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Valley's Acoustic Festivals


The greater San Fernando Valley area is home to two major acoustic music festivals. The Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest Dance & Folk Arts Festival and the Summer Solstice Folk Music, Dance & Storytelling Festival.

This Sunday, the 35th Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest at Paramount Ranch in Agoura will kick off the summer season of acoustic music festivals and performances throughout the Southland.

When the Topanga event started in 1961, it attracted 26 five-string banjo players, five fiddlers, four judges and about 500 other people. This year the festival will have about 115 contestants, plus three professional bands and several thousand people. Over the years, its contestants have ranged in age from 4 to 98. Today, the contest awards over $5,000 in cash and prizes to its contest winners. Many professional bluegrass and folk musicians have performed at the Topanga contest including David Lindley, Taj Mahal, John Hartford, Bryon Berline, Dan Crary, and others.

Dorian Keyser is the president and event manager for the Topanga contest. He's a retired physicist and a guitarist who has been working at the festival since 1966. He took over the running of the show in 1973.

Because of a 1970 Los Angeles County ordinance restricting outdoor music festivals, the Topanga contest first moved to Santa Barbara, and then to Santa Monica, UCLA and other locations, before coming to Paramount Ranch in 1990. In return for use of the space, the festival produces three free additional public concerts at the Peter Strauss Ranch during the summer.

The festival has expanded over the years to include dancing, folk arts, cowboy poetry and storytelling, sea chanteys, shape-note singing, and activities for children. But the banjo and fiddle remain the core of the event.

"If you want to learn about history, listen to the songs," Keyser says. "It humanizes it. There's a lot you can communicate with music."

Keyser's wife, Dalia, says it's the infectious nature of the music that's the source of its strength. "The things that people sing about, people can relate to," Dalia Keyser says. "And it's very catchy. Anybody's feet are going to start tapping."

The Summer Solstice Festival is sponsored by the California Traditional Music Society. The festival is more a teaching than a performance event, says society president and claw-hammer banjo player Clark Weissman.

It offers more than 300 workshops for attendees to choose from. Want to learn to play Cajun accordion? Hammered dulcimer? Panpipe? Andean folk songs? Celtic harp? The Solstice Festival has a workshop for them all. And it even offers loaner instruments to novices in some of the classes. Weissman and his wife, Elaine, run the festival out of their Tarzana home.

"It's music of the people. We call it traditional music," Weissman says. "We have no restrictions, but we do tend to frown on singer-songwriters."

Elaine says they started the festival 15 years ago in Beverly Hills, because there was nothing like it in the Los Angeles area. Over the years, it too has moved around--from Beverly Hills to Cal State Northridge to Soka University in Calabasas, where it has been for the past five years. In addition to music, the festival also offers workshops in various folk dances, crafts and storytelling.

The Weissmans don't allow recorded music at the event; even the dance classes are accompanied by live musicians. They say they go after the best teachers in their musical fields. They're also concerned about commercialization of the festival by entrepreneurial teachers.

"This is a teaching festival. We want people to teach, not to hawk," Clark Weissman says. "We offer them opportunities to sell, but not at the workshops."

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