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Banjofest Guelph is scaring up new fans and sounds

In this Arts and Culture feature we visit with Ian Molesworth founder of Banjofest Guelph to hear about the eclectic lineup of artists he has assembled for this weekend’s shows at Silence on Essex Street.

The five-string banjo is the signature sound of bluegrass music and for years it was relegated to that niche in many people’s minds, with only the occasional break through on to the pop charts. 

That image is changing and the lineup this year for Banjofest Guelph is a good example of just how enduring and versatile the banjo can be.

“The banjo’s popularity has always been cyclical,” said Ian Molesworth, founder of Banjofest Guelph. “People in the banjo world call it a ‘banjo scare.' Every decade it comes around and people get really enamoured of it.”

A renewed and growing interest in roots music has broadened the banjo’s popularity and influence on a variety of styles.

“The last 10 years it has just become so set in the musical world and there are so many virtuosos coming out,” said Molesworth. “There are schools in the States like Berklee College of Music in Boston that has a four-year program in roots music.”

These new artists and programs are introducing the banjo to a whole new generation of musicians and fans.

“All these young kids are coming out playing banjos and fiddles at an incredible level beyond how the stars were playing 20 years ago,” said Molesworth. “There are some wonderful artists people are following even if they aren’t real bluegrass fans.”

That popularity is evident locally with the growing success of Banjofest Guelph.

“This is the fourth year and it has been growing a little bit every year,” said Molesworth. “The first year it was just one day and we’re up to Friday night through to Sunday afternoon now.”

Tickets have been going fast for all four slots at Silence on Essex Street. 

“We are selling out on tickets every year,” said Molesworth. “We have a few tickets left for Friday night. Saturday afternoon is sold out and there are a few tickets for Saturday night. There are still lots of tickets available for Sunday and that is going to be a great show.”

Molesworth started the festival to indulge and share his love of bluegrass and banjo-suffused music.

“I have been playing banjo since I was 14,” he said. “I’m not as good as I should be after playing that long. I played professionally for a few years in my 20s.” 

The festival is reflective of just how eclectic banjo music has become. 

“It’s not just a bunch of guys sitting around playing banjos,” said Molesworth. “We have everything from bluegrass and old time. Of course, that’s the standard but we also have a world music group coming on Sunday called So Long Seven and they play all kinds of music from around the world.”

There is plenty of Canadian content as well.

“We have a band coming from Montreal called Old Time Honey and they play a cabaret style music with a banjo,” said Molesworth.  “We also have a band called the Red River Ramblers and they play Metis music.”

Molesworth tries hard to find artists that exhibit the wide virtuosity of banjo music and meet a standard he expects himself from this type of festival. 

“I love bluegrass but I don’t want to have just bluegrass,” said Molesworth. “We’ve had folk, blues and jazz over the years. It has been a challenge over the years to come up with a lineup that is varied enough to satisfy me, but I think the banjo is here to stay.” 

To learn more about Banjofest Guelph or order tickets visit: