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mennofolk:::::a celebration of contemporary Mennonite faith and culture through acoustic music and song

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Jeff Raught
Jeff Raught

Jeff has been meandering his way through life with songs and stories for many years. Finding the humor in unexpected places and delivering it in a way that only Jeff can. Connecting the dots, or maybe helping to erase them. It is a delightful blend of music that has flavors of blues, gospel and hints of The American Songbook.

For a new twist on some old yarn....

Read more here.

Various ensembles over thirty-ish years.
Various ensembles over thirty-ish years.

I play bass guitar (currently a five string "MTD").

I've played in churches (I'm part of a folk group in a Catholic church at present), pubs - nasty and nice, concerts, coffee houses and assorted other environments.

I've played in duos, full bands (three, four, five piece) and other configurations. I've had the good fortune to be part of a number of recording sessions as well.

I play by ear and use chord charts frequently. I am learning to "read" but am at a beginner level in that regard.

There are very few types of music that I don't like. I've played rock, country, gospel, reggae, folk and even some classical at a semi-serious to pretty serious level.

I'm a sucker for a great melody, a cool riff or a worthwhile lyric. If all three elements converge in a song great; I will, however, settle for one or two of them. :-)

Read more here.

"Mennofolk Manitoba: Cultural, Artistic and Generational Perspectives in a Music Festival Setting." by Allison Fairbairn.

In Sound in the Land, edited by Maureen Epp, and Carol Ann Weaver, 125-38. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2005.
The following excerpt of Fairbairn’s paper (pp. 130-134) appears by kind permission of Pandora Press.

Mennofolk Manitoba is a unique combination of cultural celebration in the context of the outside world, and worldly challenge issued by Mennonite youth to the Mennonite world. Froese Tiessen notes that the lines between "insiders" and "outsiders" blurred as a post-World War II Mennonite "oneness" dissolved during the later twentieth century, thanks to factors such as urbanism, evangelicalism, and a greater access to travel and information. Even so, "Mennonites insist on referring to something they call ‘the Mennonite community’ and persist also in accepting the notion that any voices that do not emerge from what they have conventionally regarded as ‘the centre’ must be perceived as ‘marginal’ at best."11

To the young Mennonites involved with Mennofolk I talked to, the "centre" of the perceived Mennonite community is associated with the older generation, likely people their parents’ or grandparents’ age, who run the church. The younger generation’s perceptions of the older powers-thatbe is on the surface fairly typical—the older generation is too conservative, too willing to dismiss the concerns of the younger generation, conspicuously disinterested in and absent from the Mennofolk festival and, in turn, apparently disinterested in and unsupportive of the art they are making. The younger generation—the Mennofolk generation—often perceives its own place in this Mennonite community as minimal, a group on the margins whose opinions are not heard and whose needs are often not addressed.

Yet the entire premise of the festival is based on the concept of a "oneness" among Mennonites, and the community atmosphere of Mennofolk—the fact that those who go there know they will be surrounded by friends and family of a similar ethnic background—is taken for granted and celebrated. When the festival was held at Camp Assiniboia, a Mennonite Bible camp that drew only a Mennonite crowd, supper consisted of a barbeque. Nothing notably Mennonite about that. But when I attended Mennofolk on a Sunday at the West End Cultural Centre—a venue not tied to Mennonite culture in any perceptible way and one that invited the attendance of more cultural outsiders—I was pleasantly surprised to find that organizers were serving Faspa around suppertime. Faspa is defined in Herman Rempel’s Mennonite Low German Dictionary as "a traditional Mennonite light meal between lunch and supper,"12 but my own understanding of the meal is that it is was typically served on Sundays and involves no cooking, so the women did not have to work on the day of rest. Buns and cold cuts, pickles and veggies, cheese and cookies would not be so notable at a smaller, non-Mennonite and non-young adult event, but the enactment of this Mennonite cultural tradition in a group of 150 to 200 young people is interesting. Organizers baked dozens of cookies and buns, and someone’s parents donated the pickles and cheeses. That the cultural tradition of Faspa on Sundays is celebrated while the organized religion is kept at arm’s length is significant, I think. In the same vein, the visual art component of the festival included items of folk art such as a quilt, a painted chair, and handmade clothing displayed among the more "modern" paintings and collages.

The large community that is covered by the umbrella of "Mennonite" in Winnipeg makes for a pool of vastly different musicians and artists. At the same time, musical style and genre at the 2004 festival was, for the most part, conventional. The afternoon consisted of folk and bluegrass music, and the evening featured pop and rock music, poetry, and spoken word. For the remainder of this paper I want to focus not on genre choice, but rather on an interesting example of cultural perception and mediation that I witnessed during my day at Mennofolk, demonstrated in the performance of Jan Braun.
Braun grew up on a farm near a small prairie town that is still predominantly populated by Mennonites. Her family is very active and, I would say, powerful in her home congregation, a General Conference church. She laughingly told me in my interview with her that she feels like an "outsider" in her own family, and that she was labeled the non-singer in her family along with her dad.13 This, she feels, made her shy about singing, although she can read music and feels comfortable singing an alto line if she stands near a confident singer. I asked her if she thought that singing should come naturally for her, being a Mennonite, and she replied that it does not necessarily feel as though it should be natural, but rather that there is something about the choral music of the religion and the culture tied to the religion that feels so important. Jan was raised to feel a close relationship between her spirituality and the music traditions of the Mennonite church, and although other music may prompt an emotive reaction from her, no other music hits her on this spiritual level, or is so closely linked to the history of her people—of which there are no known non-Mennonites. When she attended Canadian Mennonite University, Jan immediately felt the inclusiveness of music and was asked to participate in spontaneous music-making by non-judgmental friends, who encouraged her not only to participate but also to help create. This typically took place in a lounge around one or two guitars, but she also experimented with found objects, creating percussion ensembles with friends. Jan felt that this inclusiveness, in spite of her skill level, increased her musical abilities and made her less shy about music.

At the 2004 Mennofolk Manitoba, as part of the duo Teacup, Jan performed spoken word poetry together with Mike Petkau’s rhythmic electric guitar and vocal backup.14 Jan’s poetry is deeply affected by her faith, which she struggles with but still finds very important. Her poetry is also influenced by the Mennonite cultural community she has grown up in, its strong literary tradition, her rural prairie upbringing, and her homosexuality—including her family’s struggle to accept it. She feels that art should challenge and seeks to do exactly that by addressing a hierarchy she perceives within the Mennonite literary world and the taboos around sexuality in Mennonite culture and religion. Having been active in several churches across Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario—including presenting sermons and acting on several boards—Jan feels that the main problem with the old guard of the Mennonite church is their refusal to admit new ideas, and in her opinion, that is what is pushing young people away. She asserts that maybe young people are not anti-religion as such—maybe they still carry with them the values and tenets important to the Mennonite faith but are simply not finding a place for themselves in the church. Jan’s poetry becomes a powerful performance art on stage. Although practiced to a certain extent, there is a feeling of in-the-moment improvisation and dialogue between Jan and Mike, with her words suggesting the direction of each piece and his guitar style, which varies from poem to poem, setting the general tone. For example, Jan’s poem "Slam" appears in print as follows:15

slam my body
against the body

my prayer
hope

to retain hope
i will slam my body
against the body
if only to smash my heart
if it hardens one day

be peaceful

obey:
your parents
the body

deny:
yourself
the body

As a poem, "Slam" is a powerful work in its own right, and when it is presented by Teacup, Jan’s frustration and anger hits the viewer/listener on a visceral level. Repetitions of the phrase "slam my body / against the body" are spoken quietly, shouted into the microphone, performed in such an immediate way as to make very real Jan’s situation in the so-called "Mennonite world," expressing her struggles to find a certain level of comfort and happiness with sex and sexuality in a framework so dominated by traditional religious values. The "body"—the human body, the church body—becomes a one-word tug-of-war between desire and liberation (in the form of sexuality and anger), and obedience and peacefulness (the expectation a Mennonite should be "quiet in the land").

Jan came to the February 2004 Mennofolk with an agenda, one of presenting her challenges to a group of people who would understand to a large degree where she was coming from and what she was reacting to, a group who would likely be more welcoming and supportive than a random audience in a murky bar. Her performances with the now-defunct Teacup gave her a certain level of notoriety not only in the Mennonite cultural community, but also in the greater Winnipeg music and literary community. Arts and university newspapers took notice of the group, which had some radio exposure as well as a tour through Ontario (with Mike Petkau and Dave Quanbury) before calling it quits in May 2004. Through her performances with Teacup, Jan carved out a unique place for herself in the world of Mennonite music-making. She was able to take an active part in music, something she feels is so important to the culture she holds dear, yet in a manner in which she could feel confident to explore her own passion for words and the effect the Mennonite world has had on her life and her writing. In these ways, Mennofolk offered Jan the opportunity to create a place for herself where she could be appreciated and accepted by the Mennonite community for who she is, rather than for who she is expected to be.

As Froese Tiessen notes, the master narrative, an idea rooted in binary thinking, is an essential resource for the artist on the margins to rally against.16 Without, for example, the taboos around sexuality in the religion and culture that I perceive to be a major part of the Mennonite master narrative and a point of contention for young Mennonites today, the challenges Jan put forth would lack meaning. Jan found a place in the middle, between the younger generation and the older guards of the culture, between a disappearing ethnic rural culture and the urban "of-the-world" life she now lives, between music and poetry. Froese Tiessen asserts that by writing about the world that exists between binary oppositions, Mennonite poets reveal the complexity that lies beyond the typical monolithic generalizations of their culture. In the same way, organizers, artists, performers, and audience members at Mennofolk experience and create an "in-between," a site where they can celebrate aspects of their culture and heritage with very little pressure to conform to ideas of religion that they may or may not be struggling with; a site where cultural rituals can be observed and the complexity of the meaning of "Mennonite" can be addressed at whatever level participants feel comfortable. That Jan’s personal, political, and often controversial work was welcomed by the festival and the audience with open arms (and vigorous applause) suggests the beginning of a changing of the guard and a new narrative that combines traditional Mennonite values and cultural rituals with a gradually shifting world-view. And Jan’s personal insights as a lesbian artist who passionately wants to celebrate both her religious and cultural "Mennoniteness" find their place in that undefined grey area between the "Mennonite world" and the "worldly world" surrounding it.

Notes
11 Froese Tiessen, "Beyond the Binary," 495.
12 Herman Rempel, Kjenn Jie Nock Plautdietsch?: A Mennonite Low German Dictionary, second ed. (Rosenort, MB: PrairieView Press, 1995).
13 Interview with Jan Guenther Braun, with input from Mike Petkau, on Saturday,
February 28, 2004.
14 Petkau is an up-and-coming Winnipeg singer/song-writer/producer. A familiar face at Mennofolk, he too spent time at CMBC with Jan and me before embarking on a full-time career in the music business. See http://www.mikepetkau.com.
15 Jan Guenther Braun, "Slam," Ach Veit Nuscht (unpublished booklet, 2002). My analysis of Teacup’s performance of "Slam" is based on film footage from Mennofolk, February 29, 2004, and on a CD recording of Teacup, with music by Mike Petkau (Head in the Sand Records, 2004).
16 Froese Tiessen, "Beyond the Binary," 494.

 

 

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