Faro A Go-Go

Photo: Courtesy Monina Wittfoth                                                                                                                                              Photo: Courtesy Tim Kinvig

Remembering The Yukon's Forgotten Music Fest
II by Wayne Potoroka II
Fall 2011 (V5I3)

In October, the BreakOut West Western Canadian Music Awards take place in Whitehorse and will recognize the Yukon’s emergence as fertile musical terrain as much as the achievements of Western Canadian musicians.

But the territory’s modern-day relationship with music would be radically different if not for a mining company and an overachieving festival in an unlikely place. 

Tim Kinvig bypasses the lineup at the Whitehorse Tim Hortons and beelines to the table sans coffee, eager to share his backpack-ful of Farrago Music Festival memorabilia.

   “I went through some of my boxes that I haven’t looked in for years,” says the 65-year-old, wearing bookish glasses and a well-kept white beard.

   He lays out a photocopied stack of programs from the Yukon’s first-ever music festival, crowded with the bearded and blissed-out faces of ’70s folk music: Valdy, Mimi Farina, Stan Rogers, John Hiatt (yes, that John Hiatt), and Ray Davies (no, not that Ray Davies).

   Kinvig reaches back into his pack and extracts his original notes from the six Farragos he worked as a CBC Radio technician and the hand-drawn sound-gear schematics from his first, the lines traversing the page like a bus-route map.

   “I’m a packrat,” he sheepishly admits. “It’s as much of the history as anyone has.”

   On April 25, 1975, Kinvig was bunkered in the women’s change room of the Faro, Yukon, recreation centre behind a soundboard, a reel-to-reel-tape recorder, and nearly a mile of mic cable. (“We need to be isolated from the main sound so we can get a decent mix,” he explains.) In the main gymnasium, Yukon vocalist Eva Stehelin walked on stage in a scoop-necked shirt and long denim skirt and opened the premiere Farrago with an a cappella version of the 1940’s classic “Nature Boy,” choosing to sing it unaccompanied, she would later recall, just to prove to the Outside performers who’d made the trip that “we weren’t a bunch of hayseeds up in the North.”

   “There was no big moment about it,” remembers Kinvig. “At that time, this was really a one off. We had no idea where this thing was going.”

   At the end of the weekend as he packed up his gear, Kinvig did what he would for any festival: wrote down his technical suggestions for next year’s event--if it was to occur. That it should was a foregone conclusion for the locals and guests from other communities that attended the blowout shindig. But a more significant impact would only be felt over time, as the Gulliver- sized festival in a Lilliputian town transformed the Yukon music scene forever. 

    In 1968, Faro was a newly established popup company town for the important families working the world-class lead-zinc deposit at nearby Cyprus Anvil mine, roughly 350 km northeast from Whitehorse and smack dab in the middle of the sticks. 
   With the families stabled, the company turned its attention to keeping them amused in their northern outpost. For a time, that job fell to Barry Redfern, Faro’s recreation director, who’d use whatever money he could squeeze from the Cyprus Anvil budget to set up bonspiels and games nights--events any small-town resident is familiar with--and attract outside entertainment, including the long-running Frantic Follies in Whitehorse.

   Redfern took the improbable step from homespun party producer to mounting the Yukon’s debut music festival when he found himself seated on an airplane next to folk musician David Essig, who was returning home from an appearance at the first Winnipeg Folk Festival, in 1974.

   By phone from his oceanside home on Protection Island, B.C., Essig describes that initial meeting: “I told him about Winnipeg, and he said, ‘Do you think we could do a folk festival in Faro?’ I said, ‘Well, sure. Why not? You’ve already got a ready-made audience and a beautiful place, and people would love to come there.’”

   To which Redfern offhandedly asked the question that would scribe Essig’s name in the annals of Yukon music history: Could you give me a hand organizing it? “Yeah, I suppose,” Essig replied.

   “This was in the days before Internet. Even fax machines weren’t that popular,” says Essig. “We basically did everything over the phone.”

   Redfern and Essig spent the next several months arranging performers and logistics before Redfern approached Cyprus Anvil with his proposal to host a top-shelf festival in Faro, hoping the pre-planning would make it hard for his employer to say no.

   “It didn’t take a lot of convincing. The mine was extremely supportive of recreation,” says Lavona Clarke, Farrago organizer and part-time recreation worker. “What seemed odd was that it was happening in a little place like Faro, instead of a place like Whitehorse.”

   With Cyrpus Anvil’s support, Redfern and his staff began the epic chore of preparing for a national happening in a territory where live music usually meant Hank Karr at the Kopper King or small-scale hootenannies organized by the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre at the F.H. Collins High School.

  But first things first: “‘We gotta’ come up with a name for this thing,’” Clarke remembers Redfern saying. “I already named our winter carnival--the Ice Worm Squirm--so I said, ‘Ok, I’ll see what names I can come up with.’

   “I went through the dictionary and picked out five words that had different things to do with music,” she continues. “One of them was ‘Tintinnabulation’. We went with ‘Farrago’ [noun: a medley or hodgepodge] because it was Faro.”

   That might have been the easiest task that first year. A battalion of volunteers still needed to be recruited and mobilized, both in Faro and Whitehorse, where Outside performers would spend the night with billets before travelling to the festival by plane or by land on the North Klondike Highway, which at the time was a non-paved strip of gravel when it was dry and mud chowder when it was wet.

   “There was some skepticism,” says Clarke, “[but] I don’t recall anyone saying it was a silly idea or it wouldn’t go.... It was going to be a real party with real entertainers.”

   Once in Faro, the musicians enjoyed steak-and-lobster treatment thanks to a generous outlay of money from Cyprus Anvil. The mine catered the back- stage eats and ensured the final party was well-soaked in cases of champagne--an anomaly when some bigger festivals in the South were issuing MacDonald’s vouchers to performers.

   But the special treatment was only a small part of the event’s allure, notes Clarke, who says many established musicians liked the idea of coming to a town where they could rub shoulders with the folks folk music was meant to connect with.

   “More than half of these performers have never been north and never would have been north,” says Clarke. “My children, when they were little, thought that every kid in Canada had breakfast with Raffi once a year.”

   The festival also nurtured a burgeoning territorial music scene by weaving the big names in amongst local acts, some new to the Yukon, including Daniel Janke, Manfred Jannsen, Dave Haddock, Harmonica George McConkey, and John Steins.

   “It kind of established the musical community in the territory,” says Steins, now an artist living in Dawson City. “Not only did musicians from all parts of the territory get to know each other and interact, but ... you got to, right off the bat, play at a venue shoulder to shoulder with musical legends.”

   More than anything, though, Farrago taught Yukon and Outside communities that a big festival could be held in a small town. Organizers and volunteers spread that good word around the Yukon, with Farrago coordinators instigating festivals in other communities, their influence reading like an Old Testament lineage: Farrago begat Frostbite (started by Mel Orecklin, Farrago volunteer), which begat the Dawson City Music Festival (spearheaded by Monina Wittfoth, Farrago volunteer, and John Steins, Farrago performer).

   “I think it was one of the first festivals with performers at that level held in a small isolated community, and it convinced other ones that they could do it, too,” says Essig. “In its prime ... it was an amazing, amazing thing. The town was brand new and the people were all brand new. And half of the crew that went up there fell in love with somebody at the festival. It was just an amazing experience.” 

   Farrago enjoyed six celebrated years as a premier musical event. Redfern and subsequent artistic directors were inundated with audition tapes, phone calls, letters, and pleadings from high-level performers desperate to play the North--Bruce Cockburn (who later wrote “Bright Sky” about his time in Faro), Ferron, Odetta, Tom Paxton. For a brief moment, Faro, the Yukon town in the middle of the bush, was near the middle of Canada’s music scene.

   But the event’s future became murky thanks to an indignity not experienced by any other folk festival: nose-diving metal prices. Cyprus Anvil was haemorrhaging money and trimmed gristle where it could. Farrago was an easy target in a town facing its own mortality and probably not much in the mood for inviting their neighbours over for a party, so Cyrus Anvil announced it wouldn’t backstop Farrago after 1980.

   Enthusiastic music supporters willing to produce a scaled-back version of the event kept the festival alive in 1981, but after that year Farrago went dark and remained that way for over a decade. In 2002, resolute locals, some who stayed after the Cyprus Anvil closed for good, in 1983, and some who came later seeking a quieter life away from the city, revived the festival with performers who agreed to play for free. But volunteer burnout snuffed Farrago one last time, in 2006.

   There’s not much tangible left of Farrago aside from what Kinvig can fit in his backpack--yellowing high-school-yearbook-like programs; ticket stubs; the odd Farrago LP that pops up on eBay or in obscure record shops.

   But there’s one permanent legacy Kinvig brought back from Farrago: hours of recordings, where the hoots and hollers of an entertainment-starved and appreciative territory are evident on each track.

“I don’t think it’s had its due,” exclaims Kinvig, with his repacked rucksack slung over his shoulder. “[Farrago] started the music industry in the Yukon.... A lot of people who are in the music industry today most probably don’t realize it.”

   There is no saying if, or when, Farrago might return, but there are rumblings it will stage a comeback in 2012. Like Faro, the company town that has survived long past the company, Farrago, it appears, refuses to give up.


Harper Street Publishing
Box 141
Carcross, Yukon Y0B 1B0

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