish bluegrass scene, hailing from Belfast, is Mel Corey, who passed very suddenly in January, a victim of Covid-19. So we recruited Northern Ireland's All-Stars musicians to play a concert in memory of him. This is something that we are very proud of because I believe it is a beautiful tribute to his family and friends. On the Friday night of the festival, we'll have an Old-Time band here from Westport, and then we'll celebrate women in folk music - We'll have a singer-songwriter from Kerry; then The Raines, which is a female trio; and then Noriana, Nicola and Pauline. Because this is still a big problem, especially in bluegrass, where there's not enough room for women. But we didn't want to advertise as a big cause, we wanted to let the programming speak for us.


So even though it's only online, we as a committee are very proud of the result. The event will take place over three nights, each night lasting from an hour and a half to two hours, with each group performing for 20 to 25 minutes. It's a good way to see and meet multiple artists in one event. So this is it, how to turn a bad situation into something positive. We've made great partnerships with the microphone brand Ear Trumpet Labs, Radio Bristol, Station Inn... I feel like we're playing in the playground of the big kids now (laughs).


BRBMA: Would you like to leave a welcome message for the folks from our bluegrass community in Brazil who are likely to attend the festival?

Uri: Well, first of all, Westport is one of Ireland's top tourists so it's a town that welcomes everyone, as you know. So it's always good to come to Westport. In terms of bluegrass and folk music, I think the fact that we're giving space to both American artists, rising bands, established bands, local artists, the fact that we're treating all of our artists as equal, that we're giving equal time to show to everyone, everyone is equal, it's a very welcoming festival.


There is only one problem if someone from Brazil comes to our festival. They will want to come again and again because that's what happens to most people, they fall in love with our festival (laughs). And we as a committee know almost everyone who comes to our festival by name. People from town recognize other visitors from previous years. We will create an environment for people, music fans, or musicians to have fun and after that, the sky is the limit. So everyone in Brazil and around the world, we would love to see you here in 2022 in person and we really hope you enjoy our online festival and get to know the artists, the partner brands, and our own town in Ireland, it's no wonder we carry the name of the town in the name of the festival.


When I started the festival, someone told me I'm a very lucky guy because not only will I have bluegrass music, I'll have it in Westport! And I think that's really saying a lot about our festival because it's not just about a bluegrass festival, it's not just about Westport, it's about all of these things together. The festival takes place in 11 different locations across the town, in addition to the spontaneous street jams, so if you go from one show to another, you can really get a feel for what Westport is all about. And that's why we don't want to grow in size and put up a tent in the field and that's enough. We want to keep it like that, in the center of the town, with our own people, with our own venues and bringing them together, that's really what's behind this amazing festival.

 

To guarantee your ticket to the festival online, click here and select the desired option. After the broadcast, the shows will still be available on the website for you to review whenever you want.


The schedule will feature:


Friday:

The Clew Bay Critters

Lorraine Nash

The Raines

Pauline Scanlon, Noriana Kennedy, Nicola Joyce


Saturday:

Grits & Gravy String Band

The Rocky Top String Band

Ten-Hens - Tribute to Mel Corry

The Po' Ramblin Boys


Sunday:

The Brendan Butler Trio

Darragh O'Dea

David Hope

John Blek

Ger O'Donnell