Things are different at Canada’s outdoor summer music festivals. Blues legend Taj Mahal hobnobs with local fishermen. Baby boomers in Birkenstocks have rap conversion experiences thanks to Shad or K’Naan. The Arcade Fire lead mass sing-a-longs, and bands jam all night under a midnight sun.
A serious passion for collaboration—between artists, audience members, and even between festivals—makes moments like these happen. Festivals from the Yukon (Dawson City Music Festival) to British Columbia (Vancouver Island MusicFest), from Calgary (Calgary Folk Music Festival) to Guelph, Ontario (Hillside Festival) instigate on-the-spot sessions modestly referred to as “workshops,” but more like anything-goes jams. When artists say they’ve shared a stage, they mean it, literally.
At a workshop, it’s absolutely normal to hear an acoustic punk outfit jamming with Tuvan throatsingers or an Inuit vocalist teaming up with a prog rock guitarist. You can catch a Chicago soul band laughing and jamming with their Klondike counterparts until the wee hours, or indie darlings tearing into an improvisation with veteran rockers.
The sessions are designed to get musicians—and listeners—out of their usual grooves and into closer contact. That demands a special kind of performer, one eager for experience and direct interaction, who can put aside pretense to share a guitar technique with a new collaborator at a workshop or who can dive into a crazy haze of sound from a completely different corner of the world and just play.
Collaboration and surprise combinations have become synonymous with these events among musicians who’ve played them. So much so, established performers like bluegrass icon Allison Krauss now call the organizers to pitch new genre-crossing projects and ideas. Emerging indie and global artists (Feist, The Unthanks, Grupo Fantasma, Vusi Mahlasela, Basia Bulat) have gotten serious career boosts or profound inspiration from hanging out and playing for these festivals’ distinctly friendly crowds. Genre is less important, say festival programmers, than musicianship, attitude, and caliber. Which is why Keb’ Mo’ and Greg Brown share the same line-up with The Cat Empire and DJ Dolores.
Canadian festivals maintain strong ties to their bohemian roots—their left-leaning, homegrown origins—by minimizing their environmental impact, and by sharing ideas and giving each other a helping hand during lean years. The collaborative, cross-genre model has inspired events organizers from major American festivals (folks from Coachella have been spotted at Hillside), and now, is inspiring festivals as far away as Rwanda.
The emphasis on spontaneity and cooperation pays serious dividends for festival-goers, who use these events not just to catch their favorite marquee artists, but to uncover something new. Music fans—seniors and kids, hipsters and folkies, gold mine mechanics and urban professionals—often talk about catching the strains of something unexpected from a nearby tent, and finding their next favorite band. You’ll see skeptical teens get excited about neo-Celtic songstress Loreena McKennitt, while their parents get turned on to Broken Social Scene. Canada’s outdoor music festivals are designed to invite free-form days and serendipity, as musicians to kick back and relax, and audiences to open their ears.