Surround Sound Music

48th Annual Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival


Many of us arrived early and, before the gate opened, it was clear that we were in for a hot time. Not just musically; by mid-day the temperature was 105 degrees. Water was available at several locations, and emcees were persistent in encouraging people to suck it up. But the music is what we came for, and there was no shortage of it. Professional bands, contest competitors, and jam sessions were on tap all day long. And so, from polished sounds to aspiring sounds to spontaneous sounds, fine music held the day.

Three years ago, I attended with camera, tripod and flash. This year, I left the tripod and flash behind. Deliberately. I had three new f2.8 L-series zoom lenses from Canon, covering 16mm to 200mm. I expected that the wide aperture and image stabilization (on the longest of the three) would mitigate the need for tripod and flash. This event was my first "live" trial with this approach and these lenses. I wasn't disappointed. I was able to move more quickly, and take advantage of good light as I found it, without bleaching it with flash. I used 400 speed film.

The kids absolutely knocked me out. I was repeatedly surprised by how well they played. A modifying clause "for their age" is unnecessary. They were that good. Two on the right are beginning level contestants at the Pavilion Stage. The third, far right, was photographed at the Railroad stage. These stages benefit from soft ambient light, though the Pavilion Stage is rather dark.

I couldn't get a position to eliminate the mic and stand with Glad to Be Here without perhaps distracting the judges, so I stayed put. Nevertheless, ya gotta love this boy's expression of enthusiasm. The two girls, fiddle and bass, get full benefit of flattering light without being blasted by flash.

Like the adults, the kids also played off-stage, with others or alone. The boy of Portrait of a Fiddler was playing alone - except for the crowd gathered around to hear him. I'm not sure of his or eight, maybe. The confidence shown in this image belies his youth. These kids are years ahead of their peers in maturity. The music has given them a focus and confidence. And because it's play, they've not lost their childhood. I was very impressed, and so were others. In conversation, we came up with a single word that defines what the music has given these kids. So I titled the photograph of the girl on the left "Poise". The guitar neck leads us to her, and her implied movement is surrounded by static elements of the barn.

I photographed individuals on-stage and off-stage. It's generally easier to eliminate background clutter for a photo of a single performer than for a photo of a group. The gold afternoon light of Banjo Pickin' compliments the metal trim of the banjo. Ross Altman gets backlight on the Railroad Stage, putting his hair aglow as he leans into the mic and acknowledges my intention to make this photograph.

The Dance Barn was especially dark, and the action was fast. Everyone appeared to be having a good time, and I was able to make one photograph of a big smile. Live music was provided by the Stairwell Sisters while I was there. Next to her, the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in Some Serious Stuff. The man in the red shirt held forth as Corner Minstrel, as others came and joined him for a few tunes.

A set of photographs from the festival would not be complete without a few images of the spontaneous jam sessions. The woman in Sunglasses is enjoying the music and activity that we see in her lenses. The musicians came together, played together, and drifted on to make new alliances throughout the day. They played for themselves, each other, and all who stopped to listen. Different instruments, different ages - I've already mentioned the kids - and different styles came together as equals for good fun and good music. And so it was that, no matter where you went, as musician or spectator, there was music with friendly people.

My thanks to everyone who played, danced and sang at the festival, and to the organizers who made it happen, and to all those whom I photographed. Well done! I hope to return again.

Images Copyright © Ed E. Powell
All Rights Reserved