13 September 2023

Seaside location still hitting the right note for Kiama’s Folk By The Sea 10 years on

| Kellie O'Brien
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man playing piano accordion

Folk By The Sea artistic director David De Santi will perform at the festival in Kiama. Photo: Supplied.

For David De Santi, Kiama’s Folk By The Sea festival has been a 10-year-long passion – and a chance to blast out a little piano accordion.

David is the artistic director of the Illawarra Folk Club’s two main festivals: Folk By the Sea in Kiama from 22-24 September and NSW’s biggest folk festival, the Illawarra Folk Festival in Bulli each January.

“In the end, these things happen because there’s an energy source – volunteers and people who are passionate about their music,” David said.

“There’s been a lot of folk artists in the Illawarra, so there has been a passion for it to survive.

“And I’ll be a bit selfish and say, ‘Oh, it’s a great way to get a gig as well,” he laughed, referencing his own session spot on the Kiama bill as Rusty and The Saint.

“Most of the people involved in the festival are either musicians or dancers or poets, so I guess there’s always an element of self-interest to get a gig.

“It’s a hell of a lot of work to get a gig though,” he said, laughing.

David started volunteering for the club in 1988, taking over as artistic director for all the festivals from 1996.

The first festival, Illawarra Folk Festival, began in 1985 in Jamberoo before settling in Bulli.

About 15 years ago, the club decided to have another event at the Jamberoo Valley Lodge, called Folk in the Foothills, but it eventually stopped.

“A few of the members in our club … came up with the idea of trying to replace that event with an event in Kiama,” he said.

Ten years later Folk By The Sea, first held in 2013, has only missed one year, due to COVID-19.

For David, Kiama and folk music have been closely tied.

“I’ve had a long association with Kiama myself. Even back in the late ’80s we were running bush music by the seaside and a lot of dances at the [Kiama] Pavilion,” he said.

“We had the Australian Folk Festival there for a number of years. It’s had a long history and connections to folk music.”

READ ALSO Indigenous voices and songs to be feature of Kiama’s Folk By The Sea festival

David’s own association with folk music started much earlier, when his Italian father made him learn the accordion at age 10.

“Then I dropped it because it wasn’t very cool to be at Oak Flats High School playing the accordion,” he said, laughing.

“When I was at uni in Wollongong, I got introduced to The Bushwackers, which was a popular band at the time playing really interesting music that I’d never heard of – this music that was quite melodic but still had quite a bit of beat and appeal. So that got me into it again.”

After meeting an Irishman in Dapto who was running sessions with musicians in his garage, he decided to join in.

“I got involved in a bush band that came out of that, going to the folk club events which had been going since the ’80s,” David said.

“I got a passion for that music and started going to other folk festivals around the country.”

That led, in 1987, to forming Wongawilli Bush Band, which was instrumental in helping to promote and preserve Australia’s rich tradition of folk music, song and dance.

“We started running the dances at the Wongawilli Hall in the late ’80s – and it’s still going,” David said.

Wongawilli toured Australia and the world, and released a few albums.

Now, David’s role with the club is a chance to give back – even if he is now living in Brisbane and “pulling the strings remotely”.

He said the not-for-profit Folk By The Sea festival was purely funded by patrons coming through the gates and profits from the bigger Illawarra Folk Festival.

“We always have a saying that we’ll keep gigging until the money runs out,” he said.

man on stage singing and playing guitar

Melbourne-based Irish folk singer Enda Kenny will perform three times at Kiama’s Folk By The Sea festival. Photo: Supplied.

“A lot of the festivals we put on are to give people a chance to see acts that are not normally seen in the Illawarra.

“And this one’s a little bit more special because we’ve got the Voices of Indigenous Folk concert.

“It’s the first time we’ve had such a focused concept, so it’ll be nice to see the acts for that.”

A lead-in for the Australian Government’s referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament on 14 October, the concert will feature education company Gumaraa Aboriginal Experience, and Indigenous pop/folk/jazz duo Microwave Jenny.

First Nations artist Pirritu is now unable to attend and will be replaced with Blanche, aka John Grant, and Glenn Skulthorpe.

READ ALSO Kiama country music artist lending his voice to the Voice referendum

They are among 35 acts, chosen from 150 applications, performing at multiple Kiama venues over three days.

David said most of the acts did it for the love of the music, rather than as a profession.

“It would be great to get support from the Government to have more of these events,” he said.

“That’s one of my aims, to try and push the idea of creating events that artists could play at.”

To keep Folk By The Sea strong, he encouraged people to get along to see acts like Irish singer-songwriter Enda Kenny, the award-winning We Mavericks, Wollongong’s Con Artist, and female artists Corn Nut Creek.

Tickets and a 24-page electronic program are now available for Folk By The Sea in Kiama on 22-24 September.

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