In Costa Rica, where musician and educator Agustin Frederic is from, music is “part of what you do in life,” he says. “After dinner, everybody hangs out by the fires and you play. It’s not so much that you’re going to go out and do a concert.” Dancing and drumming happen organically — unlike in many U.S. cities where these pastimes exist as ticketed entertainment.
But Asheville, he points out, is small enough and simultaneously creative enough that there are spaces where musicians, artists and listeners come together. The drum circle is one such place; the Asheville Percussion Festival, now in its eighth year, is another opportunity for collaboration and community around rhythm.
The eighth annual Asheville Percussion Festival runs through Monday, July 1, with workshops, demos and concerts. The Masters Concert — featuring performances by residency artists such as Percussion Hall of Fame inductee Glen Velez, joined by vocalist Loire Cotler — takes place at Diana Wortham Theatre on Saturday, June 29.
Frederic first worked with the festival as a mixing engineer and later led a drum line and marching band-style workshop. His group, Zabumba Asheville Samba, participated in 2017 both in the teaching clinics and the Masters Concert with Brazilian teacher and performer Marcos Santos (whose music the local group plays). This year, Zabumba — a collective of percussionists and dancers — returns to the stage and the classroom. “Basically, we’re taking pieces from our repertoire and … sharing the history of where those come from and also the modern aspects,” Frederic explains.
Past iterations of the festival have spotlighted international performers, such as Persian frame-drum virtuoso Naghmeh Farahmand (returning for her fourth time) and vibrant Kenyan performer and teacher Kasiva Mutua of the Nile Project. This year, says Asheville Rhythm artistic director River Guerguerian, “We’re actually going to focus on the Asheville part of the Asheville Percussion Festival.” In part, this is due to the increasing challenge of sourcing visas for overseas performers. But it’s also indicative of the strong local percussion scene that includes artists such as master djembéfola Adama Dembele, healing sound practitioner Billy Zanski, and percussionist and music educator Diana Loomer.
The local focus also ushers in a new approach to the festival: “The organization Asheville Rhythm has grown strong since the inception of the Asheville Percussion Festival,” says Guerguerian. His group “will now be more focused on continuing projects like weekly classes, sound meditations, recordings, monthly events [and] retreats that bring in different artists from around the globe, and a gathering in the summer with a different format than previous festivals.”
He adds, “We will also be helping to curate the new downtown LEAF Global Sound Underground Hub.”
Important aspects of the Asheville Percussion Festival will remain. For Farahmand, “It’s always been a great, warm environment, high-standard music, multicultural and a great space for everyone to share and learn music from around the world [by] composing and performing together.”
She adds, “There is no preference between teaching and performing for me. I think both are needed for a musician to be more productive [and] creative.”
Another layer of that creativity comes from the collaborations — either planned or organic — that take place among the festival’s musicians. “It is actually a great idea that every resident artist is supposed to compose and bring a piece to collaborate with other artists as we are invited from around the world and music is the best language to communicate and playing together,” says Farahmand. She looks forward to seeing (and perhaps working with) Velez.
Last year, there was a moment when Mutua (on guitar, not drums) and local cellist Isabel Castellvi spontaneously came up with a song together, says Guerguerian. And Asheville-based busker Abby the Spoon Lady played on the Diana Wortham stage with master percussionist Monette Marino and other residency artists. “That was really lovely, and the remarks we get on the YouTube video we made from that [performance] are really sweet from Abby’s fans,” says Guerguerian.
This year, Velez “will bring a piece, and we’ll all work on it and jam on it,” says Guerguerian. “I’m going to create some sketches. A little preproduction helps.” He describes the instructions for the collaborations as a kitchen with 10 cooks, each who brings a recipe that can be modified.”
“That’s the thrill of it,” Guerguerian says, “and that’s what makes this unique from other festivals.”
The sound meditation, a ticketed event held on Sunday, is another distinctive offering. “It’s something I’ve always been into, from way back, working with the therapeutic aspects of sound,” says Guerguerian. From playing music by Black Mountain College luminary John Cage, Guerguerian learned to appreciate one sound at a time. He combined that with scientific evidence of the healing and relaxing aspects of sound.
From the percussion festival perspective, he says, there’s music “that makes just you want to get up an boogie, whether it’s African dance or belly dance or the Balinese stuff.” And then there are metal instruments “that ring really long [and] can be trance inducing … or can help you go into a different brainwave state.”
In a sound meditation, he says, “you go from the scientific all the way to the mystical.”