In 2006, LEAF founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pickering visited Rwanda at the behest of Jean Paul Samputu, a native performer who had become a recurring presence at the Black Mountain-based music and arts festival. Samputu wanted her to see a troupe of boys he was mentoring in his hometown of Kigali. All of them were orphans, living on the streets in the wake of the country’s 1994 genocide and ongoing AIDS epidemic. The youths slept on cardboard mats in a parking lot and had no regular source of food, but when Pickering asked them what they wanted to do, they made little mention of those circumstances.
They wanted to drum.
The program that emerged from Pickering’s trip, LEAF International Rwanda, is now sending four of its performers to LEAF. The young Rwandans will join over 400 other artists at the festival’s 44th edition, which takes over Camp Rockmont from Thursday, May 11, to Sunday, May 14. The spring lineup focuses on the resilience and vitality of African culture: 13 countries from the continent will be represented in the “Legends of Africa” series of performances, thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
LEAF performing arts director Ehren Cruz says that the festival’s African emphasis is meant to foster a sense of global citizenship at a time when many Americans are consumed with domestic concerns. “With the social and political challenges of this past year, it’s sometimes easy to be condensed into a very local mindset,” he says. “We wanted to recognize the broader context — we’re all family here in this world, and these traditions from African cultures inspire us.”
Particularly important to that goal, Cruz explains, is LEAF’s Visiting Teaching Artists program. Before the festival, performers such as the Ghanian reggae star Rocky Dawuni, Malawian singer Masankho Banda and Zimbabwean Afro-fusion crew Mokoomba — along with the group from LEAF International Rwanda — will lead intensive residency programs at area schools, exposing students to their cultures and music.
The classes then join the artists onstage during their LEAF performances to share what they’ve learned in front of an audience. “The students connect with people from another country who may look and sound so different, but at the heart of it all, are thrilled to share creativity together,” Cruz says.
The residencies are also a way for visiting artists to make the most of a trip that sometimes involves challenging travel arrangements. LEAF global engagement director Schree Chavdarov says that, even for established performers, getting proper paperwork can be a major burden. She outlines the journey for Fredy Nganga, an artist from LEAF International Tanzania: “It’s a six-day process to get from his home in Arusha to the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam for a passport,” Chavdarov says. “Two or three eight-hour bus rides, a lot of walking and accommodations along the way — and then he has to do the same thing for the visa.” She adds that embassies are often slower than expected when processing applications from African nations; less than a month before the start of the festival, the four LEAF International Rwanda performers were still waiting for their visas.
Adama Dembele (an Asheville-based djembe player originally from the Ivory Coast, who will be performing at this year’s festival) sympathizes with a different issue that traveling African musicians face: protecting fragile instruments. “If you check a calabash, for example, it can break very easily. You have to take it on the plane,” he says. “Sometimes people understand at the airport, but sometimes they make it a little difficult.”
Once in Black Mountain, however, artists are eager to participate in vibrant exchanges with fellow performers from across the globe. Beyond African culture, the festival features the Canadian First Nations electronic music group A Tribe Called Red, American soul singer Macy Gray and Cuban hip-hop artist Danay Suarez. Bluegrass, salsa and kirtan traditions are also represented.
Dembele poetically sums up the joy of LEAF’s impromptu cultural collaborations: “When I play with other musicians, I let them bring some of their style to my traditional West African music,” he says. “It’s like I build the house, then others use different color paints to make the house beautiful.”
WHAT: 44th LEAF festival, theleaf.org
WHERE: Camp Rockmont, 377 Lake Eden Road, Black Mountain
WHEN: Thursday, May 11, to Sunday, May 14. $180 adult weekend pass/$150 youth weekend pass, $120 adult community pass (no camping)/$105 youth, Friday and Sunday day passes $55/$45, Saturday day passes $65/$60, parking is $10. All tickets are sold online only, sales end May 11.