By Molly Who
When dance caller Bill Wellington cries out this Saturday night, he'll help honor a standing tradition in Tucson music. It's the unofficial 20th anniversary of Tucson Friends of Traditional Music, and the official 15th-year celebration of their popular and upbeat dances. Dedicated to their goal of preserving traditional music and dance, TFTM has succeeded in providing years of colorful and varied community-oriented events and concerts.
But just what is traditional music? According to longtime board member Craig Tinney, tradition is defined by the "virtue of its longevity--it's a rich, cultural music." Executive Director Don Gest agrees, describing traditional music as that which has "been handed down by word of mouth or example." Current TFTM President Limmel Lawson has a different take. "I like to think of it as progressive. There's a lot to be learned from modern-day folk. It's an engaging method of information exchange...TFTM is also about music that will become traditional."
Tinney says the non-profit organization was "born in the afterglow of the Great Folk Scare," the historic period in the late '60s when the music of folk players like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez vied against rock 'n' roll for a position in popular music. TFTM's embryonic form appeared in the early '70s as a loose association between various members of the Tucson music community including Tinney, Rick Sonder and folklorist Big Jim Griffith. The small group of friends began to get more organized, and through the '70s produced concerts and dances, and worked to foster awareness of traditional music.
Gest brought his significant production experience from Oregon to Tucson in 1980. Today the organization is "very stable, financially sound, and...diverse enough to discuss things...really in good shape all around," according to Lawson. She sees TFTM's strength in four primary parts--dances, a monthly newsletter, musical get-togethers and concerts.
"The dances are special," she says. "They're a smoke-free, usually alcohol-free family outing." The group even provides childcare, with members taking turns looking after the young ones.
"You get to flirt with more people," laughs Tinney, describing the Contra form of dance. People face each other in parallel lines, and eventually find themselves dancing with everyone in the room. TFTM dances are either Contra or Square, and often guest callers are featured. The dance band, comprised of various local musicians, also allows for members and guests to join in and play along. Dances are held every first and third Saturday nights at the First Congregational Church. The actual dances begin at 8 p.m., but in the pervasive community spirit of TFTM, dance instruction is held starting 15 minutes beforehand.
Members find out about guest callers and special events in the organization's newsletter. It also includes features on concerts, ongoing events and a comprehensive calendar of various folk and traditional performances by local and visiting artists. The newsletter is fundamental to the organization's promotion and its bond with its members--reaching about 550 people in the Tucson area.
Ever been to a Celtic or Old Time jam? They're exuberant fun--novice and experienced musicians get together and play, sharing their favorite music. Open and free to the public, jams are held every Tuesday and Wednesday night at the Folk Shop, 2525 N. Campbell Avenue. The Tuesday night jams run from 8 to 11 p.m. If you're a bit shy or new at playing music with others, the Wednesday night Slo Jam is the ticket--show up with your instrument and enthusiasm at 7:30 p.m. Don't fret, the folks at the jams will help you feel very comfortable.
And of course, there are the concerts, which are a mainstay in the organization's quest to keep tradition alive. One month it might be a folk and blues singer from New Orleans, the next might showcase an African group.
It's the blend of community and multicultural vision that has garnered TFTM a national reputation as one of the most active folk organizations in the Southwest.
The height of this recognition came in 1992, when the organization was host to the National Folk Alliance Conference at Tucson's downtown Ramada Inn. In the bar, Irish folk singers were sampling beers with locals, the exhibit hall was packed with people from all around the country tasting a variety of music, and the showcases were some of the most memorable Tucson has ever seen.
Lawson is interested in seeing this kind of spirit progress. She encourages anyone who enjoys music to get involved. Members can even stage their own concerts. For someone without resources, a venue or insurance--but with a hot idea for a show--TFTM can be your best friend. Lawson says she'd like to see members produce more concerts, pointing out that it's the members who create the distinct flavor of TFTM.
"The thing to get across is that the dancing and tradition isn't square," insists Tinney. "It runs against the tide of popular taste because it's changing so quickly. There's a lot of instant judgment that traditional music is stale, but that will pass."
One visit to a Tucson Friends of Traditional Music event will convince anyone the organization strives for progress as much as tradition. It's this contrast--the blending of old values with new ideas--that keeps TFTM activities invigorating.
Annual membership in TFTM is $12, $15 per family, and includes discounts and a newsletter subscription. For volunteer, membership, upcoming events or other information, write to Tucson Friends of Traditional Music, P.O. Box 40654, Tucson, Arizona, 85717-0654, or call 3274809.
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