A defining feature of Asheville’s modern history is its festivals. From late July through September, the city has been host to a dazzling array of outdoor gatherings celebrating music, arts and community. Some, such as Bele Chere, have come and gone. Yet many remain, including LEAF Downtown, which returns Friday-Saturday, Aug. 27-28, after a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Launched in 2015, the gathering builds upon the successful foundation of the semiannual LEAF Global Arts Festival at Lake Eden in Black Mountain. Like the original, the Asheville-based edition celebrates the tapestry of cultural traditions that enliven music and the arts. But unlike the Black Mountain occasions, LEAF Downtown is free to attend, embracing even more fully the community component that both happenings promote.
Musical highlights for this year’s two-day event include Newcleus and Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers. Meanwhile, Billy Jonas, Roy Harris, Free Planet Radio, West Sound, Kayla Lynn and The Secret Agency with Agent 23 Skidoo & Friends are among the local performers.
“Concrete love” is the theme for the 2021 celebration, notes Otto Vazquez, the event’s performing arts coordinator. “We come from our other festivals and retreats at Lake Eden’s natural settings, and now we’re bringing it back to the city of Asheville, to the concrete park,” he says. “And after what we all experienced last year, we want to bring love — a sense of togetherness and community, love you can build on — back to Asheville.”
Even beyond the festival, LEAF Global Arts, which puts on the annual event, has long displayed a commitment to bringing those qualities to the city. The pandemic forced the temporary closure of the nonprofit’s new brick-and-mortar center on the corner of Eagle and Market streets shortly after its February 2020 launch. Vazquez says “a lot of strategic planning” went into maintaining the space during the shutdown.
The organization’s executive director, Jennifer Pickering, Vazquez emphasizes, “made some really smart decisions to prolong the life of the organization. We’re still being cautious, but we’re thriving again.”
That caution makes sense, continues Vazquez, as the pandemic isn’t over. With the latest mask mandate in place across Buncombe County, LEAF is requiring all attendees to mask up. Food vendors will also be spread out rather than concentrated at a single location; social distancing is encouraged for festivalgoers, as well. Additionally, there will be sanitation stations and multiple free vaccination sites available at the gathering.
“We want people to feel safe, have a good time and continue to enjoy live music,” says Vazquez.
Going in a circle
Acclaimed Asheville storyteller Roy Harris will preside over the festival’s opening ceremony, and his Story Time event on Friday afternoon will be a highlight of the gathering. Harris says that his goal at LEAF Downtown, as well as in his role as a board member of the Black Storytellers Association, is “to open storytelling up to the next generation.”
His credo emphasizes the universality of storytelling and the oral tradition: “My story is your story, your story is their story, and their story is our story,” he says. “We’re going in a circle.”
Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Kayla Lynn will be performing with her band The Change as part of Saturday’s entertainment lineup. Lynn has been involved with LEAF since 2016, when she was still in high school. “I was invited to play the festival, and I never left,” she quips.
Today she’s a LEAF resident teaching artist. “I hope people come to LEAF Downtown and get exposed to new music, art and ideas,” she says. “I hope it opens their minds and hearts to other people and other cultures.”
“Music, dance and entertainment have a healing aspect,” adds Vazquez. “That’s what this event — and all our events — are going to do. They’re going to heal the community, put people back into a state of mind that says, ‘We’re going to get through this. We’re going to have fun, and we’re going to be safe.’”
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