Playing with Bonfires

“I built a bonfire, metaphorically, in the dark,” begins poet, traveler and organizer Pasckie Pascua in a recent interview. His story is about the figurative blaze that came to be known as the Traveling Bonfires — a moveable feast of music and poetry now based in Asheville.

But it also starts with a very literal fire, in the ravaged mountains of Pascua’s home, the Philippines. Working as a war reporter during the Ferdinand Marcos years, the poet decided to offer local people some relief from the relentless resurgences by regaling them with music and poetry around — you got it — a bonfire.

Later, Pascua invited fellow journalists to add their voices, and after Marcos and his shoe-obsessed wife were overthrown in 1986, the Traveling Bonfires took their show on the road, organizing concerts across the Southeast Asian country.

Fast-forward nearly two decades: Pascua is still setting fires, figurative ones, only this time in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Crossing more than cultures

“I come from a country where there’s social strife, where I’ve [worked] to bring down a dictatorship,” the poet goes on.

His Traveling Bonfires group, though, “isn’t political.” It is, he says, “a gathering of people. My peace is just that: If you have music, you don’t argue.”

One of the Traveling Bonfires’ main venues is the Bonfires for Peace concerts held monthly in Pritchard Park. And while these shows aren’t exactly brokering talks between warring factions, they are a meeting of cultures — or at least of genres.

“One mission of the Bonfires is cultural sensitivity,” Pascua points out. “I’ve been trying to invite other cultures to Bonfires for Peace. We’ve had [local West African drum-and-dance troupe] Ballet Warraba … but mostly it’s white Americans.”

However, Pascua, with the help of communications assistant Marta Osborne, technical advisor Dale Allen Hoffman and graphic artists Justin Gostony, Matthew Mulder and Jon Teeple, has created a music community drawing bands from as far as Texas.

During the 1990s, Pascua relocated to New York City, where he recognized a growing chasm in the Filipino community between the older generation and the younger, Americanized Pinoys. Inspired to bridge these two groups, the poet recreated his traveling music productions, along with his open-mic-style magazine, The Indie.

“Wherever I go, I adapt the Bonfires,” he explains. So, when Pascua headed south for Asheville four years ago, he reconstructed his projects yet again, this time gearing it to local acts trying to get a foot in the door of the independent-music scene.

Superstars need not apply

“My first show here was just to attract people to the Bonfires,” the former journalist recalls. After making the rounds of open mics — both as a reader and as a listener — Pascua began to show his true colors as an organizer.

“At first I wasn’t very selective,” he admits. “My feeling was that anyone could perform if they had the guts to perform.”

In fact, his approach was far less about polish than it was about offering artists a space to emote. “I believe our concept is different,” Pascua notes. “For example, I don’t have a PA [system], but if we bring a community together, we can pool our PAs and gear and have a show.”

Lately, that wide-open approach has been modified to guarantee gigs at area clubs, where many proprietors want specific sounds, such as dance music. The Bonfires’ upcoming production at Tribes is tailored to that venue’s tastes: Athens, Ga.-based reggae outfit Lionz will be paired with local dance band the Meridian Soundscape.

“When we do five or seven bands, then there’s the diversity,” explains Pascua, who counts among his retinue female trio Menage, folk singer/songwriter Michael Farr and the quirkily humorous Aaron Gunn.

“I’m constantly looking for something new,” the organizer continues. “I want the performers to be more communicative, more participatory with the audience. There are no superstars.”

Manila … and back again

There are, however, opportunities for up-and-coming bands to break into bigger musical circles.

Pascua, who has maintained ties in NYC with such rock-inoculated venues as CBGB and Acme Underground, has booked Big Apple shows for the likes of local band Kerouac or the Radio. The Traveling Bonfires also has a base in Baltimore, where Filipino-American bands play. These points north offer opportunities for WNC acts, though the organization’s creator says that few Asheville-based bands want to go on the road.

An itinerant journeyman himself, Pascua is gearing up for a concert in his native country — a long-delayed return of the original Traveling Bonfires. This show will feature Filipino talent, though Pascua claims his dream is to eventually book American groups on the Southeast Asian islands.

Meanwhile, the Pritchard Park showcases are pass-the-hat affairs that fund, in a bare-bones way, the Bonfires’ office and The Indie, along with a host of side projects such as the Wander Lecture Series (which gives Indie columnists a platform to share various topics with an audience); foreign-film screenings; and potlucks. Other concerts ask a modest cover — hardly lining the pockets of the Bonfires’ small staff, according to Pascua.

“My principle is that if you stop something you feel is really good, you fail,” he offers. “I don’t believe in one-time things.” So, as long as there’s Ramen noodles and enough change between the couch cushions to put gas in the car, the Bonfires will keep on traveling.

“The Bonfires crossed over from a Philippines community to a diverse community because there are no nationalities anymore,” the organizer muses. That’s the idea, anyway. Says Pascua: “We’re blurring the lines.”


Catch the Traveling Bonfires at Tribes (237 Haywood St.) on Thursday, Jan. 13. The 10 p.m. show features Lionz and Meridian Soundscape. Cover is $5. For more information, call 350-1195. To learn more about the Bonfires, visit www.freewebs.com/thetravelingbonfires.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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