The Richmond Folk Festival is now one of Virginia’s largest and most anticipated events of the year. The Festival strives to present the very finest traditional artists from across the nation. In making its selections, a local Programming Committee is guided by the following definition, which is the guide for the National Council for Traditional Arts and the National Folk Festival, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts:
FOLK & TRADITIONAL ARTS a definition
The folk and traditional arts are rooted in and reflective of the cultural life of a community. Community members may share a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or geographic region. These vital and constantly reinvigorated artistic traditions are shaped by values and standards of excellence that are passed from generation to generation, most often within family and community, through demonstration, conversation, and practice. Genres of artistic activity include, but are not limited to, music, dance, crafts, and oral expression.
- National Endowment for the Arts
If you're interested in performing in the festival, check out "How to be a performer at the Richmond Folk Festival"
Check out the variety of performers announced so far
The Virginia Folklife Stage will honor National Heritage Fellows
This year’s Virginia Folklife Stage celebrates Virginia’s winners of the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the US government can bestow upon a traditional artist.
Richmond Folk Festival In The Schools
Through the generous support of its sponsors, the Richmond Folk Festival will fill Richmond city school auditoriums and classrooms with performances and presentations of deeply-rooted cultural expressions.
The week prior to the festival master musicians and artists will visit several public schools. Together, the artists and students share music, song, craft, stories and memories that will last a lifetime.
As many festival goers are aware, the Richmond Folk Festival grew from the traveling National Folk Festival held in Richmond from 2005-2007, and that “the National,” first presented in 1934, is the nation’s oldest multi-cultural traditional arts festival. Few families have had a longer-standing tie to the venerable National Folk Festival than the family of Tom Mauchahty-Ware, Director of the American Indian Music & Dance Show.
A flute player and composer of Kiowa and Comanche heritage, Tom Ware first participated in the National Folk Festival as a youngster in the 1960s. His father, a champion fancy dancer, performed at the National during the 1940s. His great-uncle, noted artist Stephen Mopope, led Kiowa performances at the earliest Festivals - including the second festival held in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1935. Now, Tom's son, nephew, and his three young grandsons perform as members of the American Indian Music & Dance Show. Over the past 70 years, five generations and more than a dozen members of Tom Ware's family have carried forward and shared their Kiowa and Comanche traditions with audiences across the nation.
Common symbolic themes permeate the repertoire performed by the American Indian Music and Dance Show. Different dances contain imagery alluding to various animals, plants and forces of nature. Everything – from the talons, bones and feathers used in the regalia worn by the Eagle Dancers to Hoop Dance designs that represent birds, butterflies, the earth and the sun – has special meaning and honors the natural world and the creatures that share the earth with us. Tom Ware says, “When we beat on the drum, we don’t just hit a buffalo skin. We are calling the spirit of the animal that died. Our dancing and drumming helps call the spirit of the animal to show them respect.” The lyrics of songs that accompany the dances often deal with these same subjects or the deeds of fallen ancient warriors and recent veterans.
In addition to the Hoop and Eagle dance, the group will perform the Fancy Dance, a more modern powwow standard characterized by intricate and athletic footwork and vibrant regalia. Performances will also include the Grass Dance, a dance meant to represent the wind blowing through the sweet grass of the Northern Plains, as well as the Shield Dance, a dance that originated in the training exercises used to prepare men for hunting and fighting. The group will initiate a number of audience participation dances, including the Children’s Rabbit Dance.
The American Indian Music & Dance Show includes Tom on flute and vocals; Tom’s son, Thomas Ware III; his nephew, Chester “Pepper” Teiyah Jr., and Tom’s grandchildren: ten-year-old Donahven Beaver, six-year-old Thomas "BooBoo" Ware IV, and five-year-old Malahkie Beaver.
In New Orleans’ parlance, “professors” are the great jazz musicians, the individuals who define the tradition in the Crescent City. Dr. Michael White can lay claim to this title on two counts, as both an extraordinary musician and a noted scholar. A brilliant clarinetist and preserver of traditional New Orleans jazz, White was awarded the prestigious NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2008, the highest honor this country bestows on traditional artists. In addition to having revived, performed, and recorded the classic repertoire of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and the legendary clarinetist George Lewis, White has created and recorded new compositions that are also becoming classics. He will be performing at this year’s Richmond Folk Festival with his Original Liberty Jazz Band – an impressive lineup of A-List New Orleans jazz musicians.
Born in 1954, White grew up in a family of musicians, including Willie “Kaiser” Joseph, Papa John Joseph and clarinetist Earl Fouche, although he was largely unaware of this musical legacy until he began his own research into jazz as a teenager. He played clarinet in the noted St. Augustine’s High School Marching Band, and befriended the legendary banjoist Danny Barker and family bandleader Doc Paulin, who nurtured White’s talent and introduced him to New Orleans jazz. White delved deeply into the roots of the music, seeking out older musicians and listening to early recordings. He went on to obtain his doctorate at Xavier University, and was named Keller Professor in the Humanities. At the same time he toured widely, making a host of highly regarded recordings that subsequently led to worldwide acclaim. Even with this busy schedule, Dr. White continued to play the second-line parades and jazz funerals that so define the city of New Orleans.
White’s friend, protégé, and long-time collaborator, Wynton Marsalis eloquently explains that Michael White presents this music “…not as the stereotypical ‘Dixieland,’ but as something deeper and richer, textured by the blues – he has highlighted the creative tension of both dignity and flamboyance that characterizes the music at its best.” Marsalis, whose musical relationship with White dates to the 1980s, credits Michael with sparking his interest in the traditional music of his native city. Gambit Weekly went further, linking the two artists as leaders in jazz publishing, “ ‘No other jazz artist, save for Wynton Marsalis, has approached early jazz as something ripe for aesthetic dialogue, challenging time-tested standards with new works to expand the canon.’ ”
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Michael White, as so many other musicians in the city, suffered catastrophic losses. His home in the Gentilly neighborhood sat for weeks under eight feet of water, and he lost his priceless collection of rare music books, recordings, sheet music, and antique instruments. Despite the tragic loss, Michael realized that he still has his most important possessions. As he puts it: “I can still teach and play music.”
Since Katrina, White has been a tireless advocate for the musicians of New Orleans and the need for cultural recovery. In 2008, Dr. White released his first post-Katrina recording, entitled Blue Crescent, comprised primarily of original compositions. As he has continued forth, his work earned him the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities “Humanist of the Year” award in 2010 for his contributions to the state in the wake of the hurricane, and over the course of his life.
Latin dance instructor
Latin dancer and teacher Eileen Torres teaches the moves you need to keep up with the lively rhythms of the classic Cuban son. Introduced to the world of dance by her father, Eileen learned to rumba at age five and was performing Mexican folk dances at age six. Pursuing her passion in college, she immersed herself in the study of diverse dance styles and co-founded the University of Colorado’s first ballet folklórico. A noted salsa authority who writes and lectures internationally on the subject, Torres has performed, choreographed and taught with the National Chicano Dance Theater, Alma de Mexico and Salseros Unlimited.
Hailing from Ethiopia’s capitol city of Addis Ababa is Fendika, a group of young torchbearers of traditional Ethiopian music and dance. Much like the griots of West Africa, the Azmari of Ethiopia Azmari is a social class of musicians and poets. Fendika takes its name from Fendika Azmari Bet (“Azmari Bet” translates as “House of Azmari ), a cultural center and performance venue run by star dancer and cultural advocate Melaku Belay. Fendika Azmari Bet is home to several traditional Ethiopian ensembles, and often hosts visiting performers of all styles from other countries. Through this cultural center, Melaku has created the opportunity to showcase Ethiopian traditional celebrations, and spearhead projects that bring Azmari music and dance around the world.
Traditionally, Azmari in Ethiopia were not only known as skilled singers and musicians, but also as versatile entertainers and improvisers who could improvise on any topic offered up. Their repertoires included love songs, historic tales, and impromptu commentaries about well-known figures or audience members. Azmaris needed to be humorists, and excel in wordplay as well as singing. Typical Azmari instruments include the masenqo, a one-string bowed lute, the krar, a five- or six-string lyre, and goat-skinned drums.
Azmari could be itinerant musicians, attached to a noble court or local entertainers of myriad sorts. Religious and secular celebrations, such as harvest festivities, New Year’s parties, or possession ceremonies, all required the presence of Azmari performers to complete the event. Despite their contributions to society, the Azmari were historically considered a lower social class. However, this is changing. Respect for contemporary performers is growing both within Ethiopia and abroad.
Fendika’s leader, the incredible Melaku Belay, born in Addis Ababa in 1980, is largely a self-taught dancer who grew up dancing for school performances and at the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany festival, Timqat. He later trained at the National Theater of Ethiopia, Ras Theatre, and Hager Fikir Theater, the oldest indigenous theatre in Africa. Melaku has performed internationally with the popular Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed, the Ethiopian jazz band Addis Acoustic Project, as well as with the Dutch indie band The Ex and the American Ethiopian funk group, Debo Band. Melaku began dancing at Fendika Azmari Bet in 1997, and took over its leadership in 2008, with the goal of demonstrating the creativity and unique identity of Ethiopian traditional art forms.
In addition to Melaku, Fendika also features the striking female dancer Zinash Tsegaye. Fendika brings the vibrancy of Addis Ababa nightlife to Richmond with their blend of tradition and creativity expressed through traditional Azmari attire, enchanting vocals and jaw-dropping acrobatic dances.
|New York Times Article
The sounds of Brazil’s lilting, romantic bossa novas and swaying sambas are known throughout the world, but in the dry northeast interior of Brazil there is a different musical force. Forró Pé De Serra All Stars is dedicated to a distinctive style of music from Northeast Brazil. The group performs traditional forró pé de serra with a sensibility born of New York City’s diverse and dynamic musical culture, while continuing a joyous Brazilian tradition that welcomes all comers.
Forró is social music created at the turn of the last century from the melding of Portuguese button-accordion tunes and African rhythms. In the cowboy culture of the rocky, arid Brazilian sertão, the word “forró” became a catchall phrase for the music, the dance style, and the event. A forró can last all night long, with couples young and old dancing close, legs locked, rocking to the infectious rhythms of the sanfona (accordion), the zabumba (a type of bass drum), the triangle and the rabeca, a unique Brazilian folk-fiddle.
The term “forró” may have derived in the early 1900s from the English expression “for all.” English construction workers on the Great Western Railroad would throw balls, some for railroad personnel only and some for the general populace, or "for all." Another theory is that it came from “forrobodó,” meaning “great party” or “commotion.” Whatever its origin, forró became associated with a unique musical style that emerged in Northeast Brazil’s ranching culture. In the 1940s, accordionist and singer Luiz Gonzaga, brought the music to Rio de Janeiro and became forro’s first big star. Idolized by the city’s migrants from the Northeast, Gonzaga blazed the trail for other northeastern musicians, who have enjoyed national popularity from the 1960s forward. His music continues to inspire new generations of forró fanatics around the world.
Forró Pé De Serra All Stars is led by master accordionist Rob Curto, who spent years in Brazil studying and playing with legendary forró musicians Dominguinhos and Arlindo dos Oito Baixos. Curto’s musical collaborations include performing and recording with Lila Downs, David Krakauer, Frank London, and Kiran Ahluwalia. Joining Curto are some of the finest Brazilian musicians from the U.S. and abroad. Scott Kettner is a master percussionist, and founder of Brazilian-American dance bands Nation Beat and Maracatu New York. Liliana Araújo is one of the most celebrated Brazilian singers in the U.S. today, bringing the music of the Northeast, and her native state of Ceará, to national audiences as the lead singer of Nation Beat, Forró da Madame, and Maracatu New York. Zé Maurício is an original member of the internationally recognized percussion ensemble, “Cyro Baptista’s: Beat the Donkey,” and recorded the Grammy-winning Obrigado Brazil! with Yo-Yo Ma. From Brazil is special guest Cláudio Rabeca, a master of the rabeca and traditional Northeast styles including forró, maracatu rural, coco, and maracatu. Cláudio leads the popular forró ensemble Quarteto Olinda, and engages in solo projects that foster appreciation of the rabeca and its place in Brazilian musical tradition.
Musician, arranger, composer, educator and bandleader Fred Wesley is a towering figure in the world of funk music. An architect of the genre, and one of the most versatile and funky trombonists of all time, Wesley was the musical director and a featured performer with James Brown’s legendary band, the JBs. In addition to his pioneering arrangements and compositions for the Godfather of Soul, Wesley helped create a number of the greatest hits of Parliament-Funkadelic (some performed by Original P at last year’s festival), Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, the Count Basie Orchestra and many more. To say that Fred Wesley’s music has withstood the test of time would be an understatement. He started his career as a teenager playing trombone for Ike and Tina Turner and now, many pop artists, including the likes of Janet Jackson and Nas, have used samples derived from recordings of his playing. Today, with a dynamic, handpicked group of explosive and versatile musicians, Wesley and his New JB’s are carrying the torch, and bringing in the funk in grand style.
In the mid-late 1960s, African American musicians blended soul music, jazz, and R&B to create funk: a rhythmic, danceable new form. De-emphasizing melody and harmony, central features of the funk sound are a strong rhythmic groove and extended vamps on a single chord – a set of characteristics ideal for a trombone player of Wesley’s musicality. Electric guitar and bass, Hammond organ, drums, and often a horn section for rhythmic counterpoint and harmonic zest, combine to create complex interlocking rhythms. Funk was a major influence on the development of disco and Afrobeat, and of course, go-go, the Chesapeake region’s homegrown subgenre, and funk is extensively sampled in house music and D&B, hip-hop.
After his time with the Count Basie Orchestra, “Funky” Fred’s focus took a turn toward jazz. He plays, records, writes and promotes its importance in an ever-changing musical soundscape, and makes a point of sharing his wealth of knowledge at educational institutions nationwide. Wesley is also responsible for a number of solo jazz projects, including “To Someone,” “Amalgamation,” “Comme Ci Comme Ca,” “Full Circle” and “Wuda Cuda Shuda.”
Today Wesley leads his own jazz-funk formation, the New JB’s, a logical evolution of his work with the greatest conceptualizers in funk and soul in the 20th and 21st centuries, and his trajectory and mastery in jazz. The New JB’s create a unique brand of jazz-funk that’s all their own, yet still grounded in the music of their funky forefathers.
Wesley fronts the group with distinctive vocals and his trademark high-temperature trombone playing. The JB’s rhythm section is stellar, with Bruce Cox and his apparent third arm on drums, and the eclectic Dwayne Dolphin on bass. Meanwhile, Peter Madsen kicks it on keys, Reggie Ward grooves on guitar, and Ernie Fields Jr. provides serious sustainable wind power on the sax, flute, and bagpipes, while the adaptable Gary Winters lends his own wind on trumpet.
Wesley’s delightful autobiography, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman, chronicles his more than half-a-century long musical career, affording readers insight into an apparently endless cache of stories about his experiences on the road with the legends of funk music. You might want him to autograph a copy. Though this dedicated, down-to-earth musician hasn’t yet seemed to notice, he’s become something of a legend himself.
Hassan Hakmoun first appeared on our shores a little over 20 years ago, singing and playing the mystical and intoxicatingly danceable music of the Gnawa people. A mesmerizing blend of Islamic mysticism and hypnotic African rhythms, it combines the sinuous solo vocals of Arab devotional chanting with the rhythmic call-and-response of sub-Saharan Africa. In both performances of traditional devotional trance music and his collaborations with artists like the late jazz great Don Cherry and pop star Peter Gabriel, Hakmoun’s masterful playing of the sintir, arresting singing and electrifying performance style have continued to amaze listeners with the incomparable sounds of Gnawa.
The word Gnawa signifies not only a style of music, but also a Sufi Islamic religious order and the Moroccan ethnic group from which it arises, the descendants of sub-Saharan Africans originally brought to Morocco as captives and slaves in the 16th century. Troupes of Gnawa musicians perform all-night trance rituals (derdeba) for healing and purification of both individuals and community. Hassan Hakmoun’s mother was a noted Gnawa healer in his native Marrakech, and he studied both at her side and, beginning at age seven, in formal school training in the tagnawit, the arts and lore of the Gnawa. At 14 he left school for informal study with m’allem (master musicians) throughout Morocco and France. On his return, Hakmoun not only worked as a m’allem, but also performed in the Djema El Fna, the main square of Marrakech. That experience at the cultural crossroads of Morocco fueled his interest in bringing the traditional devotional Gnawa music to the world stage.
As m’allem, Hakmoun sings and plays the central Gnawan instrument, the sintir, which he has called “the grandfather of all basses.” In addition to plucking out hypnotizing melodies on this three-stringed, long-necked lute, he amplifies the rhythm by using the face of the sintir like a drum. Other members of the troupe fill out the sound with percussion—including the distinctive, oversize Gnawan castanets, the qarkabeb—and contribute their voices to the music’s aural layering. Gnawa combines the sinuous solo vocals of Arab devotional chanting with the rhythmic call-and-response more typical of sub-Saharan African music. Propelled by these glorious sounds, Hassan Hakmoun takes literal as well as lyrical leaps, responding with astounding acrobatic dancing to the soaring trance music that is Gnawa.
The elegant, subtle, and intensely passionate Argentine music and dance called tango could find no greater expression than through the superb artistry of bandoneónist Hector Del Curto and his ensemble. A virtuoso player of the bandonéon, an accordion of German origin that is the driving force and central instrument in tango orchestras, Del Curto masterfully leads his quartet and dancers through the intricacies of one of Argentina’s most famous musical exports, contributing to its global revival.
During the late 1800s, Argentina’s capital port city of Buenos Aires was a multi-cultural mix of Europeans, criollos, Africans and indigenous peoples. As is often the case, it was in the city’s bars and brothels where the musical traditions of these diverse groups began to mingle. One of the exciting hybrid forms that emerged from these cultural encounters was tango. While embraced by the lower classes, “respectable” Argentinians initially shunned tango. But its popularity eventually spread, and by the beginning of the 20th century, tango found its way to the European continent. The tango craze that subsequently swept Europe dramatically changed tango’s status at home. European acceptance legitimized this “lascivious” dance of low origins in the eyes of the Argentine elite. The 1920s ushered in the Golden Age of Tango, a period of creativity that produced legendary artists and permanently added the bandonéon to the tango orchestra. Tango became a national symbol of Argentina.
The Del Curto family has been a part of Argentine tango history through much of the form’s development. In the early 1900s, Héctor’s great-grandfather was a bandonéon player and composer in the Orquesta Típica Jazz Del Curto-Taranto. The musical torch then passed to Héctor’s grandfather, who introduced him to the instrument. By age 17, Héctor had mastered the bandonéon and won the title of “Best Bandonéon Player under 25” in Buenos Aires. This honor ultimately led to the opportunity for Héctor to play with the late Osvaldo Pugliese, whose tango orchestra was one of the most prestigious in the world. In describing Del Curto’s music, critics have nearly exhausted their seemingly inexhaustible supply of adjectives. Writer Adam Harrington summed it up this way: “Del Curto stuns us with his virtuosity; it will leave you breathless.”
Del Curto’s latest explorations of the tango have been centered in New York, now one of the largest tango communities outside of Buenos Aires. The Eternal Tango Quartet features Del Curto on bandonéon, Pedro Giraudo on double bass, Gustavo Casenave on piano, and Héctor’s accomplished wife, Jisoo Ok, on cello (“I have a good ear for women,” he wryly commented). Joining this top-flight quartet are two impassioned dancers, Ivan Terrazas and Sarah Grdan, who will perform the dramatic and intricate movements of Argentina’s beloved tango.
Performing traditional hulas, ancient and new, from over 400 years of Hawaiian history under the leadership of Kumu (master teacher) Kawika Alfiche, this beautiful ensemble embodies the traditional values at the heart of Hawaiian identity. Dancing in the style of the Island of Hawai’i, known as the Big Island, the group’s hula kahiko, or ancient hula, is energetic, grounded, filled with powerful chanting and dynamic movements which reflect the beauty and vitality of their volcanic homeland.
Throughout that history, hula has been a primary means of transmitting Hawaiian culture, experience, and values. In performance, traditional hula hālaus (schools) and troupes share the rich culture of Hawai’i with the world, with the belief that, as Kumu Kawika says, “hula can only do good for people.” For the members of Hula Hālau ’o Keikiali’i, the extensive preparation that precedes performance is as full of meaning as the dance itself. At the Kaululehua Hawaiian Cultural Center in South San Francisco, members of the hālau cultivate native flora and painstakingly assemble their own regalia, making manifest their “total connection to the land” and full participation in the dance and the culture it represents.
Hula Hālau ’o Keikiali’i was founded in San Francisco in 1994, when Kumu Kawika’s teacher, Aunty Harriet Keahilihau-Spalding, gave him the kuleana, or responsibility, to lead the school and to continue its mission of educating mainlanders about Hawaiian culture. As Kawika jokes now, kuleana also means “you have no choice” – this role in preserving Hawaiian culture chose him. While leading the school in California, he also continued his studies under Kumu Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca in Hawai’i, eventually becoming one of only six students that the late Kumu Rae formally recognized in his 30 years of teaching. Today, Kumu Kawika plays a leading role in carrying on the storied hula legacy of the Big Island.
Each dance the hālau performs, Kumu Kawika says, is an offering. Sometimes the offering is very specific: among the dances Hula Hālau ’o Keikiali’i will perform are songs to honor Pele, the goddess of the volcano, and her sister Hi’iaka, the goddess of the hula, the healer of the people and the land. But in every dance, an offering is given to the audience, sharing the spirit of the hula with people of all cultures. As New York Times dance critic Roslyn Sulcas noted, Hula Hālau ’o Keikiali’i’s “gentleness, sensuousness, playfulness and a belief in the simultaneity of the past and the present — that those who came before you live on through memory and the enactment of ritual.&rdquo
Cultural traditions typically change slowly, over the long arc of history. But occasionally, an innovation emerges that makes what seems to be a startling leap, although it remains deeply—even reverently—traditional at its core. You may never have heard of “kosher gospel” music before today, so the inspirational performances of Joshua Nelson, the creator of this style, will certainly be, well. . . a revelation. Raised in a black Jewish community in New Jersey, this “ prince of kosher gospel” blends Hebrew texts and African American gospel while channeling the vocal powers of Mahalia Jackson in a way that is utterly original and utterly electrifying.
Kosher gospel is the marriage of Jewish religious lyrics and meanings with the soulful sounds of American gospel music. While gospel is usually associated with African-American Christian churches, the roots of gospel’s rhythmic and vocal style come from West African traditions that predate Christianity. Similar sounds are retained in the musical cultures of African Muslims and Jews, and such soul-inflected vocalizations filled the Black Hebrew synagogue Joshua Nelson attended as a child with his family, observant Jews who traced their lineage back to Senegal.
When he was eight, Joshua Nelson discovered an album by Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, in his grandparents’ record collection, and he fell in love with her singing. During his teens and early twenties, he became widely celebrated as a gospel singer carrying on Jackson’s legacy. His continuing study of Judaism, including two years on a college and kibbutz program in Israel, clarified his understanding that throughout history, Jews had always integrated Jewish law and religious practices with the cultural context in which they lived; for example, as Nelson points out, any ethnic style of cuisine can be Jewish if it is kosher. Upon his return from Israel, Nelson began to apply this understanding to music, beginning what has been called “a revolution in Jewish music” by combining Jewish liturgical lyrics with one of America’s best-known indigenous musical forms; thus kosher gospel was born.
For Joshua Nelson, kosher gospel is a way to claim both parts of his identity as a Black Jew. For his audiences, whatever their faith or heritage, kosher gospel has been an astonishing discovery. Now in his early thirties, Nelson has performed around the world, for presidents, congregations, major music festivals—and for Oprah, who named him a “Next Big Thing.” He has produced a stellar album, Mi Chamocha, sung with stars from Aretha Franklin to the Klezmatics, and is the subject of the acclaimed documentary film Keep on Walking. Nelson also shares his musical gifts as an artist in residence at Jewish congregations across the country, including at his home synagogue of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform congregation in South Orange, New Jersey where he taught Hebrew School for 15 years. Whatever the venue, Joshua Nelson, the Prince of Kosher Gospel, brings people—and cultures—together in joyous song.
It's hard to imagine an artist more deeply devoted to bluegrass, or more rooted in the prolific bluegrass community of Southwest Virginia than Junior Sisk from Ferrum, Virginia. In the 1990s, he first earned acclaim for his songwriting, but over the years it's his powerful, lonesome singing that earned Sisk the devotion of traditional bluegrass fans. Now at the top of his game, Junior has put together a fresh, fiery ensemble of top-notch Blue Ridge musicians, widely regarded as one of the finest traditional bands to emerge in many decades. Bursting with energy in live performance, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice is blowing the roof off everywhere it plays. As "A Far Cry From Lester and Earl," the chart-topping opening track on the group's most recent recording announces: this is classic bluegrass at its best.
"More music, less talk" might be the band motto – if they had one. Junior explains, "It's a whole lot of fun to pick with guys that have a whole lot of energy. I sing real hard, and I play real hard, and these guys play hard too, and they really get into the show. . . I'm not the greatest talker. . . but none of the other guys want to talk – they want to pick – so I just tell folks they are going to hear a lot more picking than talking."
Sisk's compositions helped propel the Lonesome River Band to bluegrass fame in the early 1990s, and he's a veteran of several nationally known bluegrass bands including Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz, Lost & Found and BlueRidge. Reflecting upon his life as a bluegrass musician, Junior said, "The picking isn't a job, it's having fun. The hard part is driving up and down the road. But this job has its advantages. I love to hunt and fish, and most folks are working during the week so I have the run of the woods and the waters. But I just love the music. I thought about hanging it up after BlueRidge [disbanded], thought about just going to work for Lowes, but it's really in my blood. . ."
The original edition of Ramblers Choice was a short-lived but influential group that Sisk had created in 1998. When, ten years later, he decided to reform the Ramblers, Sisk assembled a lineup that reflects both the traditional roots of the Blue Ridge Mountains' bluegrass community and its contemporary sensibilities. The new Ramblers Choice recreates the strengths of the original group, amplified by a decade of experience and engagement with many facets bluegrass music's stylistic development. All save one of the group's members are from the Blue Ridge. Fiddler Billy Hawks served with traditionalist stalwarts Big Country Bluegrass and an assortment of the region's many groups while operating a recording studio in his hometown, Dobson, North Carolina. Banjo player Darrell Wilkerson came to the group after stints with, among others, Carolina Drive and Honi Deaton & Dream, while mandolinist Chris Harris represents the youngest generation of the area's musicians, training in—and winning—mandolin contests at venues like Merlefest and the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention.
At the heart of the group's sound is Junior's arresting voice and its echoes of the Virginia hills. The stylistic influences of Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers and others from the revered founding generation that brought bluegrass music to world are undeniable, but this is no retro band. It draws freely upon contemporary as well as traditional sources for material. While conversant with and respectful of tradition, the band incorporates the most enduring aspects of change in bluegrass over the decades.
"I'm glad I stuck with it," Junior says today, ". . .we are just having a blast. I've got a great band to work with, and a great record label – I couldn't be happier."
A blend of country, blues, R&B and gospel that arose in the mid-1950s, rockabilly wreaked havoc on the musical status quo. Suggestive and audacious, it had a fast and aggressive sound characterized by simple, crisp drumming, vibrant guitar licks and wild boogie piano. The epicenter of rockabilly action was Memphis, Tennessee, where youthful musical pioneers with swiveling hips and outrageous stage antics shocked, rocked, and changed American music forever. Rockabilly’s heyday was ephemeral, but as the precursor to rock and roll, its legacy was profound.
Since a resurgence of interest that began in the late 1970s, the founding generation of rockabilly artists has achieved cult status with younger audiences, and inspired a new generation of musicians. Foremost among them in terms of sheer talent and electrifying showmanship is singer and boogie piano player extraordinaire Lance Lipinsky (who also plays a mean guitar). His musical stylings are rooted in rockabilly, honky-tonk and early rock and roll, and pay homage to greats like Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, who Lipinsky is currently portraying in the Tony Award-winning musical production, Million Dollar Quartet. While admitting he might have been born in the wrong decade, Lipinksy’s no imitator. The freshness and immediacy of his performances and the wild enthusiasm of young fans scattered across the globe is a testament to the enduring vitality of his chosen musical milieu and its appeal across generations.
“You don’t know where you're going if you don't know where you been," says the 27-year-old year old Texas native. Born and raised in Wimberly, Texas, Lipinsky grew up exposed to his father’s extraordinary vinyl collection and vibrant live music scene of the Texas hill country and nearly Austin. At age seven, he was sitting in with roadhouse bands. "I’ll never forget the jukeboxes and the shuffleboard tables," Lance recalls, "and its all still there to this day. . . That’s why Texas will always be my home because. . it never turned its back on real, live music. . . genuine honky-tonk, juke joint music."
It’s safe to say that while growing up, Lance’s passion for grassroots American music outweighed his interest in science and math. At age 11, he was consumed with learning to play surf guitar like the Ventures. He was fan of the Doors at age 14, which led him to discover the piano. At age 16, he walked out of the classroom go to the restroom, and literally never went back. With the surprise blessing of his parents, he left for Las Vegas to pursue his dream of being an entertainer. As his varied musical interests and influences coalesced, Lipinsky channeled his gifts into the world of rockabilly. The rockabilly scene of today is a surprisingly youthful, worldwide subculture connected by the Internet. Existing apart from mainstream music politics, young artists like Lance promote their shows and music online, and creatively pursue their individual artistic visions without pressures and musical formulas of the music industry.
In 2009, Lipinsky made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. With a growing fan base, international touring, and performing in the Million Dollar Quartet five nights a week at the Apollo in Chicago, this young man with an old soul keeps a busy schedule. “. . . the truth is,” he says, “music is food, something we have to have. . .I’m only doing a continuation of a style of music I love. Whether that style came out in 1957 or 1857, what’s good doesn’t die. This applies for everything in life. Especially art.”
Chicago-born Irish American fiddler Liz Carroll was started on the accordion and tin whistle at age five by her father, a County Offally native, and Liz had the opportunity to hear her grandfather play the fiddle during her childhood visits to Ireland. She took up the fiddle at age nine, absorbing music from great Chicago Irish musicians at house parties and sessions, as well as at concerts by touring musicians who came through town. In 1975, after a series of victories in the junior All-Ireland competition, Liz, then just 18, astounded the Irish music world by winning the senior division All-Ireland Championship. Three decades later, she is widely regarded as one of the best ever to play the instrument. A master of traditional styles and tunes, Liz is also noted for her original compositions that have already entered the repertoires of Irish and Celtic musicians throughout the world. As P.J. Curtis of the Irish American declares, Liz "conjures up a dizzying mixture of the sweetest tones, the fastest runs, and the most dazzling display of musicianship imaginable." Because of her contributions to Irish music, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a National Heritage Fellowship in 1994, the highest honor our nation bestows upon folk and traditional artists. Liz has several excellent recordings to her credit, and is a delightful and engaging performer in demand throughout the world.
At the Richmond Folk Festival, Liz will be joined by pianist and composer Cormac McCarthy. A native of Cork, Ireland, Cormac began studying piano at age four and soon after, discovered the joy of composition. In 2010 Cormac received the prestigious Bill Whelan International Music Bursary from Bill Whelan (Riverdance), an award earmarked for young Irish composers studying abroad. He has been commissioned as a composer/arranger by The Dublin City Jazz Orchestra, CSM Jazz Big Band, CSM Concert Orchestra, Cork Pops Orchestra, DePaul Jazz Ensemble and The Vesuvio Wind Quintet. Cormac holds BMus and MA degrees from Cork School of Music and is currently a graduate student at DePaul University, Chicago.
Also accompanying Liz is guitarist Jake Charron, who has built a reputation as one of Canada’s finest accompanists for fiddle music, playing piano and guitar with fiddle champions Shane Cook, Mark Sullivan, Pierre Schryer, Louis Schryer, and many others including his younger brother Kyle. He has been the house pianist for the Canadian Open Fiddle Championships in Shelburne for the past several years, as well as for the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle Championships. Jake enjoys teaching at music camps, and has recently graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an Honours degree in Kinesiology.
Special guest fiddler, pianist and step dancer Troy MacGillivray is a multitalented musician who was born into a rich musical tradition. For generations, the MacGillivrays on his father's side and the MacDonalds on his mother's side have been proprietors of the Scottish Gaelic tradition in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Troy began impressing audiences with his step dancing at age six and soon developed into a capable piano and fiddle soloist. He has studied classical piano at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, spent four years in a stringed orchestra, earned a Bachelor of Music from St. Francis Xavier University and received an Applied Music Technology Diploma for recording engineering. He has five CD releases to his credit, several of which have been recognized with various awards and praise from fans and peers alike. Whether playing piano or fiddle, or showcasing his step dancing capabilities, Troy MacGillivray displays an intense commitment to the Celtic heritage he inherited from his Highland ancestors.
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas is arguably the best zydeco band in the nation, matching superb musicianship and clever songs with a knack for keeping dancers on the floor. Yet in the hands of bandleader Nathan Williams, zydeco is more than just great dance music. His compositions offer a rich experience for listeners as well as dancers, often incorporating adventurous touches of reggae, R&B and rock. With his mastery of the large piano accordion, Nathan is also the foremost contemporary interpreter of the music of revered zydeco pioneer, the late Clifton Chenier.
Nathan Williams has become one of the most recognizable musicians in his home state of Louisiana and an international star on the dance hall circuit. Born in St. Martinville, Louisiana, Nathan was raised in a community in which everyday conversation was conducted in Creole French. There, he started his musical career at El Sid O’s, the convenience store/butcher shop/dance hall run by his older brother, Sid Williams.
Springing from the rich cultural mix of South Louisiana and East Texas, zydeco combines traditional black French Creole music (closely related to the local Cajun tradition) with blues and R&B to create irresistible dance music. Zydeco is said to take its name from the idiomatic title of a popular song “Les Haricots [zydeco] Sont Pas Salé.” A driving, accordion-led music with its signature rubboard percussion and electric guitars, zydeco is a relatively modern sound that emerged after the Second World War.
The music of Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas is a family affair. Dennis Paul Williams, Nathan’s brother, brings his jazz-influenced guitar chops to the band. He’s also a well-known painter who contributed the cover and tray card paintings for their new album, Hang It High, Hang It Low. Rubboard player Mark Williams is a cousin who has been with the band since its inception. The eldest Williams brother, Sid “El Sid O” Williams, manages the band. The Cha Chas’ exceptional rhythm section is comprised of bassist Terry Jenkins and drummer Herman “Rat” Brown who played with Buckwheat Zydeco for many years.
Äkta (ék tuh), a Swedish word meaning “genuine” or “true,” is the name of this fiddle ensemble from Minnesota dedicated to the keeping of traditional Swedish music. The group’s leader, Paul Dahlin, fiddler, violin repairman, composer, festival organizer, and cultural spokesman, is the American "taproot" to one of Sweden's most venerable and widely admired varieties of regional music, stemming from the Dalarna province. Even fiddle devotees in Sweden look to him as the principle repository of a treasured old repertoire and performing style that has virtually been forgotten in their own homeland. While his music is archetypically Swedish, the story of his cultural inheritance and special artistic motivation is quite American.
Paul’s grandfather, Ivares Edvin Jonsson, departed his native Rojerasen (in the Dalarna province) in 1924 at the age of 19. When he left, his mother would not let him take his treasured fiddle with him. "You are going to America to work, not to play," she told him. Several years later, he was reunited with his beloved instrument and spent much of the rest of his life in Minnesota passing forth his fiddling and fiddle-making traditions to his children and grandson Paul. Paul took up the fiddle in 1963 at the age of 9, and by the age of 17, he was performing regularly with his elders at Swedish-American events.
Before his death in 1984, Paul's grandfather was "discovered" by fiddlers from Sweden who were amazed by his faithfulness to the regional style and repertoire that was thought to have disappeared. When grandson Paul began teaching Swedish instrumental music at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, Swedish colleagues lauded his role as an important purveyor of deep Swedish musical tradition, and as a source of vitality for a tradition thought to have been lost. The ASI Spelmanslag (fiddlers group), for which Paul has served as musical director since its inception, was formed in this same year. In 1994 Paul was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, recognition of his outstanding contributions as a keeper and teacher of Swedish American musical traditions.
The popularity of the adult spelmanslag led to the creation of a youth fiddling group at the ASI. As one might imagine, Paul has invested much time and energy in teaching and encouraging this new generation of musicians. Among them is Paul’s son, Daniel Dahlin, an emerging leader and a fine fiddler whose beautiful compositions are adding to the traditional repertoire. Three other fine young fiddlers will also join Paul at the festival, along with Paul’s wife Marikay Dahlin on stand-up bass/zither, offering a rare chance to experience the gorgeous harmonies and haunting melodies of Swedish fiddle tradition.
At the 2012 Richmond Folk Festival, three Piedmont masters: guitarist John Dee Holeman, harmonica player Phil Wiggins and buckdancer Willette Hinton join forces to showcase the unique blues traditions of the Piedmont.
The blues from the Piedmont - the hilly region between the Appalachians and the low-lying coastal areas that stretches through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland – is one of the oldest forms of the blues. It draws heavily on earlier fiddle and banjo string band music that was equally popular among rural blacks and whites, and served as a staple at country parties, hoedowns and square dances.
John Dee Holeman was born in rural Orange County, North Carolina in 1929. At age fourteen, he began singing the blues and picking the guitar, learning from older Piedmont blues musicians who had learned directly from master bluesman Blind Boy Fuller. By his mid-teens, John Dee was performing for pay at house parties, community celebrations, corn shuckings and pig pickings near his home. When he moved to Durham in 1954, he began to incorporate more modern, electrified blues into his rural acoustic style.
John Dee has toured extensively in the United States and abroad, appearing at Carnegie Hall, in North Carolina’s “Black Folk Heritage Tour” and internationally with the United States Information Agency’s Arts America Program. In 1988, he received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for a traditional artist. He was also honored with a Folk Heritage award by his home state of North Carolina in 1994. In recent years, John Dee has become a Music Maker Foundation artist, releasing three albums on its label. On his 80th birthday in 2009, his many friends presented him with a new electric guitar, which has helped his master blues stylings and expressive voice sound as fresh as ever.
“Before his back got too stiff,” as he says, John Dee Holeman would occasionally set down his guitar and show off his fantastic buckdancing skills. Buckdance is a traditional Appalachian freestyle solo dance style with roots in Africa and Europe, particularly the British Isles, which emphasizes percussive rhythms created by the heel and toe. A precursor of tap, buckdance was popularized by minstrel performers in the late 19th century. Often playfully competitive, it has long been a feature of rural dances and house parties. Willette “Willie” Hinton is a buckdance master, whose charisma is a match for his fancy footwork. Hinton hails from the North Carolina Piedmont and his style of buckdancing reflects his regional heritage. Willie learned to dance from his mother, Algia Mae Hinton, a great country blues musician and dancer, who, like her son, believes that music and dance are inseparable.
Phil Wiggins is arguably America’s foremost blues harmonica virtuoso. While rooted in the melodic Piedmont or “Tidewater” blues of the Chesapeake region, his mastery of the instrument now transcends stylistic boundaries. Born in Washington D.C. in 1954, Phil Wiggins achieved worldwide acclaim over three decades as one half of the premier Piedmont blues duo of Cephas & Wiggins. Since the death of guitarist and singer John Cephas in 2009, Phil has brought his harmonica wizardry to bear in a variety of musical collaborations – now with John Dee and Willette.
As a child, Wiggins spent summers at his grandmother’s in Alabama, and in church there absorbed the sounds of old-time hymns sung in the traditional call-and-response style. Phil was attracted to the blues harmonica as a young man, and began his musical career with some of Washington, D.C.’s leading blues artists, including Archie Edwards and John Jackson. He attributes his basic style to the years spent accompanying locally-noted slide guitarist and gospel singer Flora Molton. In 1976, Phil met bluesman Cephas and, with pianist Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis and bassist James Bellamy, they formed the Barrelhouse Rockers. A year later, the duo of Cephas & Wiggins was born. In addition to his skills on the harmonica, Wiggins is also a fine songwriter.
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A 5,000-year-old musical tradition from the heart of Mesopotamia is alive and well in – well, Albuquerque. It is here that renowned Iraqi oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj, who in 1991 made a harrowing escape from Baghdad and Saddam Hussein following the Persian Gulf War, today makes his home. Now sharing his thoughtful and expressive compositions and masterful improvisations with audiences across America, AlHaj is a cultural ambassador for the deep musical heritage of his homeland.
The short-necked Arabian lute called the oud is central to Iraqi music. The oud originated in this region over 5,000 years ago, and is the ancestor of the lute family of instruments that includes the guitar. But unlike the guitar, it is fretless. Traditional Iraqi music is organized into a series of maqamat, or modes. Each maqam has a distinctive scale made up of several pitches and specific melodic formulae. Each is often associated with a certain mood or season. Unlike western music, which is based on whole and half tones (12 semitones altogether), Iraqi music is based on 24 quarter tones.
AlHaj began his musical training at the age of nine, and was soon recognized as a phenomenal talent. Studying under the legendary Munir Bashir and Salim Abdul Kareen at Baghdad’s Conservatory of Fine Arts, Rahim established himself as one of the world’s foremost oudists. But AlHaj’s political activities and refusal to write music in praise of “the great” Saddam got him into trouble with Hussein’s repressive regime. His composition entitled "Why," based on a poem by a longtime friend who lost his legs in the Iran-Iraq War, landed him in prison where he was tortured and beaten. His mother sold almost all of her belongings to acquire false documents so that Rahim could make an escape.
In 2000, AlHaj was granted political asylum in the United States, landing in Albuquerque where he got a job as a security guard for $6 an hour. In debt and not satisfied with his new career, AlHaj rented a music hall at the University of New Mexico and organized his first U.S. solo concert. It was a sellout and he began receiving offers to perform from around the country. Today, AlHaj's virtuosity is receiving that national attention it merits. His Smithsonian Folkways recording When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq was nominated for a Grammy award in 2008, and he has collaborated with the likes of Bill Frisell and Ottmar Liebert. Performing with AlHaj at the festival is Issa Malluf, an Albuquerque-born, world-class percussionist who previously studied and toured with revered Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussein.
AlHaj draws upon his experiences of life in exile and settling in the U.S. for his most recent compositions. Asked about how his music relates to the present world political situation, Rahim answers, “The music contains the drive for the message of peace and compassion and love…. In Iraq right now, as in most of the world, what is vital is what we can find . . .that it brings us together, not so much that tears us apart. I try to talk about these things, about the common links between us all . . ."
Legendary Virginia bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley is one of the twelve Virginians who have received a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for folk and traditional artists. This year, the festival’s Virginia Folklife Stage program brings together these “living national treasures” to celebrate their artistic achievements and cultural contributions. Ralph will subsequently perform a closing Sunday afternoon set on the Community Foundation Stage joined by his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys.
Nationally-recognized singer, songwriter and author Rosanne Cash will make a special appearance at the 2012 Festival for one performance only on Saturday, October 13, 2012. The eldest daughter of country music icon Johnny Cash and stepdaughter of June Carter Cash of the legendary Carter Family, Rosanne’s musical and family legacy is rooted in the very beginnings of American country music.
Her own thoughtful, genre-blurring approach, which encompasses country, rock, roots and pop influences, has garnered her a Grammy, twelve Grammy nominations and eleven No. 1 singles. On her 2009 album The List, Cash recorded twelve songs from the list of “100 essential country songs” that her father compiled for her, and instructed her to learn, when she was 18 and about to join his road show. The List received a Grammy nomination and won the 2010 Americana Music Association album of the year. The author of two books, Cash’s prose and essays have been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Oxford-American and New York Magazine, among others.
Rosanne’s appearance at the 2012 Festival occurs in conjunction with her visit to Richmond in support of the work of the Richmond-based non-profit, Children Incorporated, an organization she has been involved with for 25 years. Children Incorporated provides resources for children in need in the U.S. and 22 other countries, in the form of education and providing basic needs – food, clothing, healthcare and school supplies – to more than 15,000 children worldwide through established schools, orphanages and community centers.
Formed in 1927 in Havana by the pioneering sonero Ignacio Piñeiro Martinez (1888-1969), the current iteration of the legendary Septeto Nacional represents the fourth generation of the band. Piñeiro’s musical innovations helped to transform a homegrown musical style, the Cuban son, and to bring it worldwide popularity. The son is at the heart of Cuban musical tradition, the musical pulse of the island, and the predecessor to styles like salsa; in fact, many attribute the name “salsa” to one of Piñeiro’s songs, “Échale Salsita” (“Spice It Up”). Today, the band continues to delight audiences with classic sounds from the golden age of Cuban son, perpetuating the tradition that Piñeiro helped to shape.
Cuban son was born in the 1900s, when working class Afro-Cuban began to combine elements of the colonial Spanish canción guitar music with the African Bantu and Arará rhythms and percussion. The style matured in the 1920s as Havana became a cosmopolitan center, teeming with Americans looking to avoid Prohibition. These visitors included musicians who brought the hot, new American jazz, and then carried the music they heard in Cuba back to the States. The rise both the recording industry and radio broadcasting helped spread the sounds of son throughout Cuba, and establish its popularity and status as a preeminent national music. The continuing exchange of music between Cuba and the United States, especially with the big bands of the 1940s and 1950s, led to the development of the mambo, chachacha, and salsa.
While Ignacio Piñeiro made important contributions as a songwriter, it was his pioneering addition of the cornet (trumpet) to the Spanish guitars, African percussion, and multiple vocal harmonies that transformed the son and set the stage for its commercial success. He gained international acclaim when he signed with Columbia Records in 1927, just one year after he had played the Apollo Theater in New York. The music of Septeto Nacional took America by storm. The group appeared in various films and enjoyed constant radio play, building America’s fascination with Cuba’s music and dance. Despite its growing stateside successes, troubled U.S./Cuban relations led to Septeto Nacional being barred from returning to the country. Back home in Cuba, however, Piñeiro’s group continued to perform in its original style, taking on new members over the years, but remaining dedicated to preserving and continuing the classic sound.
Septeto Nacional’s celebrated return to the United States in 2009 marked a unique occurance: that of a musical group performing for U.S. audiences both before and after the Cuban travel embargo. In an interview with the New York Times in 2009, the band’s first trip to the United States in 76 years, Eugenio Rodríguez, Septeto Nacional’s lead singer and the oldest member of the current group relayed the band’s goals: “Our mission is to preserve the songs and the legacy of Ignacio Piñeiro…the contribution of the fourth generation has been to bring some new vigor and energy to that sound, which increases our enjoyment and that of our audience.”
Sometimes versatility has its price – in this case, a nickname. Noted Blue Ridge musicians Kirk Sutphin and Eddie Bond - both featured in the National Council for the Traditional Arts’ acclaimed Music From the Crooked Road: Mountain Music of Virginia national tours, and the 2011 Roots of American Music tour - popped up in so many of the tours’ musical configurations that the other performers jokingly began to refer to them as the “stage hogs.” Now, joined by their friend and accomplished guitar player “Snake” Smith, “the hogs” have made it official. The Stage Hogs recently convened in the studio of famed Virginia banjoist Sammy Shelor to, at long last, record an album that showcases this talented trio of traditional Appalachian musicians.
A master old-time fiddler and banjoist, Kirk Sutphin performs in the Round Peak style long identified with the Galax/Mt. Airy area on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Kirk has deep roots in the tradition. His grandfather, a fiddler and banjoist, was from Round Peak. Famed fiddler Tommy Jarrell, also from Round Peak, spent much time teaching tunes to a young Kirk. The clawhammer banjo style of this area is highly developed, and Kirk’s smooth and seemingly effortless technique is especially evident when he plays the fretless banjo. Possessing a rich knowledge of other historic banjo styles from the Blue Ridge and Piedmont, Kirk is also a master of fingerpicked styles such as the one associated with famous North Carolina banjo player Charlie Poole. A steadfast proponent of western North Carolina mountain music, Kirk has long collected songs, tunes and stories from the elders in his region.
Fiddler, singer, banjoist and dancer (and autoharp and guitar player) Eddie Bond is from Fries, Virginia, a Grayson County hamlet of six hundred. Fries was built around a now-disappeared cotton mill near the headwaters of the New River that in the 1920s produced four of the high-flying string bands whose recordings and radio broadcasts helped invent country music.
Eddie plays in the forceful rhythmic Galax/Mt. Airy area dance style that captivated the nation, and the world, in the 1960s. He learned directly from legendary masters Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and Kyle Creed, and other great musicians who did not record. As was de rigueur among the older fiddlers from whom he learned, Eddie is also a fine performer in the older clawhammer banjo style of the region. Bond’s family on both sides was packed with musicians. All four of his great-grandfathers were banjo players. His beloved Granny Widner, who raised him, sang, played guitar and was a flatfoot dancer. Eddie himself began performing at age three, dancing for quarters to the music of his great-uncle Leon Hill’s band. A dynamic performer, he brings flair and a sense of humor to the music that engages audiences and delights musicians. He is known for his powerful voice, and is often found singing and fiddling at the local Wednesday night jam session at the New River Café in Fries.
When it comes to Delta blues, Mississippi’s James “Super Chikan” Johnson rules the roost. Both a folk musician and artist, he’s an American original in the tradition of Ironing Board Sam and Bongo Joe. Super Chikan picks and plucks on a variety of unique guitars that he makes himself, using whatever materials are lying around the yard: flattened gas cans, ceiling fans, broomsticks. He hand paints each amazing “chikantar” with detailed scenes of the Delta. The result is a riot of image and color, and, like the music Johnson makes on his creations, infused with that special Super Chikan joie de vivre.
“Making one of my guitars is like writing one of my songs. I let the words and feelings take me from the beginning to the end…As it shapes up, I gain more ideas. Just let it go where it goes.”
James Louis Johnson was born in 1951 and spent his childhood in the Mississippi Delta, moving from town to town, working on his family’s farms. As a young boy, he was quite fond of the family chickens, and used to talk to them. So his friends gave him the nickname “Chikan Boy.” His first instrument was a one-stringed “diddly bow,” a board with a piece of baling wire stretched end to end. He switched to guitar and throughout his youth continued to soak up the blues from his uncle Big Jack Johnson and neighbor Sam Carr.
For several years, Johnson drove a truck for a living, making up songs to pass the time on the road. By the mid ‘90s, he was playing with notable regional musicians. However, wanting to follow his own muse, he struck out on his own in 1997 with his debut album, Blues Come Home to Roost, and followed this up with several more. These recordings brought Johnson increasing attention and offers to tour throughout the United States, Africa, Japan, and Europe. In 2004, “Super Chikan” received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and his latest CD, Chikadelic, took home a Blue Music Award for best Traditional Blues Album. His jaunty all-female band, “The Fighting Cocks” features Laura “LaLa” Craig, who pummels the keyboard, the talented Heather Tackett on bass, and Johnson’s daughter, Jamiesa “Pinkey” Turner (a.k.a. “Little Chikan,” on drums.
At home in Clarksdale, Johnson performs regularly at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero blues club. The “Super Chikan” is Freeman’s favorite blues performer.
While to Haitians the lilting sounds of mizik twoubadou, are warmly familiar, this delightful musical style with rural roots is virtually unknown to U.S. audiences. Both the style and Haiti’s premier twoubadou ensemble, Ti-Coca et Wanga-Nègès, make their Richmond debuts at this year’s festival. Charismatic singer Ti-Coca (David Mettelus) is one of Haiti’s finest singers and foremost exponents of this charming, rustic music. Originally from Port de Paix in northeast Haiti, he acquired the nickname “Ti-Coca” (little bottle of Coca-Cola) because of his diminutive stature. For 34 years, Ti-Coca and his accordion-led acoustic quintet have created twoubadou in the traditional style, one of the few professional ensembles whose music has retained the distinctive character that Haitian historian Jean Fouchard described as “the gentle Congo pastorals.”
Misik twoubadou has an important place in Haitian culture, one that transcends rural-urban and class divisions. Twoubadou is the Kreyòl word for “troubadour,” which refers to the medieval lyric poets of the Proveçal court or a strolling minstrel. In Haiti, singer-composers who accompany themselves or sometimes perform with a small, string-based combos are called twoubadou. Their songs convey the bitterness, irony and humor of life and love, often employing ribald lyrics. There is a Haitian expression, voye wóch, kache me, which means “throw the rock, hide the hand.” Twoubadou delights in lyrical camouflage – of sending the point, but hiding the message.
The role of the twoubadou is the popular equivalent to that of the rural Haitian song leaders of work brigades and rara parades, or their counterpart in Vodou ceremonies. These song leaders are expected to provide perceptive, often harsh, comment on important people, local events or scandals, and issues of local or national significance. Songs that censure, criticize and cast aspersions (usually indirectly) are called chan pwen (“point song”). This tradition became a part of twoubadou, and some artists have used their music to raise the social and political awareness of the nation.
First-time travelers to Haiti might have their initial encounter with a twoubadou ensemble on the tarmac of the Port-au-Prince airport, where they are sometimes hired to perform for arriving passengers. Twoubadou can be heard in the cafés and on the street corners of Port-au-Prince. Twoubadou groups perform at fèt patwonal (patron’s day feasts), during Carnival, at private parties and in hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists, but only rarely outside Haiti.
In addition to David (vocals and tcha-tchas), the ensemble consists of Belony Benis (accordion), Mathieu Chertoute (tanbou), Wilfrid Bolane (bass), Joreste Tranquillis (drums), and Richard Hector (banjo and guitar). The Richmond Folk Festival is excited to bring this very special ensemble and uniquely Haitian art form to new American audiences.
Wang Li has attained a seemingly impossible level of virtuosity on some of the world’s oldest and humblest instruments. Employing circular breathing and throat-singing techniques with masterful subtlety on his favorite, the jaw harp, as well as the calabash flute, Wang Li’s improvisational solo performances are utterly transfixing. The ethereal music he has created is confounding – an experience simultaneously primeval and avant-garde. With a wry humor, Wang Li takes audiences on a meditative musical journey to interior worlds.
Wang Li hails from Qingdao, a coastal city in northeastern China on the Yellow Sea, where he grew up playing a kouxiang, or jaw harp. In college, he played bass in Western-influenced bands, but once he graduated, his life took a surprising turn: Li wound up in an austere French monastery, where he came to a new musical vision for the jaw harp and Chinese calabash flute. After four years there, he struck out on his very personal musical odyssey. Li studied jazz at the Paris Conservatory and became fascinated with improvisation. He then returned to China, and traveled throughout his native region learning from local musicians. All of these experiences are reflected in his highly personal, yet universal music.
Li can produce a mind-boggling array of sounds and rhythms on his chosen instruments, both of which date back many centuries. The Chinese kouxiang belongs to the vast, ancient family of mouth harps, which are found in cultures around the world. It is made of bamboo instead of metal and has three tongues. The hulusi (cucurbit, or “calabash” flute) is a free reed instrument with a gourd wind chamber. It has a beautiful pure, clarinet-like timbre but, being soft in volume, is most often played solo. While Wang Li is taking these ancient instruments into new territory, his compositions are most often inspired by fond memories of his family, and the simple nursery rhymes and counting songs of his childhood.
Both music writers as well as audiences have been wowed. Writer Rayna Jhaveri describes first hearing him play the jaw harp: “. . .I felt transported to some place of secret magic, as the music built slowly and progressively in energy until the whole room was pulsating with the power of this tiny instrument. . .” NPR’s All Things Considered: called him a “most sublime and experimental artist. . .who uses both traditional and avant-garde techniques and improvisation to create a surprising sonic palette." The New York Times wrote: “. . .He played jew’s-harps, twangy little instruments that were closely miked and enriched by reverb so that every touch and resonance was audible in detail. . .fascinating, introspective perpetual-motion meditations. The rhythms of sharply pinging, clicking notes sometimes suggested electronic dance music; ghostly overtone melodies sighed up above. It was deeply solitary music, quietly spellbinding. The Wild Magazine described the music as “adark and dreamy almost acoustic dubstep sound. . .Wang Li is such a virtuoso, a sort of human Moog synthesizer.”