It’s been a tough year. Charged conversations about politics, gun violence, racism, sexism, civil rights violations and environmental destruction populate headlines and social media feeds. It’s hard to drum up the wherewithal to party. All things considered, revelry feels trite. But LEAF festival organizers would argue that’s the best reason to sing, dance, don a mask and drum all night. “What we’re hoping to accomplish with this festival is really empowering people to remember that coming together in a positive way is important,” says Ehren Cruz, performing arts director. “We don’t have to be pro or against anything; we can just be for human connection.”
The fall iteration of the festival runs Thursday, Oct. 20, through Sunday, Oct. 23, under the theme “Carnival of Wonder.” That motif was selected, Cruz says, because, “We recognize our world is going through many challenges. A lot of the center stage of the conversation has been about, ‘How do we navigate through these different conflicts?’” But the mission of LEAF Community Arts, “Transforming Lives, Connecting Cultures and Generating Unity,” seeks to address that question.
With the carnival theme, LEAF planners thought, “Let’s give people an opportunity to take it back to a simple celebration — to a space where we are igniting imaginations, inspiring people to follow their dreams and passions and showing them something beautiful,” says Cruz. “It’s a good time for us to reconnect with how powerful music and art is when we come together in peace.”
The mood will be set with huge art displays meant to bring festivalgoers to the next level of experience. One stage will be decorated like a 1920s-era vaudeville set. And, while LEAF has long involved a number of roving performers, such as stilt walkers and marching bands, this year that contingent has been doubled. “You’re going to see giant puppets — a crew of 30 — and more jugglers and flame throwers than you can possibly imagine,” Cruz says. There will also be a 50-by-100-foot Lycra tunnel, “so the whole, entire Lake Eden field will feel like it’s contained within a carnival atmosphere.”
Also lending to that vibe is the live music, from headliners such as cross-cultural brass-meets-dub outfit Balkan Beat Box and the Chapel Hill-formed jazz-infused Squirrel Nut Zippers to Jamaican reggae collective Third World (celebrating its 43rd anniversary) and Nashville-based funk act Here Come the Mummies. “I had a lot of ideas in mind for bands that bring a dynamic, interesting show that would wow the senses and bring powerful engagement [to the audience],” Cruz says.
But the lineup also consists of a number of return performers — perhaps most notably tribal fusion/performance art group Beats Antique. “Whenever I book talent, I tell them right off the bat, ‘I would plan to stay here all weekend,’” Cruz says. That’s not typical for touring bands, who tend to play their show and move on to the next engagement. But nine times out of 10, according to the performing arts director, the artists see what LEAF has to offer and opt to hang out for a day or two. Those who make the extra effort are often invited back.
Bootsy Collins and his band (who headlined the inaugural LEAF Downtown) is one such act; Rising Appalachia is another. Vocalist Natalia Clavier, who collaborates with the DJ collective Thievery Corporation, has also struck up a special relationship — she’s in talks with LEAF Community Arts about recording a compilation with members of the LEAF International program in Costa Rica.
Beats Antique is also on the friends-and-family list: “They send us emails like, ‘Hey we love you guys. Thanks for doing great work,’” says Cruz. “We love developing great relationships with our artists.”
Local dance instructor Lisa Zahiya adds, “I think my favorite LEAF was the last time Beats Antique was there. I am lucky enough to dance with the band on the East Coast. It was raining outside, and inside the tent, the energy was awesome.” She and Beats Antique belly dancer Zoe Jakes will stage two performances of their collaboration, House of Tarot, during the fall festival.
And there are plenty of local acts on the roster. This year’s group includes Leah Song of Rising Appalachia, jazz-swing band The Screaming J’s, world-folk collective Crystal Bright & the Silverhands and Jamiroquai tribute Space Cowboys & Cosmic Girls, among others. Cruz says Western North Carolina’s music and arts offerings have always been at a high level, “but we now have a lot of bands that are becoming nationally touring acts.” Jon Stickley Trio and River Whyless, two examples, played spring LEAF this year. “Now I can easily get four or five great local acts that also will make a lineup in different places in the country,” says Cruz.
Those stars are on many radars, but LEAF still boasts up-and-comers (Cruz notes local singer-songwriter Indigo De Souza, who grew up at the festival and has honed her skills on area stages) as well as lesser-known gems. Among those well-kept secrets, Cruz lists the late-night drum circle, held Friday and Saturday nights, and the Southern Fried Poetry Slam — now in its 43rd staging — that attracts poets from across the country.
“But the biggest secret at LEAF might be our mission,” Cruz says. The festival supports arts education programming for 10,000 kids year-round; the spring and fall weekends at Lake Eden are “the pinnacle moment where we get to celebrate that great work, but it’s also the fuel. It’s the financial fuel and the opportunity to get in touch with the community and let them know what we do,” Cruz says.
The positivity and togetherness of the festival add momentum to that mission — even when the outside world seems negative, turbulent and overwhelming. “How can I ever affect these mega-issues?” Cruz asks. “What I can do is make something really beautiful for our community.”