The Lake Eden Arts Festival, poised for its 29th installment, has a tradition of bringing both top-notch world-music performers and acts near and dear to the hearts of local festival-goers. And if that seems a rather tall and precarious order, the twice-yearly music, arts and camping event makes it look downright easy.
This fall's lineup is an especially ambitious one, slating acts like Canadian folkies The Cowboy Junkies, Atlanta-based hip-hop collective Arrested Development, Venezuelan disco/funk/jazz group Los Amigos Invisibles and Malian kora master Mamadou Diabate. But, far-flung as these performers seem at first glance, they tend to share some important commonalities: A curiosity about a variety of musical styles, a love of fusion and a keen sense of how to create a festive atmosphere for audiences.
Take Marie Daulne, front-woman and mastermind of effortlessly cool "Afro-pean" group Zap Mama. Two decades since the band's inception, Zap Mama is as current as ever. This year's release, ReCreation, features collaborations with French actor Vincent Cassel, singer/rapper Meshell Ndegeocello and fedora-wearing hip-hop folkie G. Love. That, and Daulne changes languages as adroitly as she moves between keys. "I like using French for softer songs and also to tell stories with stronger lyrics, because French comes more naturally and easily to me, and I can use the subtleties and sophistication of the language," she tells Xpress via e-mail. "English is cool for its resonance and for the hip, rhythm mouth sounds one can make with it — and the attitude. It's absolutely fantastic for expressing attitude. I use the African language to make more earthy, deep Afro sounds and percussive sounds."
Now add to that Latin rhythms: Congo-born, Belgium-raised Daulne's ReCreation was inspired by a Brazil vacation with her son. "It is the soundtrack of a wonderful time of my life," she says. "And now it's yours: It's for the audience, for people who need good feelings, need a break … Zap Mama will take you on vacation for three minutes, the duration of a song."
The Latin flavor is a perfect complement to this LEAF's special theme, "Expresiones Latinas" (Latin Expressions). But it's not such a departure for Zap Mama: "You know, I'm constantly zapping from [one] world to another; jumping from one idea to another," says Daulne.
Another band that keeps jumping is blues/jazz/swing collective Squirrel Nut Zippers. Since the group's start (in Chapel Hill in 1993), they've been drawing from influences like klezmer and country, mixing sounds and styles with wild abandon. According to the Zippers' Web site, "The band still rejoices at the difficulty people have pigeonholing their unmistakable sound." And, since regrouping in 2007 (following a several-year hiatus), side projects of Zippers' members enhance that sonic gumbo.
"Jimbo is real bluesy," trumpet player (and Asheville resident) Jerome "Je" Widenhouse says of front man/vocalist/guitarist/banjo, trombone and piano player James "Jimbo" Mathus. (Mathus currently lives in Mississippi and fronts The Knockdown Society.)
"With my playing, you'll hear a traditional jazz influence," says Widenhouse, whose Asheville-based Firecracker Jazz Band enjoys both a local and national following. "Katharine [Whalen] used to sit and play banjo or stand and sing. Now she stands and sings with a tenor guitar. She's been studying country the whole time off the road."
Though the Zippers' brand-new album, the live-recorded Lost at Sea (set for release the week after LEAF), showcases the band in full high-energy, flamboyant, punk-meets-folk form, those new impetuses (country and gospel, specifically) will reveal themselves on an upcoming 2010 endeavor. "Jimbo and Katharine sing together with horns, but there will also be the occasional odd, crazy thing that doesn't even sound like the Zippers," Widenhouse tells Xpress.
A demo track of the Stephen Foster song "Hard Times" begins with a mellow acoustic sound followed by a horn part that comes off more like a New Orleans second line parade than a somber Civil War-era ditty. In fact, it's not until Whalen's vocals emerge from the clamor that Foster's distinct melody reveals itself.
On the other hand, Zap Mama's disc (though more exotic in its genesis) possesses an easy accessibility. The band's early years as an a cappella project are put to use in the opening bars of "The Way You Are," which melts into a sultry R&B jam with lyrical contributions from neo-soul singer Bilal.
Though Zap Mama's trajectory follows a singular path (Daulne launched her singing career after returning to her native Kinshasa, from which she fled with her mother and sisters during the Congolese rebellion), it's likely Daulne's summation could work for N.C.'s Squirrel Nut Zippers as well: "I look back and I realize there is a continuity," and "there are thousands of millions of people out there, and thousands of ways to feel and understand and interpret what I do."
One way the Zippers' work has been interpreted is through the animated film of their song "The Ghost of Stephen Foster." Says Widenhouse, "The Simpsons producers just made it and showed it to us … it's made to look like an early 20th century cartoon with a Betty Boop character." The band was also tapped in 2000 for a Sesame Street appearance, an honor shared by other adult-approved acts like Feist and Alicia Keys.
"We were shaking hands with Grover on the steps of 123 Sesame Street," Widenhouse enthuses about that venture. He adds, "I feel like the bands I'm in have a very wide age-range appeal. Now that Squirrel Nut Zippers is playing again, we have [fans] in their 20s tell us their parents played our albums when they were young." It's also possible that Zippers fans caught the band in a Lake Eden performance at the Black Mountain Music Festival, which predated LEAF.
That kind of longevity, a career-spanning phenomenon also enjoyed by Daulne, is what makes a band into a tradition even if said band is far from traditional. But happy pasts aside, both the Zippers and Zap Mama are future focused.
"You start thinking about other styles – an intellectual curiosity. You have to, or your style starts to suck," Daulne says. "A creative artist is curious – wants to explore feelings, and create new sounds. … In this process, I rediscovered my inner identity."
who: Lake Eden Arts Festival
what: Weekend-long bi-annual music and arts event with camping
where: Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain
when: Thursday, Oct. 15—Sunday, Oct. 18 (gates open for tent setup at 3 p.m. Thursday; festival ends at 5:45 p.m. Sunday. Tickets run $161 for a full weekend pass with camping and Thursday night events, $139 for Friday-Sunday with camping, $89 community pass with no camping, $48 for Saturday only, $38 for Friday or Sunday only. Tickets sold online only and tend to sell out early. www.theleaf.org or 686-8742.)