Any reason for the season—the other new year

Once, when Asheville-based musician Andy Pond passed through customs into the Montego Bay airport, a member of the Mento band (which greets tourists) noticed his banjo case. “Going to Jamaica with a musical instrument makes people treat you differently,” Pond says. He suddenly found himself picking along with the band, welcoming fellow tourists—including the cast of MTV’s “Jackass” series.

Asheville’s Andy Pond (on banjo) jams with members of Jamaica’s The Overtakers.

Sound crazy? In under three hours’ flight time, you could be in sunny Jamaica, rum drink in hand, warm breeze blowing off the turquoise ocean and strains of—no, not reggae or steel drums—Larry Keel welcoming you to paradise.

Unlikely but true, and all part of the annual random-but-not-without-reason Chinese New Year Celebration (CHNY), held in the Jamaican beach town of Negril. This January’s gathering, which attracts many Western N.C. residents, artists and musicians, heralds the year of the Ox.

This particular Chinese New Year event got its start as a gathering of friends that moved from country to country. The Jamaican location stuck—despite the oddity of a Chinese holiday in the Caribbean—and soon word got out, catapulting the private festivities to public ones.

“The intention of the celebration is to … build a culture of peace and community through travel, music, arts and play to set a positive tone for the New Year,” reads the event Web site. In fact, CHNY has been taking place for the better part of a decade and not only provides a full itinerary of music and fun in the sun, but also opportunities to explore Jamaican culture and contribute to social projects.

local artist Phil Cheney designed the Chinese New Year 2009 poster

One project, close to the heart of Pond (who first came to CHNY—and Jamaica—in 2001 when his band, Snake Oil Medicine Show, was invited), is the West Haven Children’s Home for the Disabled. “We originally volunteered to play a concert for the kids,” he recalls. “It was heavy. This is an orphanage for physically-challenged children and adults.” Organizers approached the Children’s Home staff to see how CHNY attendees could help. The answer: “We don’t need money, we need humans to visit,” Pond says.

“We spent a week doing art projects and serving food,” Pond recalls. “I always wondered if we helped them or just helped our own consciousness.”

He adds, “You can impact one person for one week. I go [to Jamaica] and realize how much I actually have.”

Pond understands that for some, the visit to Jamaica is about vacation and concerts. “That’s okay,” he says. “We know it’s not comfortable to go to the orphanages and see people who have less.” CHNY’s service mark also comes in the event’s commitment to support Jamaican-owned businesses. This is especially important on the Caribbean island where international resorts bring no return to local economies. It’s worth noting that while CHNY comes with a price tag (even musicians and volunteers pay their own way), the event organizers have already done the legwork to help visitors make the most impact with their American dollars, and avoid as many hassles as possible.

The lineup

Chinese New Year 2009 attendees may be surprised by just how familiar the bands performing at the Jamaican resort seem. That’s because a significant portion of the roster is Asheville-based. Here’s who’s playing:
• Kenyatta “Culture” Hill: The son of ‘70’s era reggae star Joseph Hill, Jamaica-based Kenyatta carries on the family legacy. He recently released his first solo album, Pass the Torch.
• Laura Reed and Deep Pocket: Influenced by roots reaching from front woman Reed’s South African home to the American South, this Asheville-based big band blends reggae, R&B, soul and funk for a captivating and high-energy live show.
• CX-1: At first look, CX-1 is a mini-version of Snake Oil Medicine Show. In fact, the Pond Brothers’ side project (a.k.a. “The Blackhole Bluegrass Boys”) allows its members to further explore the connections between reggae and bluegrass.
• The Overtakers: This Negril-based husband and wife project (led by Ruben and Ruth Brooks) has collaborated with CX-1 for a transcendent Asheville show, as well using their music to uplift their own Jamaican community.
• Josh Phillips: Formerly of Asheville’s Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Phillips recent went solo with a the seamless debut release, Wicker. Upbeat songwriting and folky reggae-meets-hip-hop make up a not-to-be-missed Josh Phillips performance.
• Fred Tackett and Paul Barrerre: These guitarists, both of the legendary band Little Feat, have their own band known appropriately, as Paul and Fred-The Acoustic Duo. Fred is from Arkansas, Paul from California.
• Acoustic Syndicate: Formed in 1992 by brothers Bryon and Fitz McMurry and cousin Steve McMurry, the acoustic Americana outfit logged many road miles and built an impressive fan base before they quit touring in 2005. After a two-year hiatus, the core group reunited for occasional show dates.
• Larry Keel & Natural Bridge: Expert picking, fiery licks and roots music performed with modern flare underscore a Natural Bridge show. The sounds are second only Virginia-based musician Larry Keel’s penchant for creating a family feel wherever he goes.
• Snake Oil Medicine Show: This long-term Asheville collective, including George and Andy Pond, Caroline Pond, Billy Seawell, Sean Foley and, occasionally, painter Phil Cheney, has the uncanny ability to turn any crowd into a party.

Another opportunity to learn (and WNC connection) comes through the ongoing One Love Reasoning Seminars, lead by Robert Roskind, author of Rasta Heart: A Journey into One Love and Gathering of the Peacemakers, both of which deal with Jamaican elders who wish to further the Bob Marley principal of love and freedom for all humanity. Roskind is a resident of Blowing Rock, N.C., but he and his wife Julia travel frequently to Jamaica.

Pond notes that there’s a long-standing (if informal) exchange program between the Appalachian Mountains and Jamaica. “Asheville and Negril have a strange exchange of music. Before there was Snake Oil Medicine Show, there was Ras Alan,” he says. “I personally had a musical epiphany. The simplicity and the poetry of reggae touched me.”

what: Chinese New Year 2009, a week-long celebration of peace, community, the arts and travel
where: Negril, Jamaica
when:  Saturday, Jan. 24-Saturday, Jan. 31 (Packages run $750-$2610, not including airfare. At press time, airfare ran around $300 for a direct flight from Charlotte, N.C. to Montego Bay, Jamaica. www.chny.org.)

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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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