by Chris Rogers
In 1971, Welsh-born Winonan Hwyel “Taff” Roberts was returning from a tour of duty in Singapore with Britain’s Royal Air Force, flying through the Middle East at night, when the captain called him to join him in the cockpit. Across the desert below them, the dark night was dotted with hundreds of small fires.
“For a few miles across the desert that night, every two miles you would see a light,” Roberts recalled. “I asked the captain, what am I looking at? … He said, ‘They are all Bedouins. They are huddled around the campfire telling stories.’ »
It was a moment Roberts could not forget. This and other experiences – storytelling gatherings on Welsh farms, stories shared at an Anishinaabe and Métis ceremony, stories exchanged at an Inuit whaling celebration in the Canadian Arctic – the have inspired. “I thought, ‘That’s exactly what we should be doing as a culture,'” Roberts said.
Long before rock and roll, ballet, or even writing, there was storytelling. Stories are perhaps the oldest and most fundamental form of human expression, central to how we see the world and ourselves. But as other mediums have developed, oral storytelling has also become a kind of lost art. Winona’s newest festival – the Sandbar Storytelling Festival on October 14 and 15 – aims to reconnect with those roots and shine a spotlight on great storytellers from around the world.
“Your story is your identity,” Roberts said. “Even though you were one of the twins, you might look alike, but your stories are different.”
The two-day festival at Saint Mary’s University will feature a quintet of headliners: five-time West Virginia Liar Contest champion Bill Lepp, bilingual Colombian storyteller Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, bluesman and storyteller from Detroit, Reverend Robert Jones Sr., adapter of Hawaiian, Japanese and Korean folk tales Alton Takiyama-Chung and award-winning New York storyteller Regi Carpenter. Roberts said of Takiyama-Chung, “When he gets on stage, put your seatbelt on. I mean, he’s amazing! There will be food and music, workshops and storytelling contests with local students, scary stories, hilarious stories and a bit of everything in between. The festival also plans to invite a few local businesses with intriguing stories to share at the festival.
The Sandbar Storytelling Festival will host famed Minneapolis, Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling for a fundraiser on June 25. The festival also plans to launch local storytelling circles for local citizens to work on their own stories. In future years, organizers plan to incorporate open mics – similar to NPR’s “Moth Radio” – into the festival, but this first year the focus is on teaching people what music is. narration.
“Storytelling is a two-way street,” Roberts said. “For this to work, we need to tell our story and listen to others telling theirs.”
“I think it’s something that really connects people. I think it’s universal,” said Gary Diomandes, professor emeritus of theater arts at Saint Mary’s University and board member of the Sandbar Storytelling Festival. “It goes back to the caveman. We told stories to explain things to people. You discover different cultures.
For more information, see “Sandbar Storytelling Festival to Launch in Winona” and visit sandbarstorytellingfestival.org.