Connect Beyond Festival returns for a second year

HUMAN SWISS ARMY KNIVES: Clockwise from top left, author Tim Z. Hernandez, musician Fantastic Negrito, film producer/"mompreneur" Nadia Salamanca and musician Kishi Bashi are among the performers and presenters at the 2019 Connect Beyond Festival. Hernandez and Salamanca photos courtesy of Connect Beyond Festival, Fantastic Negrito photo by DeAndre Forks, Kishi Bashi photo by Max Ritter

For founder Jessica Tomasin, the inaugural edition of Connect Beyond Festival in 2018 felt successful on numerous fronts. The convergence of artists and figures from a range of disciplines interacting and building lasting relationships distinguished itself from other festivals and produced consistently positive feedback.

“The main challenge was getting people to understand it,” Tomasin says. “It’s a tough concept to explain in just a few words.”

Indeed, the “About” page on the festival’s website describes Connect Beyond as “a movement to develop a network of people inspired by creative mediums and united in the pursuit of equality and social justice,” with a central goal “to inspire a sense of community and personal engagement.”

Previously known as the Connect Beyond the Page Festival, the second iteration returns to downtown Asheville — with “the Page” dropped from its name — Friday, April 5, to Sunday, April 7. Tomasin says the more streamlined title is better for marketing and more accurately reflects the wide-ranging mediums through which its participants are intersecting.

Before the concept was put to the test, it appealed to Bob Boilen, host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and “Tiny Desk Concert,” who interviewed pop duo Sylvan Esso and singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling in 2018 as an offshoot of his book Your Song Changed My Life. Tomasin says Boilen was one of the first people to recommit for 2019 and will lead a fireside chat with black roots musician Fantastic Negrito.

Connect Beyond has grown from two venues to three for its second iteration, with events taking place at the Diana Wortham Theatre, The Orange Peel and the Fine Arts Theatre. Last year’s schedule had overlapping offerings where attendees had to choose between two options; this year they can go to almost every panel and performance (but will have to sacrifice some if they want to view the film screenings).

While popular musicians Nick Lowe, Los Straitjackets, Victor Wooten and Daniel Levitin are likely to attract significant attention, Tomasin is just as excited about lesser-known programming, including music historian Jonathan Kirby’s April 6 rural Appalachian review, 7-8 p.m. at The Orange Peel. A precursor to the Boilen and Fantastic Negrito dialogue, the set features live performances by an eclectic ensemble of artists from Western North Carolina’s hills and hollers.

Coinciding with that showcase, 6-7:30 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre, is the documentary Bellingcat, about civilian reporting and debunking fake news. The screening is preceded by a 4:45-5:45 panel at Diana Wortham Theatre on how to spot fake news and check the validity of sources. The one-two punch aligns with Tomasin’s goal of providing access to artists who can then link attendees with resources to enact positive change, as well as sparking new works among one another.

“I love connecting people,” Tomasin says. “I want them to meet, collaborate and bring their project back to debut at the festival.”

As Tomasin looks ahead to future editions of Connect Beyond, she’s happy to spotlight such pre-existing relationships as the one between writer Tim Z. Hernandez and musician Johnny Irion. The two met while Hernandez was researching his book All They Will Call You, about a California plane crash in 1948 that killed all 32 passengers, 28 of whom were Mexican farmworkers being deported by the U.S. government. In response to media reports omitting the names of the Mexican passengers, Woody Guthrie wrote a poem that went on to become the protest song, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” Hernandez’s digging into that musical response brought him to Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and her husband, Irion, who was inspired to write a book based on the song.

“We collaborated a little bit on that, and so after that, he saw me perform and knows that, whereas a lot of writers tend to read directly from their book, I have a theater background, so I want to make it more engaging and change it every time I present it,” Hernandez says. “The book’s story is so dynamic. There’s so much involved — different types of music and different stories and visuals. So I try and perform it, and he saw me doing that and was like, ‘You should really check out this festival.’”

Hernandez’s twist on the material at Connect Beyond will be shared April 6, 3-4:30 p.m., at Diana Wortham Theatre. He refers to it as “a storytelling narrative performance,” in which Irion will play accompanying music, and various slides and projections will round out the experience. The trip will mark Hernandez’s first time in Asheville. Though he’d like to explore the city to some extent, his primary focus will be getting the most out of Connect Beyond.

“There are a lot of stellar, top-notch artists who’ll be there, and I’d like to go and check out their panel and listen to them speak and shake their hand and just be involved,” Hernandez says. “The real benefit of that is the cross-pollination of different forms — film, music, books. Ultimately, what I’m always trying to aim for is exposing my work and exposing myself to new audiences or new forms of work that I’ve never considered before.”

Nadia Salamanca, a film producer and “mompreneur” based in Ojai, Calif., was similarly enticed to partake in Connect Beyond by people committed to the festival. She formed a bond with the Connect Beyond programming duo of Zak Kilberg and Iz Web through the Elevate Film Festival, an annual collection of what she calls “environmentally conscious and inspiring, transformational films” that she founded in Los Angeles in 2005 alongside her husband, Mikki Willis.

“We just really believe in things [Zak’s] involved with,” Salamanca says. “It’s very much about what we’re about — connecting community and focusing on the medium of music and film and storytelling to really raise awareness about specific social issues and thinking forward to how we can start these conversations and celebrate what’s good in the world.”

On April 6, 6-7 p.m. at Diana Wortham Theatre, Salamanca will moderate the Elevate Women panel, described by festival organizers as a “discussion about all the myriad ways we can support women in the quest for equality, both in our communities and in our work.” She’s also the producer of The Revolution Generation, a film that she says is “about how millennials can save America and the world.” Still in post production, the documentary will receive an exclusive work-in-progress test audience screening on April 6 at 11 a.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre, thereby extending Tomasin’s collaborative dreams to festival attendees.

WHAT: Connect Beyond Festival, connectbeyondfestival.com
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, The Orange Peel and the Fine Arts Theatre. See website for schedule
WHEN: Friday, April 5, to Sunday, April 7. $99 weekend pass/$199 VIP weekend pass/individual day passes $40-55

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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