If there's a theme to the Lake Eden Arts Festival, it's probably along the lines of “laid-back fun with friends and family.” Or, “camping, dancing and live music from around the world.” Or, “snacking on a Veggie Thing while floating in a canoe to the sounds of a Tibetan chanteuse or a hip-hop yogi.”
All of that fits, but LEAF organizers are filing this spring's lineup under “Voices of Tradition,” with an eclectic group of artists ranging from R&B vocalist Mavis Staples, avant-banjo songstress Abigail Washburn, jazz singer Lizz Wright, and N.C. balladeer Sheila Kay Adams — among many others.
Interactive sound field installation The Megaphone Project, which started in Australia, will also be part of LEAF. It “allows people to discover a game of sound and physical play: a world of private and public broadcast.” Perhaps the project, which has traveled the world since 2011, was drawn to life by the varied voices, but its aim is not to capture professional performances but audience participation.
“Twenty-five striking-red megaphones of different shapes and sizes recreate the miracle of wireless tin can telephones, and the joyful manipulations of voices that are naturally reinforced through simple acoustics,” explains the Megaphone Project's website. “Voices then mysteriously and ambiguously return via our custom wireless audio network. The megaphones create an interactive performance field for both the public and the artists.”
The festival offers plenty of other opportunities for play, learning, movement, listening, interacting and that laid-back fun we mentioned earlier. In advance of the action-packed weekend, some of LEAF's artists talked to Xpress about their own projects, processes and plans for LEAF weekend.
MC Yogi is the stage name of Northern California-based musician and yoga teacher Nicholas Giacomini. His sound is a danceable blend of world beat, hip-hop, Bollywood, reggae, dancehall, house and dub, fusing Hindu chants with club beats. His most recent album is Pilgrimage; last year he produced the video “Be the Change (The Story of Mahatma Gandhi)” in celebration of Gandhi’s birthday.
Mountain Xpress: Was there an experience or moment when you realized that you could blend bhajans and hip-hop? How did that fusion come to you, and what influence found its way into your life first — hip-hop, or yoga and chanting? MC Yogi: Hip-hop came first. In the beginning was the word, and after being broke down and feeling lost, yoga helped to bring it all together.
There's a real sense of joy in your music, but it seems like you risk crossing a line where you could offend various groups. Is there a thought process that goes into writing rhymes/songs that involves checking the intention of impact of your music? And how do you hope for it to impact your listeners? I always strive to do what I love and create something that will make the world a better place. I'm a huge nerd and making music and art is really just an expression of what I'm really into and believe in. Yoga saved my life, and brought a lot of light into some very dark places. It helped me to get to know myself, and showed me how to connect to the world around me in a more peaceful and kind way. If that offends people, then I have a lot of compassion, because they must be in a lot of pain on some level. My hope is that through the practices and through the music, we can help to lessen the suffering and bring more joy and conscious celebration into the world.
I've noticed that in past blog posts, you've covered spiritual graffiti and comics. Can you talk a little bit about using pop culture to relay spiritual messages? Growing up I loved reading comics, watching cartoons, painting graffiti and listening to hip-hop music. When I got into yoga, my love for the yoga tradition infused everything I was doing, so naturally pop art became a great vehicle to share my love. Pop culture is like the mind, it can bring awareness to anything. It’s like a light, and when used for a higher purpose it can accomplish great things. Look at John and Yoko: They used Mad Men-style marketing tactics to promote peace in the same way you would promote and sell toothpaste. It’s an amazing vehicle.
I saw you lead a yoga class at LEAF last year. You weren't playing hip-hop music at the time, but I wondered if you ever used hip-hop while doing asanas. Sure, I play everything from Lee Scratch Perry to the Beastie Boys and Bob Marley to The Beatles. When music comes form the root and makes you feel good, it can be a great catalyst for yoga, which is the realization that everything is connected.
You're a return visitor to LEAF. Tell us what you most look forward to seeing and/or doing while you're at Lake Eden.
I really love the vibe in North Carolina, especially at Lake Eden. I met some really cool people there last year and look forward to turning a new leaf.
WNC-based roots/folk/jazz/gospel singer and composer Lizz Wright has released four solo albums and contributed to many more projects (more on that below). But she also took time out to attend culinary school and to blog about both her garden and her kitchen.
NPR called you "ever-evolving," and your solo albums to date have covered a lot of ground, from jazz and folk to pop and gospel. Do you feel like that kind of evolution is who you are — your sound — or do you see you see yourself settling into one genre? My relationship with music is a living thing, as well as the conversation with the audience. Evolution is how I know that they're still thriving. Historically, the roots of gospel, folk and jazz are deep and intersecting, and so I am but one of many artists who openly displays the familial relationships between these genres. I've found a way to explore the world and communicate with it through music. When I lose curiosity I'll know that I'm not in love anymore.
Your voice is so rich and gorgeous and effortless. As a person who doesn't have singing talent, I've often wondered how it feels to be able to do that. Does it feel natural and effortless and like you're totally in your zone? Or are there challenges and struggles for you as a vocalist? Thank you! Nice to hear that it appears effortless. Actually, it burns a lot of calories, and I have to eat before and after shows so that I don't get loopy from low energy. Once, a man walked up to me somewhere in Germany after a show and said, "You must be on a strict diet and routine to be able to get all of that sound out. I bet you must eat far in advance of the show, for instance." Laughing, I replied, " Actually, I scarfed down a huge steak just minutes before the curtain, and it must've been a good one from what you're telling me!" I'm classically trained and have found the power vocal and yogic breathing methods to be very similar in technique and effect. On a good night performing can feel much like an "open" meditation.
Even though you've found success with your albums, you took time off a couple of years ago to go to culinary school. Was it hard to take time away from music, and do you feel that those two passions — music and cooking — feed each other (no pun intended!)? For the first 10 years of my career, I was a quiet cook, feeling guilty and conflicted about my passion for both forms. Somehow, I outgrew the shame and allowed myself six months of focus at the Natural Gourmet Institute in N.Y. Now, I can recall that throughout my life, food and music have always been happening at once. From our traditional family gatherings to writing my best songs as a Jersey barista, the two expressions have almost always been seamless.
You've been a guest vocalist on a number of projects, working with artists like David Sanborn, Amos Lee, Jakob Dylan and Meshell Ndegeocello. Who would you like to work with in the future — and why? I have a dream to sing a song one day with Taj Mahal and his lovely daughter Deva. They both sing from deep places and feel like family when I'm around them. Also, I imagine Meshell and I will rendevous again soon. Toshi Reagon has also been one of my favorite collaborators over the years.
Tell us about your LEAF performance — anything special planned? Who's in your band? Any guest musicians we should know about? Asheville's own Free Planet Radio is supporting me at LEAF! They're world-class, conscious and adventurous musicians. I've been in love with these blue hills since I played at the Orange Peel about six years ago. It's a sweet, full circle moment to sing here now that I've been a resident long enough to feel like a part of it.
Peter Rowan is a bluegrass musician with a penchant for yodeling. He tours with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, whose four members boast more than 100 years of musical experience between them. The band released its debut album, Legacy, in 2010 and was nominated for a Grammy that year.
Do you think yodeling is a lost art? Doesn't seem to be lost. It's supposed to sound that way!
What do you think of the current folk revival? There is a revival in live music in general. People want the magic. They want to see the music as well as hear it through earphones. Folk revival [sic] music played by folks, not machines!
You have an international fan base, and yet bluegrass is such an American art form. Do you think the genre translates to other countries? Yes, bluegrass is popular all over the world. People everywhere love it. I play dates in the UK, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Australia and the Czech Republic. How could they not [like bluegrass] with so many people learning to play and with fine young bands coming up?
Are there any up and coming roots bands that you are into? I enjoy Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. There are so many new bands and they are all good.
Do you like playing outdoor festivals or do you prefer shows in clubs and concert halls? [I like] any place that has a good sounding room. Theaters are fun, but outdoors has inspiration on another level. The music becomes a part of nature and nature enters the music. The sounds of music have more space to expand out of doors.
Abigail Washburn is a claw hammer banjo player, singer/songwriter, world traveler and, most recently, theatrical writer (her Post-American Girl is a part of the NY New Voices series for the Public Theatre in New York). She's a former member of The Sparrow Quartet and a LEAF favorite. What follows is an excerpt from her interview with Xpress; read the full story at mountainx.com.
How did the debut of Post-American Girl go, and what's it like to experience a work inspired by events and ideas from your life unfold on stage? I chose to collaborate with Chinese Shadow and bunraku puppeteers, an actor, Chinese Opera percussionist, guzheng player, and two U.S. string players. What unfolded creatively for me is the story of a young woman leaving home for a foreign country and harnessing the lessons of emotional growth and an expanded worldview through the lens of being, first a foreigner in a foreign land, and then feeling a foreigner in her own country and ultimately finding her own unique purpose in a rapidly changing global order. Working on Post-American Girl has been the most creatively demanding experience of my life. It was like endlessly milking the inner teet of creativity for every drop of wisdom and humor my story has to offer.
Moving into theater is a new direction for you. What led to the Post-American Girl project, and has this inspired you to pursue other forms of performance in the future? Post-American Girl came from an opportunity to collaborate with the Public Theatre. They gave me a team of a playwriting specialist, director, theater philosopher and producer to work with — so amazing! Every time I sat down with them I learned so much it made my brain hurt and I had to go away and think and write and process for days. The possibility of theatre, that stage and the potential for transformative art to happen in front of an audience is limitless. It is magic waiting to happen.
You're expecting a baby just a month after LEAF — how has being pregnant affected touring and playing shows over the last several months. And do you think you'll bring your baby with you on the road in the future? My midwife told me to be careful about touring any time in the last month of pregnancy because the baby could come at any moment. I thought, "If my water broke on stage at LEAF, I bet most of the audience would be filled with midwives and spiritual ladies ready to bring this child into a beautiful world." … In some ways I think I've gained some superpowers from this little being developing inside me. All this creative activity fills me with hopefulness about the potential of our lifeforce to have a wonderful experience here. It makes me want to bring a baby into this world. I'm eager to see who this little one is and how we will live a creative life together. And, yes, his poppa and I are going to hit the road together as a duo for his first experiences out this September and October. We hope to get to perform together throughout the rest of our lives.
I was reading some reviews of WOMAD Festival, which you recently played, and it got me thinking about world music as a genre. What does it mean to you? The term, to me, represents the intentionality of the listener drawn to the music and helps those listeners find one another. Now, what the content of the genre of world music is or should be is not clear to me. One tenet that I value in thinking about world music is authenticity. My favorite culture-to-culture collaborations stem from a musical moment that captures two authentic, unique sources derived from local tradition that entangle intentionally but openly and discover more about the special offering of their own tradition from the engagement.
Since you and Ben Sollee are both playing LEAF, any chance for a Sparrow Quartet reunion? I was hoping for this, but, alas, Casey Driessen and Bela [Fleck] are both off in different directions that weekend and unavailable. However, Ben and I have been dropping notes back and forth to one another excited about the idea of a collaboration. We toured together as a duo for many years before the Sparrow Quartet existed. I've missed our collaboration, and I’m eager to unearth some of the old and move into the new. We'll definitely be finding a special moment to be together on stage.
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo is a Grammy award-winning "kid-hop" artist, former Asheville resident and longtime advocate for children's music education. He's also a celebrated adult performer and founding member of the famed Asheville collective GFE. Last year, Skidoo relocated to the West Coast where he currently lives with his wife and daughter, who are regular contributors to his albums.
First, I assume you've gotten all settled in in California. Can you tell us a little about where you're living now and how that's changed your perspective and music?
I have moved to a small gold mining town in Northern California to, as the ancient alchemists put it, "turn my lead to gold." Hopefully that means turning pencil lead to gold records. The place looks pretty much like Deadwood but with paved roads and wineries, and I consider myself to now be the Al Swearengen of family hip-hop. Except a bit nicer and less erudite. Though there are many great possibilities and opportunities here, in all my national travels I have yet to find a music scene I like as much as Asheville, so I will be continuing to fly back and deal with Ashvilleans both on the musical and engineering side, with a temporary headquarters at Echo Mountain, in which to conduct my alchemical processes.
You've launched your own label. What's the status of that, and can we expect you to be breaking new artists anytime soon?
While I do have my own label, Underground Playground Records, the only artists officially signed to it are my myriad of multiple personalities. But I will be releasing an album called Live at the Orange Peel later this year that features my MVP local conspirators Yo Mamma's Big Fat Booty Band and us rocking a full set of 23 Skidoo material that's equally pulled from all three albums. It's pure, undiluted funkistry.
I've heard that you've got more than just music on the horizon?
I'll also be releasing a book called Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out, which is illustrated by Asheville's favorite punk rock cartoonist, Stu Helm, and which features three musical versions of the story that you read along with and “turn the page when you hear this sound,” inspired by the cassette tape books I read growing up. We have a funk/hip-hop version by Booty Band and I and a bluegrass version by Snake Oil Medicine Show, along with a lullaby version with Billy Jack Sinkovic on cello, Ellie LaBar on violin and my sweet wife's storytime voice. We may only release it digitally for iPad and Kindle, unless there's anyone out there who wants to publish it or invest in physical copies. Anyone?… Anyone?… Bueller?
I know education has always been a big part of your mission and you've been involved with LEAF for many years. Why do you think music education is so important for young people, and do you feel like our society is making progress towards recognizing that?
Arts education is the most important training we can give to kids right now, both as a method to find meaning in life and to create skills for a Western, first-world market that is increasingly right brained and gestalt based. I am able to use hip-hop, which focuses especially on individuality and uniqueness, yet contains within it all the DNA of American music, to promote creativity, self knowledge and worth, and I love to rock classrooms with high-energy learning. Mostly, arts education is going down the drain as budgets get slashed by maniacal tyrants who think making kids into robots is a good long-term economic strategy because they themselves were never taught to be creative, have fun and share love. Boooooo. Let's change that.
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo will perform an “educational informance” at the Orange Peel on May 13.
- Dane Smith