Christine Fellows is an ancient shaman.
Medicine men across Siberia imitate birds and animals as part of healing rituals. The Sami people of Scandinavia sing traditional “yoiks” by imitating various creatures, while the Inuit mimic animals in songs called “katajjaqs,” sung for entertainment.
And Fellows plays pigeon recordings.
If folk music is simply thought of as traditional, this is as folky as she gets.
Her electronic pigeon recordings are part of her newfound love for “found sounds.”
Except that found sounds are collected by whim, not tradition.
“Sometimes it’s finding someone who will let me come to their barn,” said Fellows, one sixth of the Pan Canadian Folk Ensemble performing at the Yukon Arts Centre tonight.
“I collect (them),” she added. “I’m a collector of things.”
It sounds likes something is going on here other than just folk.
“We have a set that’s a real balance between the lush and more complex, like Christine’s stuff,” said Kim Barlow, Fellows’ Yukon bandmate.
Fellows’ intricate and string-infused sound has found a new home alongside Barlow’s and Chris’ Old Man Luedecke’s homier folk music.
Along with three other musicians, the ensemble mixes musical styles from three solo careers for something completely different.
And completely new.
Fellows’ music is filed with delicate song composition and storytelling poetry. It complements Barlow’s lone country sound while Luedecke riffs off a multitude of banjo traditions.
Luedecke and Barlow are less reticent about being called folk — thought neither are cut and dry traditional.
The result is unpredictable. The bandmates agree their creations are taking them to new and unforeseen places.
It wasn’t always this liberating to play folk music.
In 1964, Pete Seeger held an axe over Bob Dylan’s amplifier cords at the Newport Folk Festival because the self-declared rambler from Minnesota went electric.
The folk wars were raging over whether traditional instruments also somehow made you more authentic. In that black and white world, experimentation was considered to be selling out to the pop-singing chart-chasers.
Times have changed.
Folk today is a bigger tent. It’s more difficult to harbour misleading pretensions about authenticity.
For the Pan Canadian Folk Ensemble, it allows a deeper truth about folk music to come through — the freedom of playing an intimate and plain spoken art form.
They, for one, don’t suffer from the self-righteous musical Puritanism that preceded them.
“I don’t write any kind of genre — I just write songs,” said Fellows.
“Sometimes there’s something crazy going on, and sometimes it’s more influences from some other traditions like folk music,” she added.
The ensemble demonstrate that going old is also about going new. They don’t really follow any stylized musical orbit.
Then what does folk have to offer if it’s always going to sound different?
“It can bring the message home in a pretty heavy and profound way if you set a song in the context of a traditional tune,” said Barlow.
“People have been singing about these things for hundreds of years and some of those problems aren’t fixed yet, “she added.
“It’s kind of like a reminder — a historical perspective on the human plight.”
Folk is cyclical. It speaks to change and retrospect.
“It’s interesting to watch Luedecke perform for an audience of 20-sometimes out East,” said Barlow.
“They just worship him and he’s just this guy sitting on a stage with a banjo and tapping his foot. They seem to need the wisdom that he has. It seems he has some kind of simplicity and clarity that people are really drawn to.”
But folk revivals rarely happen the same way twice. Barlow wonders whether this generation of young adults is feeling disenfranchised and confused.
“And that they’re looking towards that kind of music for guidance,” she said.
When Luedecke picked up the banjo, it wasn’t because it reflected his surroundings.
“I certainly took up the banjo without knowing anything about it,” he said. “It just kind of seemed a lonely instrument and I just liked the sound of it,” he said.
But things change.
“Then all of a sudden there are all kinds of people playing banjo all over the place.”
Bygone instruments offer an lawless void where one can experiment — rather than a musical style contrived by contemporary aspirations.
“I like the unaffected quality of most folk music,” said Luedecke.
“It just doesn’t need to be that slick,” he added.
“It can reach people on a heart to heart level rather than relying on a bunch of pyrotechnics and dance moves.”
“Although I like the dance moves.”
You just don’t know where yesterday ends and today begins when someone plays folk.
The tour began in Windsor, Ontario, and then headed west. The ensemble finishes here with three shows in the Yukon.
“One of the reason that I’m touring with this group is that I’m really excited by these other kinds of song writing, folk traditional music and new folk that’s going on in different parts of the country,” Barlow said.
There’s the Montreal scene with indie groups like Arcade Fire, she said.
“There’s a lot of really powerful songwriters coming out of the East Coast these days,” she added.
It’s clear from their cross-country tour that new trends are brewing.
Barlow and Luedecke both have ties to the Yukon and Nova Scotia.
“(The Yukon’s) geography has informed my song writing and has had a big influence on what comes out of me,” said Barlow.
Luedecke met his future wife in Dawson. The Yukon was his muse, too.
“I feel that the Yukon in a way gave both me and my wife part of our artistic identities,” he said.
“I think that Dawson was just a very supportive community,” he added.
Folk is as much a time as a place. Each community will evolve into a different sound.
“I think because of (the Yukon’s) size, you end up engaging with a more diverse community than if you would if you lived in the big city,” said Luedecke.
The intimacy of place — a small place — can provide the culture needed for experimentation.
Luedecke loves the Yukon, he said, even if he’s from Toronto and lives in rural Nova Scotia.
“I’m a city kid living in the country.”
The trio’s teamwork makes you wonder whether Canadian unity would be better left to artists instead of politicians.
“Sometimes (collaboration) doesn’t work even if you like the other writer,” said Fellows.
“It’s a real risk, so it’s exciting for all of us that we work so well together.”
The collaboration has gone so well, said Luedecke, that he doesn’t know how he’s going to go back to solo work.
“I never realized I was as lonely as I was,” he said.
Like an impromptu jam session, you can’t tell where one artist ends and another begins.
Before folk created a popular musical craze in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, folk was for crowded kitchens — reflecting the place rather than the time it was played in.
The intimacy and directness among folk artists can offer an atmosphere for reinvention — strangely betraying its typical image as the continuation of tradition.
For the ensemble, folk is flexible. The ambiguity of time, place and even instrument role allows room for creativity.
Just as long as the artists work well together.
“(This collaboration) is unusual in the fact that I’ve never toured in this way — creating conversations between our songs,” said Fellows.
“And it’s about having a conversation with other musicians and making a beautiful noise together.”