Festivals are a wonderful way to see the world, and to see different cultures or shows or musicians you never would have otherwise. And what better way to get involved with different communities along the way, than to volunteer at a festival or two? By volunteering at festivals you really can get out so much more than you put in: you may get a free ticket, a discount on meals, or choice accommodation, but even more than that, you could make life long friends, or discover from your fellow volunteers what makes your host community tick. You might discover that obscure Swedish guitar player, or poet or author, that you can share with your friends back home. So get out there! Find out which of the world’s festival speak to you, and see if volunteering there might just be in your future.

National Folk Festival

Easter long weekend, Canberra,  Australia. Check out their website, here.

Right in the heart of Australia’s capital, the National Folk Festival, or “the Folky” to those in the know, has been an annual feature of the city for 21 years. It is truly a wonderful event, with something for everyone. Having spent my youth storming through the music festivals of Australia’s east coast, filled with drunken crowds, head-banging, and rank port-a-loos, the NFF was a welcome – and literal – breath of fresh air.

With late night, and indeed all night, jamming sessions catering to the young at heart, the NFF is also extremely family friendly. There is camping and parking for all, with a courtesy bus for those parked a little too far away (driven by volunteers, of course!) and there are no crowds. At all. I was struck by this, so I asked my tour-guide, a girl whose family has attended every NFF since it set up shop in Canberra, what was going on. She explained that Canberra isn’t a particularly big city, so overcrowding was rarely an issue, and the grounds of the festival were huge, so there was enough space for everyone. Those with disabilities were also very well catered for.

Despite the open, relaxed spaces, NFF retained 100% atmosphere, it was just a lot more comfortable than a lot of the festivals I went to as a teen (thank god). There was only one concert that was too packed for us to squeeze into and it didn’t matter – here is another awesome feature about the NFF – the bands all play multiple times, at multiple venues. So if there is a clash between two of your favorite acts, or you couldn’t find seats for all of your friends, no worries! Just catch the band the next day!

The music definitely wasn’t one size fits all either. At the Stock Camp stage down by the historic shearers shed (you expected them to crack out the damper and billy can –  traditional Australian bushmen’s morning tea – at any minute) you could catch bluegrass and Australian folk. At Scrumpy’s out door pavilion – where amazing cider was served – you could catch twenty-year old singer-songwriters, or dreadlocked drummers from Ireland, who in addition to their own Jack Johnson-esque tunes broke out an absolutely smashing rendition of “Girl from Belfast City” as a nod to the festival’s folk roots. With around fifteen stages, there really was something for everyone. There is even a special kids festival!

But the NFF isn’t just about music. There were dancers, jugglers and speakers everywhere. Demonstration folk dancers from around the world were wonderful to watch, but dancing at the festival isn’t simply a spectators’ sport! There was tango and bush dancing for people to join in with, complete with live bands. There were also circus performers, both regularly performing in a festival big tent, and also performing for smaller audiences in the street, in addition to storytelling and poetry readings.

Community rules at the NFF, with plenty of opportunities for festival-goers to get involved and contribute to the festivities. There is a community parade on Easter Sunday, and daily craft workshops so you can make something to wear (a hat or masque) or carry (a lantern or even puppet!) in the parade. In fact, there is probably a craft workshop for everyone, from wood turning to textiles to sculpture; and there are music mater-classes too. Instrument makers also find their way to the festival, to display their hand-made wares. Two of my favorite community events were beenie making and the Bee-Gees competition. In Alice Springs, in the red center of Australia, they have a handmade beenie (winter woolen hat for foreign audiences!) festival every year, and some representatives had trooped down to Canberra to share their craft. In addition to the piles and piles of handmade, multi-colored beenies festival-goers could buy (Canberra gets very cold in Winter!) you could also be taught to make your very own.

It wasn’t just the audience though who got the community spirit, the artists did too. This isn’t a competitive festival – the artists really seem to support each other. One great example was the “Infinite Bee Gees” concert, where all the performers across the four days performed their favorite Bee Gees song, and the audience chose their favorite rendition. It was a lot of fun, with all the acts obviously putting a lot of effort and love into their song selection.

And the food! Oh my god, the food! I must have put on 5 kg in those four days. The festival offered everything from vegan cake to Turkish food, with my absolute favorite being the corn fritters slathered with home made chilli jam. Of course, I only came to this conclusion after sampling something from every store!

Volunteering

Volunteering really is at the heart of the exceptionally community-minded festival. Volunteers seem to serve almost every function: I met volunteers who were MCs on stage, introducing the acts. The people scanning you into the festival, bus drivers and festival shop assistants were all volunteers. They were having a great time too! One group of friends had volunteered to man the entrance overnight, keeping each other awake with coffee and silly stories. One woman, a volunteer MC who has been attending the festival since she was an infant, loves the festival so much that she has had a tattoo made in tribute, read about it here.

Volunteers had to work a shift each day in order to receive a free ticket, and all the volunteers I talked to found the time they donated fair. Food stallholders also tended to have a special volunteer discount, which added to the incentive. But none of the volunteers I spoke to seemed to be doing it for financial reasons: they were all repeat volunteers who genuinely loved the event. Only one volunteer said she wouldn’t be doing it again next year. In her 70s, she had been volunteering for the past ten years with her husband, and thought that the next Easter they might try something different. The commitment shown by the festival regulars was wonderful to see.

As demonstrated above, the festival volunteers came in all shapes, sizes and age ranges, and had a variety of roles. Indeed, the festival still had a few volunteering spots left on show day, highlighting the vital place the festival holds for their volunteers.

All of the volunteers I spoke to recommended joining up next year. The festival seems to have a die-hard, but happy, group of devotees. Why not come across to Canberra next Easter and join them? Applications for next year open 1 November 2013, sign up here.

Voluntales will remind you in due course, no worries!

Like the sound of this festival?

Check out similar Australian festivals this year, and don’t forget to grab your ticket or volunteer pass to next years NFF! Applications open 1 November this year for next year’s festival, check it out here.

Kangaroo Valley Folk Festival, 25-27 October 2013. Volunteering opportunities will open soon, check out the website or email their volunteer coordinator at volunteer@kangaroovalleyfolkfestival.com.au

Perisher Snowy Mountains of Music, 7 – 10 June 2013. Volunteering application are now open, and information can be found here.

Maldon Folk Festival, 1-4 November 2013 (celebrating 40 years!). Volunteer applications close 30 August, and information can be found here.

Illawarra Folk Festival, 16-19 January 2014 – Volunteer applications open October 2013, check out their website here.

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