The Illawarra folk who make festival magic

Twenty-eight years ago the Illawarra Folk Club started a small music festival at Jamberoo.

A group of volunteers who shared a love of music staged the festival, and a tradition was born.

Over time, the Illawarra Folk Festival outgrew the sleepy village of Jamberoo and moved to Bulli Showground. Now it is the state's biggest folk festival, with around 10,000 people expected to flock to Bulli over the four days of this year's festival, which starts on Thursday.

Each year, the line-up seems to get stronger.

This year the headline acts include ARIA-award-winning country/blues singer-guitarist Jeff Lang, indigenous star Christine Anu, and one of Australia's all-time favourite folk singers, Mike McClellan. Former Midnight Oil guitarist Jim Modinie is another big name, who will be bringing his Irish band Shameless Seamus and the Tullamore Dews.

The international highlights include Rory McLeod, a one-man-band folk-rapper from England with a highly original stage show, while the festival organisers have also allocated plenty of places for local artists to perform.

But while the 28th Illawarra Folk Festival - with more than 150 acts and 500 performers from around the world, around Australia and around the Illawarra - is now a massive undertaking and unrecognisable from those early years, it still maintains the tradition of being run entirely by volunteers.

In fact, I understand it is the largest music festival in Australia run entirely by volunteer labour.

And while the performers are the ones who will receive the applause from the festival patrons, there are literally hundreds of people working behind the scenes - in their own time - to make the festival happen. They don't seek recognition, but deserve plenty of plaudits all the same.

Some, like artistic director David De Santi, have been working for the past 12 months. Just one of his many roles has been to sift through the many hundreds of applications from performers who want to be part of the show.

He also assesses their suitability and works out a program to provide a wide variety of folk music styles from Australia and overseas, as well as dance, a folk music school, bush poetry and storytelling.

Steering committee chairman Neil Rowsell and his committee members Russell Hannah, Rod Cork, Judy Cork, Graeme Morrison, David De Santi, Peter O'Neill and Bruce Jackson have been attending to the myriad planning details needed to make the festival work smoothly.

Early this week, an army of workers under construction and site management team leader Bob Williams will descend on Bulli Showground to transform it into a music festival site - erecting stages and temporary venues, wiring sound systems and bringing in seating.

They will be followed by the volunteers who will run the ticketing booth, look after the performers and their gear, marshal the car parks, manage the campsites, compere the shows, keep the festival site clean and run the bar.

If you're visiting the Illawarra Folk Festival this week - and why wouldn't you? - give the volunteers you meet a smile or a pat on the back. They deserve it.

Nick Hartgerink is a former Mercury editor who runs his own media consultancy. He joined the folk festival volunteers in 2011.

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