Fort Smith’s Friendship Festival to make comeback

Fort Smith’s Friendship Festival to make comeback
George Kurszewski, behind on the drums, takes part in the 2012 South Slave Friendship Festival in Fort Smith.Photo: Don Jaque.

The celebrated South Slave Friendship Festival may have been cancelled this year - on what would have been its 25th anniversary - but the annual summer music fiesta isn’t on any permanent type of hiatus, according to organizers.

“There’s been a lot of recent discussion going on about what to do next year,” said organizer George Kurszewski, one of the three “founding fathers” of the festival. “The festival would not have been possible all these years if it wasn’t for the volunteers, and there’s still a willingness among the volunteers to make it happen and look at the best way we can do it next year.”

According to Kurszewski, the show will go on with the 25th Friendship Festival officially being celebrated next August.

The fire at the community’s arena in May sealed the deal when it came to the cancellation, he said. The completely volunteer-run festival hosts its “Super Shaker” dance there every year, an event that covers a huge percentage of overall costs.

“Without the arena, things really weren’t looking good,” Kurszewski said. “We’d have to make it a smaller event, bring in less musicians, and for the 25th anniversary we really didn’t want to do that…We decided to postpone things, take this time to reorganize and re-evaluate.”

A fire in early 2012 in Conibear park – home to the festival headquarters – hasn’t made things easy, either, he added. The festival crew lost all its files, computer, performers’ contact lists, tents, office supplies and new kitchen cabinets, among other things.

The four-day celebration is one of the town’s biggest highlights, drawing musicians from across the Northwest Territories and beyond, many of whom once lived in Fort Smith or have some connection to the community on the Slave River’s shores.

“One year we had up to 130 musicians who came to town for the festival,” Kurszewski said. “It’s not like Folk on the Rocks – there’s no headlining act; there’s no main stage. Everyone is equal and gets equal time. It really does promote the friendship component that way.”

Audiences were treated for the past 24 years to a range of music, from traditional drumming to country crooners to jams from old school rock and rollers, punk numbers and jazzy blues melodies.

“There’s really something for everyone,” Kurszewski, who used to play in many local bands himself, said. “Performers come back year after year. People plan their family vacations around it…The musicians really step up and help us out when we need it…It’s so important for us to raise enough revenue to cover their costs when they’re here.”

While the team is still working out the details for how to make next year’s festival extra special, Kurszewski said they will be looking into other options if the arena is not available by summer 2014.

The festival started out as a reunion and homecoming type of celebration in the high school gym, according to Kurszewski, who established it along with Pat Burke and Dennis Bevington.

“We had about 10 bands or so…People really liked it and wanted something similar the next year, so we put it on again and it took off from there.”

The Friendship Festival wasn’t the only summer party cancelled this year. Earlier in July, Fort Providence’s Mackenzie Daze, which features jigging, canoe races, handgames and more, was also squashed. It would have been celebrating its 40th year.

“It may be a bit stressful running things,” Kurszewski said, “but the music makes it worth it in the end.”

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