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Northern Lights Festival’s secret sauce: workshop performances

Photo: DJ Shub to participate in NLFB workshop

These unique shows inspire collaboration and give a deep dive into the music 

Since 1972, Sudbury’s Northern Lights Festival (Festival Boréal en français) has been a lighting rod for the artistic energy of Northern Ontario. The festival has become known internationally for its consistent curation of countless styles of live music, including emerging discoveries and acclaimed talents. With its roots in folk, world, and indie music, the festival reaches its branches into hip-hop, pop, rock, electronic, and beyond. The 53rd edition takes place July 4-7, 2024, and features over 75 shows, over 40 artists, and 7+ stages/venues. Headliners include: Jully Black, July Talk, The Rural Alberta Advantage, and Tim Baker. Tickets and information are available at nlfb.ca

One truly unique element of the festival is the ‘workshops’, which take place mainly during the daytime on July 6th and 7th, across various festival stages. These workshops are not instructional as some might guess, but are mainly performance-based. Members from different groups/acts are grouped together based on a particular style, influence, theme or instrument. Usually, the artists join each other on stage, and each artist takes turns playing or leading a song. For workshops, artists have the opportunity to really dig into the stories behind the songs, or provide some background on how they came to be. Depending on the workshop, artists may also join in and jam on each other’s songs, creating one-of-kind collaborations that can only happen live, at Northern Lights Festival. Sometimes artists programmed together in workshops represent vastly different styles, creating interesting combinations. Sometimes emerging artists appear alongside seasoned veterans. And quite often, some type of unique musical magic is in the air. 


Among the most anticipated workshops is titled “Heartstrings – First Guitars”, scheduled for 1pm, July 6th, on the festival’s Main Stage. Based on the theme of his recent book of the same title, Sudbury author and musician Sean Barrette hosts a workshop with Lynn Miles, Keith Glass of Prairie Oyster, Andrew Hyatt and Nils Edenloff of The Rural Alberta Advantage (Saturday headliner). Artists will share stories of their first guitars, and share songs – perhaps played on those guitars, or written using them.

Northern Lights also gets digital, with “Beauty in the Beat” – an exploration of ‘beat based’ music using synths, samplers, turntables and beyond. Juno winning, Mohawk Dj/producer DJ Shub will join Mexican-Canadian Latin/hip-hop/reggaeton party-starter Boogàt, and Sudbury live electronic project The 555 on the festival’s Main Stage, July 7th. These distinct artists will showcase their music and their unique approaches to creating and performing. Collaboration and dancing are distinct possibilities!

In folk-fest style, NLFB presents a workshop for lovers of bowed instruments. On July 6th, at 2:30pm, the festival’s Canvas Cabaret Stage will host “Draw the Bow”. Cristina Masotti and Melissa Schaak of Sudbury’s 2VPlus will showcase the violin, in all its magic. Marta Solek of Toronto’s Moskitto Bar will turn festival audiences on to the magic of the lyra, an amazing, traditionally Greek, bowed instrument. Jacinthe Trudeau & Jeff Wiseman, will bring the warm sounds of traditional Métis and Franco-Ontarian fiddle styles. 

At noon, on the festival’s Main Stage, July 6th, three of Canada’s finest voices in folk-roots music will join together for a meditation on the messiness of life. Leonard Cohen wrote: “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Life is rarely picture-perfect, on-time, or neat and tidy. More often than not, it’s a beautiful mess! In this spirit, Lynn Miles, Zachary Lucky and Sarah Jane Scouten will join each other on stage for “Bless this Mess”, to share music and stories on this theme. 

As an example of how jam-packed the festival schedule is with amazing performances, at the exact same time as the above, “Unsung Heroes” takes place on the festival’s Acoustic Stage. This workshop explores the countless amazing musicians who’ve written some really great songs, but many of us might not know. On stage will be: Ontario-based, folk-pop songwriter & performer Evangeline Gentle, Sudbury indie-rock masters Elephantshoes, and more. 

Don’t miss the “Global Music Exchange”, at noon, July 7th, on the festival’s Acoustic Stage. Toronto-based Kazdoura makes music that infuses traditional Arabic melodies with a modern twist. Also Toronto-based, Moskitto Bar combines a beautiful and original mix of Ukrainian, Balkan, Iraqi Middle-Eastern and French Celtic music. These two amazing groups will unite to immerse the audience in a world of Arabic, Breton, Balkan roots music and beyond. Audiences will be able to learn a bit about the origin, history and importance of these musical traditions, plus the scales, rhythms and dances that go with them. 

This year, the festival will host a ‘teaser stage’ at Bell Park’s picturesque lookout known as The Captain’s Deck. This stage will feature short ‘teaser’ performances from festival artists through the day on July 6th and 7th. This stage is free for the public to attend without a festival pass. This is where “Fusions” will take place: a song-circle with three of Sudbury’s most loved singer-songwriters, who sing bilingually in French and English. It will be at noon on July 7th. 

These are just a few examples of the many exciting workshop performances scheduled to take place July 4-7 at Bell Park. The full lineup, schedule, and passes are available at www.nlfb.ca. Northern Lights has recently launched special accommodations packages, in partnership with Radisson Hotel Sudbury, also available online. Ages 14 and under attend free with a ticket bearing adult. Also, a $20 Afternoon only pass is available at the gate only which includes access to one day’s daytime programming. The festival is seeking a number of volunteers, with information also available on the festival’s website.