From Ties and Tails to Dead Penguins: FilKONtario 8 Revisited

By Lloyd Landa

[This article was published in the June 1998 issue of The Voyageur.]

Toronto’s FilKONtario (FKO) has become, in eight short years, one of the most successful filk conventions in North America. This year was no exception. Well over 100 filkers from as far away as Germany, California and the U.S. eastern seaboard gathered in the Travelodge Hotel Toronto East to cram a smorgasbord of music and create a whole new store of memories.

From Friday night April 17 to Sunday evening, April 19, the hotel walls were alive with the sound of musicwhen filkers weren’t vying for attention with a regional basketball tournament for middle-aged ex-jocks. We weren’t the tall, aging guys in sneakers; we were the shorter folk with sweatshirts, bizarre buttons, and guitars. So a bemused-and oft-confused-hotel staff were deluged with impromptu filks in the middle of the lobby.

FKO’s weekend of controlled musical madness began with a ties and tails party featuring the con’s penguin theme. Yes, penguins, because Heather Borean, who’s chaired many FKOs in the past (this year’s chairs were Carolyn Brown and Peggy Warner-Lalonde), has a passion for the elegant black and white beasties. Consequently there were representations of penguins everywhere.

Exuberant hellos, hugs and assorted greetings were exchanged among filkers from all over, who often see each other only at cons. Most of them, by the way, were determined to sing as much as they could and sleep as little as they could manage. “Sleep,” intoned burly John “Bear” Hall, an upstate New Yorker who belts out Dorsai songs, “is the preserve of the weak and sickly.”

Friday night’s first concert was by a non-filker: Toronto musician Ray Hickey. He supplied a tour-de-force performance on several oriental instruments, but truly mesmerized the packed room with an exquisite classical guitar composition of his own. The evening then took on a decidedly Celtic flavour, at a circle headed by Guest of Honour Heather Alexander, a U.S. West Coast folk diva who plays fiddle with fervour and skill. Joining her were Winnipeg’s Dandelion Wine, a mainstay of that prairie city’s folk scene. Those filkers who were Gaelic-challenged headed to smaller rooms to share songs.

Over the course of Saturday morning, raccoon-eyed filkers tumbled into the hotel’s coffee shop for a non-stop marathon of concerts, workshops and other events. And always, off in some comer, someone was tuning a guitar or a banjo or hammering on a bora (an exotic drum usually only seen at filks or folk festivals). During the morning, seminars were held showing filkers who perform how to become better singers and players and how to make their own records. In the afternoon, FKO’s main concerts took place.

John Hall kicked things off with a rousing round of Dorsai songs, followed by Toronto’s “Downtown” Freddy Brown amusing the crowd with such self-penned gems as “There’s an Alien in My Pocket” and “Roadkill Cafe.” Then the California group Puzzlebox (Paul Kwinn, Taunya Shiffer and Alisa Schaefbauer) presented an eclectic mix of music. The concerts were interspersed with “one-shot” performances by a number of well-known filkers.

Every filk convention has Interfilk guests. Interfilk promotes sharing of filk music by raising money for performers to travel to cons to obtain wider exposure for their work. Much of that cash is raised by Interfilk auctions, which take place between concerts. This year the stage was graced by two performers from Germany, where filk’s popularity is on the upswing. Juliane “Ju” Honisch and Kerstin “Katy” Droge made their first North American appearance. They charmed the crowd with their harmonic duo offerings and touching solo songs.

Heather Alexander simply electrified everyone with her main concert. She owned the stage, delivering mostly original folk/fantasy songs with guitar and, on a few numbers, fiddle accompaniment. The Guest of Honour earned her stripes, and was accorded a standing ovation.

FKO’s annual songwriting contest was the Saturday night highlight. The topic this year was “A Place You’d Like to Go to,” and the winners were Paul Kwinn, Blade and Maureen O’Brien.

The rest of the evening was devoted to what filkers love most: sitting around in circles and singing. There was a performers’ circle, a huge open filk in the main concert room, a Star Trek theme filk (which even included the one song filkers swear they’ll never sing again, the Leslie Fish classic “Banned from Argo”) and international filk. And, of course, that mainstay of any con, open filking. There were songs about spaceships, socks, whales, low-flush toilets, broken hearts, hearts on the mend, legendary horses, alien abductions, and the highs and lows of interstellar travel. While parodies abounded on just about any subject imaginable, somehow the Internet and computers seemed to be prominently featured.

Sunday morning dawned overcast and dreary-and the only filkers to see it happen were die-hards trying to squeeze one more song out of hoarse voices and battered guitar strings. The rest of the con slept in, finally convening for a breakfast buffet banquet where new members were inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame. This event reminds one that filking has been around for more than 40 years, that there are more than 10,000 filkers worldwide nowand that we have a history. Then a Hall of Fame concert was held featuring the songs of new inductees Irwin “Filthy Pierre” Strauss, Cynthia McQuillin and Rafe Culpin.

Even as many people packed up their instruments for the last time and headed for the airport or their cars, others played on. Things finally wound down at the Dead Penguin party, where totally exhausted participants raised their voices in song to say goodbye to FilKONtario 8.

As filkers everywhere collapsed in their own beds around North America, visions of the con danced in their weary heads … David and Judith Hayman of Hamilton, whose hard work has made so many FKOs successful, somehow being everywhere at any time to help out … “Filthy Pierre” Strauss holding impromptu concerts in the lobby on a small keyboard and leading us in a four-part choral arrangement of Handel’s Messiah Hallelujah Chorus… the calming oasis of the con suite, where Lloyd and Yvonne Penney kept us fed, slaked our thirsts and set the stage for some memorable conversations … Peggy Warner-Lalonde and Carolyn Brown, two tireless con chairs who were all smiles at the con’s successful conclusion … out-of-tune guitars that stubbornly refused to submit to repeated tunings … and those basketball players everywhere. So who won the big game, anyway?