A quarter century of excellent music

Early bird Folk Festival weekend passes available until June 20

Francis Xavier has been helming the Mission Folk Music Festival for 25 years.

Mission Folk Music Festival founder Francis Xavier life’s path might be traced back to an act of karma. Or at least that’s what he says.

He pinpoints a warm summer night in the late 1960s in Monterey, California. He was out with friends when they happened to “trip” over a 12-foot fence and wound up in the jazz festival.

He remembers wandering in to the main stadium at dusk just as Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd came on stage. The experience was revelatory.

“I think the moral of the story is that if you sneak into a festival you may end up running one someday,” he says chuckling.

Xavier began the Mission Folk Music Festival in 1988 at Fraser River Heritage Park, which had only recently opened at the time, and the event has been going strong ever since.

Back in the 1960s when Xavier developed what would become a lifetime affinity for music, the music industry couldn’t carry the volume of artists it does today. There was no Internet, iTunes or MP3 players. So bands would go to music festivals.

Some of those festivals, like Woodstock, became the iconic image of the hippy folk-rock music era. Part of those roots survive at folk festivals today, but despite his long, white wispy hair, Xavier hesitates to call himself a hippy.

Born in 1950, Xavier was a product of the baby boomer generation, which he says had a lasting cultural influence on many things, including music.

Xavier moved to Europe in 1971 (mainly out of curiosity to see his parents homeland of Ireland, though 41 years later he has yet to arrive) and stayed for a decade. It was during his travels of Greece, Italy, and Germany that he developed a taste for the diversity of world music.

When dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Xavier says there was a Spanish renaissance, particularly in the Basque region.

“There was this explosion of culture and language and music. I got to know all the main writers and singers of the area,” he said, adding he played music constantly.

“It was all I needed to do. There was never a problem to find places to play.”

But that wasn’t the case when he moved to the Fraser Valley in 1981 with his wife Anne-Marie. When Xavier decided he wanted to put on a music festival in Mission it took a little convincing, but once partners and investors saw Fraser River Heritage Park they climbed onboard.

The inaugural folk fest was a one-day, one-stage event, remembers Xavier. It was sunny, with a few lazy clouds wafting by and when it got dark they had to stop because there weren’t any lights. Still, hundreds of people came out to listen.

Now the festival draws thousands and every festival since then is borne of the previous one, he says. The nearly 350 volunteers have a seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm and ideas each year, and most return again and again.

“It takes a village to grow a child and it takes a community to grow a festival,” Xavier says, shrugging off credit for keeping it going a quarter century.

Although each festival has had its unique moments, a few stand out in Xavier’s mind.

In 2004 a pair of elderly Inuit throat singers from Nunavut got on stage and began a musical battle, the objective of which is to make the other throat singer stop and laugh. When they were finished they received a standing ovation.

“To see the audience respond like that was very warm,” said Xavier.

Another festival hosted the famed Fado singer Mariza, who within minutes of being on stage had the audience in her hand, he said. When she finally finished and walked off there was simply a stunned silence.

“Music is the highest expression of who we are as human beings in a culture,” says Xavier, adding he brings musicians from around the world so Mission can share in a world it would not otherwise see or hear.

The 25th Mission Folk Music Festival runs July 19-22 at Fraser River Heritage Park. Visit www.missionfolkmusicfestival.ca to see the full lineup of musicians, including ticket information, bookings and more.

• Save by buying Early Bird weekend passes, available now until June 20, either online or by calling 604-826-5937, or at Shoppers Drug Mart in Mission.