Fiesta fantastica

Asheville’s newest festival boasts a heat that has nothing to do with its steamy, dog-days-of-summer calendar date. Even though La Fiesta Latina is slated for the last Saturday in June, it would no doubt be smokin’ even in January.

The idea for La Fiesta Latina got its modest start a year-and-a-half ago. “The North Carolina Arts Council did a show at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, of Mexican art, to encourage art groups and the state to recognize the growing Spanish-speaking segments of [their] communities,” relates festival director Frank Thomson, who’s also the curator of the Asheville Art Museum. “A number of Latin fiber artists in Morganton got interested in the show.” With the help of folklorist Kelly Feltault, that interest turned into A Journey in Fiber: Latin American Fiber Artists in Western North Carolina, now on display at The Gallery in Pack Place — and a focal point of the festival (which is co-sponsored by Asheville’s Catholic Social Services).

But this is no decorous exhibit to be viewed and forgotten. Artists included in the show will actually demonstrate their techniques and talk about their work. That hands-on approach extends to other aspects of the festival, too: Local powerhouse dancer Liliana DiCastro will teach revelers the right way to shake their stuf,f before western North Carolina’s most popular Latin dance band, Con Clave, takes the stage.

Not that correct steps matter much once the group’s fiery beat kicks in.

“It’s the rhythm,” says Con Clave conga player Ozzie Orengo, adding, “It’s hard for people to keep still.” Orengo knows full well that the universal urge to groove is the key to Latin music’s generation-transcending popularity, though he’ll only note quietly, “I think we draw all types of people, young and old.”

Con Clave vibraphonist Byron Hedgepeth (who moonlights as a timpanist with the Asheville Symphony) waxes sociological on the subject, though.

“The crowds are mixed around here, because the people that have settled here are mixed,” he offers, though he will concede that Latin music “is becoming more and more of a ‘thing.’ People want to dance.”

Like Orengo, Hedgepeth lauds the music’s infectious rhythms, though he’s quick to add: “Latin music goes back quite a ways and has a lot of validity musically and rhythmically. … There’s great music, like Beethoven, and other kinds of music that are not so great — trivial music. Some Latin songs can be trivial, but the rhythm is [always] great.”

The band, which formed six years ago and gigged regularly at Asheville’s now-defunct Latin Quarter restaurant, has a new lineup these days that features such noted musicians as bassist Eliot Wadopian, pianist Keith Davis, timbale player Ozzie Orengo Jr., and saxophonist Stuart Reinhardt. “[Our sound] is basically the same [as it always was], a salsa/jazz fusion of sorts,” notes Hedgepeth. “The players in this band have played all around the world: We carry a lot with us to the table.”

Clearly, Con Clave’s presence will be a definite highlight of the city’s first Latin celebration, but Thomson is quick to give every act equal billing.

“That’s like being asked which one of your six children is the best one,” he says with a chuckle, when asked about his favorite part of the festival. The diverse children’s area, however — which will feature storytelling, dance, crafts, hands-on activities and special demonstrations of tricks with tops — is near the top of his list.

“The children’s area is a real knockout,” Thomson promises. “Children [will] learn and play at the same time.

“We all have something to learn about Latin culture,” he continues, “starting with the realization that it comes from all over.” Accordingly, Latin food from diverse countries and traditions will abound. The Burnsville-based Groupo Tarasco will offer up a series of traditional Mayan dances, and Asheville’s Beatrice y Francisco will perform songs for voice and Spanish guitar.

“We’ve brought together a lot of small Latin groups here and there — from Morganton, Waynesville, Burnsville — that all felt very isolated,” explains Thomson, “so that Latin people can become more aware of their sense of place. We want to celebrate Latin culture in western North Carolina by showing off heritage and creativity.”

And, as Orengo points out, we’re in the right place at the right time.

“The Latin community is growing, and we need to get together and form some kind of community [in which] everyone can express their views and participate,” proclaims the conga player. “Asheville is a great place for this, because [the people are] so open-minded.”


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