Ottawa Grassroots: the Little Festival That Grew

Photos by Anne-Marie Brugger and Andre Gagne

Kicking off Ottawa’s ubiquitous festival season is one that truly stands by its name: The Ottawa Grassroots Festival. Now in its sixth year, the festival began as a one-night event in a legion hall back in 2011 and has since bloomed into a four-day affair showcasing great Canadian folk artists, musicians, and artisans of all sorts. The festival was born from the vision of its producer, Robert Nesbitt, who wanted to create an inclusive music and culture event for all to enjoy.

The girls/Les filles got the crowd up and slow dancing … and dipping!

Mr. Nesbitt, known simply as Bob to everyone, will be very quick to respond that it is the volunteers that have made the festival the success that it is. True, it certainly wouldn’t be possible without the help of all the community members who pitch in and devote hours of their time for the good of the cause.

However, without Bob’s vision along with his willingness to produce, coordinate and wrangle the artists, the event would not have grown into its current format. 

First out of the gate in the throes of springtime, the Ottawa Grassroots Festival is truly all-inclusive appealing to a diverse cross-section of the Ottawa community. Beginning on Thursday, April 20, the four-day event featured French-Canadian artists, members of our indigenous community, a choir of recent immigrants to Canada, a dance party for toddlers, music and workshops for families, young bucks and old farts alike! 

Ottawa community radio stations CKCU and CHUO were also part of the mix. CKCU held a live broadcast on location at the Southminster United Church led by the effervescent Chris White, while program host, Tonya Price emcee’d the Friday night concert.

Yours truly, apart from writing for OLM, I am also host/producer of a weekly program on CHUO and had the honour of serving as emcee on both Thursday and Saturday evenings.

As in past years, the weekend kicked-off with a francophone program. True to our regional French culture, the evening had a nice blend of French and English spoken word and song, affectionately referred to as “Franglais”!  From Ottawa/Gatineau, Genevieve RB and Alain Barbeau, a duo who are also a couple in real life started things on a high note; he on guitar, she on piano. The acoustics in the church were blissful.

The headliners, Cindy Doire, Mélanie Brulée and Anique Granger performed together as a trio for the first time ever. The ladies are highly acclaimed artists in their own right but their joint performance was a resounding success. The audience witnessed the beginning of what is hopefully to become a more permanent arrangement.

Friday night began with a moving performance by The One World Choir, a group of recently immigrated refugees who came together to learn English through song. In harmony, they also learned of each other’s cultures. It was a beautiful moment that neither they nor the audience will soon forget.

The Friday night soundscape didn’t end there. Headlining the evening where the Durham County Poets, a five-piece folk and roots band from Chateauquay Valley blending blues, folk, rock, country and gospel. The evening closed with another choir, Shout Sister! Led by Jody Benjamin, the choir made up of 100 women filled the church sanctuary with their uplifting soul-cleansing repertoire of songs.

Daytime programs on Saturday and Sunday were free of charge and designed to entertain families and participants of all ages. Almost every room in the large Gothic church that dominates the Ottawa south neighbourhood was booked with various performances, activities and workshops.

The Shirt Tearing Boys, Jill Zmud and Julie Corrigan were among the many daytime performers. Among the various activities taking place on the weekend, Mike Leeworthy led a workshop on how to build a Cigar-box Guitar using a little ingenuity and recycled materials.


Saturday night began with a poetry reading along with some wise and well-placed words from Algonquin Traditional Teacher and poet, Albert Dumont. This was followed by Ottawa’s newest sensation, Malak, who charmed her audience with her honest quasi-autobiographical songs of love lost and love gained. Giddily introducing her songs of badly handled break-ups, the recent graduate’s immensely powerful voice seemed antithetic to her innocent and youthful demeanor. You could feel the love in the room as the audience, mostly made-up of older and middle-aged adults, embraced her uninhibited candour. She is most definitely an artist to watch.

Ken Whiteley

The headliner, one of Canada’s most respected roots musicians, Ken Whiteley accompanied by the Beulah Band played two sets to a delighted room, who willingly joined him with hand-claps, swaying and singing along. Ken Whiteley, a highly acclaimed musician who has been performing for well over 30 years, culled a fine selection of numbers from his vast repertoire. Kicking things off with a cover of “Midnight Special”, he immediately drew the audience into the palm of his hands. A prolific songwriter, a gifted and versatile instrumentalist and incredibly powerful singer, he energized the crowd with his contagious enthusiasm. There is nothing more amazing than watching a seasoned performer do what he does best.

On this night, the Beulah Band was made up of Gord Mowat on stand-up bass, Matt Elwood on banjo and Rosalyn Dennett on fiddle. The three young musicians were exceptionally talented. It was Matt’s first show with the Beulah Band and as for Rosalyn, she is the keystone of the band and, as Ken clearly stated, “no show takes place without her”.

This is a unique festival that has broad appeal. There is beauty in seeing people come together for a common cause – not a political cause, or even a charity cause – just a need to unite through arts and culture to create a simple and downright good time.

Save the date for next year’s Ottawa Grassroots Festival expected to take place in late April.

With a goal to “cultivate community”, this garden is going to keep growing and you won’t want to miss the annual harvest.

Tonya Price and Chris White live CKCU broadcast with Lynn Miles or with Mike Leeworthy.