This isn’t actually a review, per se, as I was only at LEAF on Saturday (Oct. 20), and even then only saw a portion of what was on offer. But what really impressed me — and what always impresses me about the twice-annual festival — was the astonishing diversity of acts and selection of events from which to choose.
At 7 p.m. on Saturday evening, LEAF-goers had to pick between honky-tonk, contra dance, Moroccan and Gypsy-jazz. At 8:30 it was hip-hop, slam poetry, New Orleans blues or bedtime stories. For the most part it seems that LEAF organizers go out of their way to stagger the starting time of acts for maximum viewing opportunity, and not to schedule two like performers at the same time, so fans of, say, spirituality don’t have to decide between a Sufi Dance and a kirtan session. Of course, sometimes the only way to see it all is to catch 30 minutes of one group and then dash across the festival grounds for the end of another band’s set. It’s a happy dilemma.
Here’s a taste of what Saturday served up: Toronto, Ontario-based Japanese taiko drummers Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble played on the main stage. Formed in 1998, the group is seeped in folk traditions of Japan, though leader Nagata told the LEAF audience that they were only performing one traditional piece at the Saturday show. The focus of the ensemble is to rejuvenate this ancient art form with modern interpretations. The result is a rhythm-driven sound with an exciting visual component. The musicians are also athletes, playing the over-sized drums through a series of choreographed movements that look like synchronized martial arts. It’s possible that Nagata actually composes the soundtrack to a good ass kicking.
Next up: Moroccan trio Hassan Hakmoun. Front man (and band namesake) Hakmoun is a native of Marrakech where his mother is a renowned mystic healer. This bit of his heritage comes through in the trance-like, droning, bio-rythmic quality of his music. Hakmoun plays a three-stringed African bass lute, an instrument at once eerily familiar and deeply exotic. I actually spotted the band earlier in the day buying supplies at Acoustic Corner in Black Mountain. Hakmoun’s lute was causing a stir while guitarist Brahim Fribgane moved easily from a banjo to a vintage mandolin, then asked for Oud strings, as if anything strum-able was second nature. For fans of African music, Hakmoun’s arrangements incorporate African jazz sounds with Spanish and Middle Eastern influences.
Also on the world music scene, Austin, Tex.-based Oliver Rajamani Ensemble preformed an introspective set of Indian-influenced Gypsy jazz. Just before the show, I overheard a fan asking Tamil Indian Rajamani if he’s a Gypsy. The answer? A polite “No.” It’s an honest error. Gypsies are believed to have come from the Romany people by way of the Indian subcontinent. Rajamani with his long dark hair and, soulful gaze and impassioned musicianship fits the bill. His compositions, though, are less Django Reinhardt and more spiritually-leaning, his sarod, oud and flamenco guitar accompanied by hand drums, cello and bass flute. At one point, he translated a song explaining it as a prayer for the long lives of everyone in the audience … before going on to muse that everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.
The biggest draw of the evening was probably “conscious hip-hop” artist Michael Franti appearing for a solo (well, almost) set. Franti is a frequent visitor to the Asheville area and has played LEAF before, both as a musician and a filmmaker (his documentary I Know I’m Not Alone is taken from his 2004 trip to Bagdad and the Gaza Strip where he played on the street). Franti was at LEAF this time reading from What I Be, his children’s book, prior to his musical performance. (He also has a yoga DVD and a pretty awesome clothing line, he’s a vegetarian and he goes barefoot.) Since the musician is usually backed by his high-energy group Spearhead, I expected his solo show to be rather subdued, and it was — all things being relative. But though Franti pretty much stayed on his stool strumming is acoustic guitar, he was joined on stage by a young bouncing, chronically grinning lead guitarist. Even though Franti’s lyrics are largely cliche driven (“Power to the Peaceful,” “If I were the rains, I’d wash away the whole world’s pain,” “Everyone addicted to the same gasoline”), they’re cliches that at this time in history warrant repeating. Plus, Franti is just so genuine that he can do the whole vegetarian-barefoot-Bush-hating-peacenik thing and it works for him. That, and he has excellent rapport with the crowd. His entire set became a sing-along, including the two girls standing next to me who had to ask, “What’s his name again?”
The last show of the evening (for those who had to catch shuttles back to off-site parking, at any rate) was self-proclaimed “Afropean” duo Les Nubians. The African-by-way-of-France sisters Celia and Helene Faussart sing in a handful of languages and move fluidly between Europop, hip-hop, Afrobeat, reggae and Latin styles. Backed by a group of skilled musicians, the sisters took to the LEAF stage like royalty, resplendent in shimmering halter dresses, heavy African jewelry, face paint and (I’m told) towering heels. They ran through their hits (“Makeda,” “Temperature Rising”) and spoke to the audience about the empowerment of women and the need for peace throughout the world. Les Nubians’ performance was truly moving and was a bit like witnessing history in the making — a real coup for LEAF.
Alli Marshall, A&E reporter