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Voices West.

Bringing together the West's diverse singing traditions creates a new kind of harmony in Salt Lake City

Mozart and Beethoven were not invited. Nor were Whitney Houston, Billy Ray Cyrus, or The Grateful Dead. It was clear from the downbeat that this was no ordinary music festival. While it may not have had the highbrow appeal of Vivaldi or the sheer box office clout of U2, the inaugural Voices W.E.S.T. concert series, held in Salt Lake City in November 1991, did bring long overdue attention and acclaim to a vibrant and varied segment of the musical scene. The festival makes an encore this month, again in Salt Lake.

Voices W.E.S.T.--for Western Ensemble Singing Traditions--is the latest effort by the Western Folklife Center to document and encourage indigenous Western art forms. (These are the same folklorists and musicologists who stage an annual cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nevada, where the center is based.) The goal of Voices W.E.S.T. is to preserve vanishing forms of folk and ethnic music by developing a showcase for vocal ensembles representing the West's diverse cultural heritage. "Some wonderful indigenous music is being performed in our part of the country today," insists Hal Cannon, the center's artistic director. "Yet few Westerners even know it exists, let alone get to hear it."

In fact, few of the 10 very different vocal ensembles featured in the 1991 festival had seen their names in lights before getting off the bus in Salt Lake City. Most were either from urban ethnic neighborhoods or rural small towns where a good gig was the local school potluck fund-raiser or Easter Sunday service.

The performers were selected from hundreds of groups throughout the West surveyed by teams of folklore and music experts, who collected recordings of more than a hundred ensembles, ranging from Navajo skip dance and two-step singing in Arizona to traditional Croatian folk songs in Washington to shape-note vocals in Texas. Subsequent fieldwork has enriched the original survey with recordings documenting Irish and Welsh family singing traditions, Paiute hand-game singing, and African-American gospel choir music.

On the surface, this musical hodgepodge would appear to have little in common except geography. And that, to Cannon, is exactly the point. "Westerners are not just a bunch of Anglo cowboys who sprang wholly formed from the range," says Cannon. "Our roots spread out among many cultures."

This year's festival takes place April 30 through May 2 on the South City Campus of Salt Lake Community College. Informal performances by different groups, as well as mini-seminars where performers discuss their culture and music traditions with the audience, will be held on Friday and Saturday. Both days end with evening concerts in the Grand Theater, each featuring half of the participating groups. The festival draws to a close Sunday with a devotional concert in the theater. For a complete list of performers and schedule of events, call (702) 738-7508. To order tickets, call (800) 748-4466.
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Title Annotation:Western Ensemble Singing Traditions in Salt Lake City, Utah
Author:Phillips, Jeff
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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