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Bringing stories back to life in Nelson

After a five-year hiatus, the Kootenay Storytelling Festival is coming back to life.
Ray Stothers and John Galm are organizers of the newly-revived Kootenay Storytelling Festival

After a five-year hiatus, the Kootenay Storytelling Festival is coming back to life.

Eight storytellers are expected to spin tales during the weekend of September 15 and 16, beginning at the event’s birthplace in Procter before migrating to Nelson, where the festival will be held in future.

Barry Gray, past organizing committee chair, says the village never got a chance to say goodbye to the popular summer event, which ran from 1999 to 2007. No one realized the last one would be the last until long after the fact.

“I don’t think it was evident at the time,” says Gray.

He and wife Ursula Heller, another key organizer, went away for a year, but no one stepped forward to take their place.

“Not that we did it singly, but it was a lot of our effort to keep it going,” Gray says. “Nobody said ‘we’re going to take this on to make sure it keeps happening.’”

In the intervening years, storytelling in the Kootenays has been kept alive in a variety of ways: there’s an annual day-long event in Passmore, it’s been offered as a weekly program at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park, and more recently, a storytellers’ guild has formed in Nelson.

Gray says the time seemed ripe to bring the festival back — and bid farewell to Procter.

“The idea of reviving it in Procter and saying goodbye to Procter felt right,” he says. “We put it out to the community and there was pretty strong support to have it happen again and also to let it go. It feels like a natural progression: goodbye Procter, hello Nelson.”

Ray Stothers, who’s involved with the storytelling guild and is helping organize the reincarnated festival, notes Nelson has a larger volunteer base.

“It’s absolutely unheard of that a place the size of Procter could have such an amazing festival for so many years,” he says. “The idea was spectacular and they really ran with it. And then they succumbed to the thing almost all festivals succumb to when there’s no paid administrator: eventually, when you do something with that much artistic and historical merit, it becomes difficult to run it off the side of your desk.”

Day one of the festival will be along the lines of previous ones, with 20-minute stories running simultaneously in the Procter schoolhouse, community hall, and old church. The second day is in Nelson, where venues haven’t been firmed up yet, but will be centred on Baker Street between Kootenay and Falls.

While the line-up isn’t finalized either, veteran performers Carolyn McTaggart, Susan Hulland, and Wendy Voykin will all be back, along with Gray, telling tales of Kootenay history. Kokanee Creek Park interpreter Olivia Van Jarrett will also have a story based on natural history.

The festival is courting a few people from outside the region to round out the bill, including one from the Toronto Storytelling Festival who happens to be in BC.

Stothers says putting local and international storytellers on the same stage will broaden the festival’s scope and demonstrate the calibre of homegrown talent.

“We’ve got great storytellers here,” he says. “If anything’s been missing it’s been getting people who have international experience standing next to them so that our people are seen as competent, capable, and skillful and the stories stand up in great ways.”

Ticketing hasn’t been worked out, but a single pass will get you into all three venues. A fourth venue may be reserved for longer stories.


The revived festival will feature a couple who practice a unique form of West African storytelling and now call Nelson home.

Twenty years ago, University of Colorado music professor John Galm took a sabbatical to learn about world cultures and studied the talking drum in Senegal.

“My teacher showed me how it was used in their culture,” he says. “Everybody knew the proverbs the talking drum says. I thought it was a kind of Morse code — you’d play a certain beat and people would understand that. But it’s all based on language.”

His teacher, known as a jali, was among a group of oral storytellers who retain family histories going back thousands of years. They might spend an entire night telling stories to a village’s inhabitants, who are obliged to pay for the privilege. But if the jali feels his audience is being stingy, he may suddenly remember unflattering tales about their ancestors.

“All of a sudden the money starts rolling in!” Galm laughs. “It’s quite dynamic. Every time it’s a different realization according to what audiences want and need to hear.”

Originally drawn to this area by a tai chi camp at Johnsons Landing, Galm and wife Alyne retired to Nelson a few years ago. He’s agreed to chair the new storytelling festival.

“Not only has John had exposure to and told with some of the finest storytellers,” says festival co-organizer Ray Stothers, “he’s also been given permission, and even asked, to carry on the tradition of one culture in particular.”

The idea is to have the Galms welcome people to the festival and point them to the different venues.

“They’ll basically have guerilla storytelling wherever there’s a group of people,” Stothers says.