The 2015 lineup for LEAF, which prides itself on its globally conscious reach, is unsurprisingly excellent. Topping the bills each night are acts that range from soul revival firebrand Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires to Australian world-roots act Xavier Rudd & the United Nations, demonstrating the festival’s knack for mixing quality bedrock American music with an eclectic range of styles that span the Earth.
Bombino, who performs Sunday, May 10, 2:30 p.m. on the Lakeside stage, is a prime example of both impulses. “Bombino,” a derivation of the Italian word meaning “little child,” is actually the nickname given to Tuareg guitarist and singer-songwriter Omara Moctar at a younger age, and it doesn’t quite fit anymore. Moctar is now a fiery guitar god who blends traditional Saharan tribal music with his love of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. The end result, particularly on the Dan Auerbach-produced 2013 LP Nomad, is an electrifying bridge between worlds that feels less like cultural appropriation and more like a magical key unlocking the far-flung connections between the two genres.
Moctar, who answered questions with the help of his manager and translator, doesn’t see himself as a trailblazer. “Balancing between traditional Tuareg and Western music is something that is just natural for me because that is what I grew up on as a musician,” he says. “I do not think about things like ‘am I being too modern?’ or ‘am I being too traditional?’”
He does, however, plan to continue down the more rambunctious path that Auerbach helped him to define. “I want my future albums to push that energy even further,” he says. “[Nomad] was really a blessing in all ways, [and] it was such a wonderful experience to work with Dan.”
Another act a bit further down on the bill that combines LEAF’s musical threads is The Duhks (they perform Friday, May 8, 10:45 p.m. at The Barn and Saturday, May 9, 6 p.m. on the Lakeside stage) a progressive folk band from Winnipeg that has repeatedly played the festival over the years. “I love LEAF,” says band co-founder Leonard Podolak. “It’s a beautiful and unique event. There’s a lot of small festivals that have a few things in common [with LEAF] in terms of size and the range of acts, but one of the things I love the most about LEAF is the incorporation of dance as an integral part of the festival. You go into the dance hall, and square dancing and contra dancing is going on and on and on. There’s just a lot of energy in that room.”
He adds, “Oh, and that zip line.”
More broadly, though, Podolak loves returning to North Carolina, noting that Doc Watson was one of his musical heroes and that festivals like LEAF, MerleFest and Shakori Hills have played a big part in his career. Among those festivals, though, LEAF stands out as a natural fit for the group. “There’s a huge appreciation for world music [at the festival],” he says. “We play old-time, Irish, French-Canadian and Cajun, all of these styles. We’re kind of a perfect band for LEAF.”
Indeed, The Duhks’ ability to draw from (and revel in) a variety of styles mirrors the festival’s approach, and it’s one that, like Bombino, Podolak says comes by happenstance for the group. “My motto — although I don’t want to speak for anybody else in the band — is that we just play the music that we like and that we do,” he says. “If you look at our record collections and the record collections we had growing up, all of those styles exist in there.”
The group’s lineup has rotated over the years, with Podolak as the sole constant, and those shifts have led to varied fluctuations in The Duhks’ sound and repertoire. Since reuniting in 2012 though, the band has included original lead singer Jessee Havey. Havey’s voice defined the group’s early success and output on Sugar Hill Records, and her return along with, for a few shows, the rest of the original lineup, seems to have marked a new, less frenetic pace for The Duhks. Beyond the Blue from 2013 was largely crowdfunded, and the band has toured consistently though not incessantly behind that album.
“We’re gonna take things organically [from here],” Podolak says. “We’ve had a lot of years of pushing it and trying to ‘make it.’ Since this last record, we’ve just been doing it for the music and having a good time with each other.”
While that may sound like a down note from a seasoned musician, Podolak is fairly ebullient in conversation, and clearly eager to come back down to North Carolina. “The setting [of LEAF] is fantastic,” he says. “Black Mountain is a paradise. I just love it. It’s a really amazing part of the world. I feel really lucky to be accepted and be a part of the [musical] community out there.”