This weekend marks the bittersweet finale of the National Folk Festival’s three-year rotation through Greensboro.
Forget about your notion of folk music as Peter, Paul and Mary singing earnest protest songs, or as a sensitive 1970s singer-songwriter trip. This folk music is far more diverse, more rooted in tradition, more richly American; essentially, it’s a showcase of the most talented ambassadors of the varied regional music from across the United States, including its immigrant tributaries. During its three-year run, the festival has featured everything from Trouble Funk’s incendiary boogie as a representation of the Washington DC go-go scene in 2015 to Dale Watson’s kinetic simulation of a Texas honky-tonk the same year.
This time around, there’s no one quite as iconic as 2015 headliner Mavis Staples — a matchless tribune of civil rights anthems and classic soul whose music should be a soundtrack for Greensboro — or as jaw-dropping as 2016 standout Grandmaster Flash (remember, hip hop essentially started as a folk music of the Bronx in the 1970s before reaching global dominance).
But there should be no shortage of revelatory performances, with North Carolina representing from Dom Flemons — carrying the flame for the rich tradition of black string-band music — to Dark Water Rising — alchemizing a folk-soul-rock sound that represents Lumbee culture — or Laurelyn Dossett leading a “Songs of Hope & Justice” musical gathering on the eve of the festival at the Van Dyke Performance Space.
Start with the Tremé Brass Band, opening the festival at the Wrangler Stage on Friday, and catch the Fairfield Four, an a capella gospel quartet from Nashville that has lent its sound to everyone from John Fogerty to Dolly Parton. Check out Kelsey Waldron, a rising star of classic country, and Orquesta SCC, New York City exponents of salsa dura. But really, make your own itinerary based on whatever appeals to you most; you can’t go wrong at this festival. Visit nationalfolkfestival.com for the full lineup, and read on for our takes on some of this year’s standout acts.
And the best part? It’s all free. And that includes rides on the GTA buses. Imagine a pedestrian city stocked with food trucks and craft beer taps, along with performers from every conceivable folk tradition within a 10-minute walk. It’s gonna be the real deal, and the Triad is lucky to host it.
Alash (Republic of Tuva, Russian Federation) Saturday at Citystage at 2 p.m. and at the Lawn Stage at 8 p.m. Sunday at LeBauer Park Stage at noon and 1:45 p.m., News & Record’s Backstage Beat at 4:15 p.m.
Xöömei is the coolest thing you’ve never heard, or even heard of. But they say that Tuvan throat-singing is one of the oldest vocal traditions on Earth, older even than human language.
From Tuva, or the Tyva Republic — a Russian Federation state in southern Siberia near the geographical center of Asia — comes the ancient vocal art in which a single vocalist produces up to four different pitches at once. As the National Folk Festival description interprets, the music conjures up the world of Tuva’s nomadic herdsmen, including “the wind whistling across the steppes, the deep lowing of the yak, and the high trill of birdsong, syncopated by the rhythm of trotting horses.”
While Alash — a three-member group that has been performing traditional Tuvan throat-singing for almost two decades — brings a brand new style of music to most ears at the festival, they’re already familiar with many of the musical traditions common in the United States.
Though the group originally accompanied their vocals with only traditional Tuvan instruments, the members began to incorporate non-traditional and even distinctly Western instruments, such as the accordion, guitar and even the rhythmic accompaniment of beatboxers.
Alash was featured on Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ 2009 album, Jingle All the Way, which won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
They cite Jimi Hendrix as an influence.
— Joel Sronce
The Beat[box] Goes On: Rahzel, Nicole Paris and Ed Cage (New York City & St. Louis, Mo.)Saturday at the Wrangler Stage at 2:10 p.m. and at the Dance Pavilion at 5 p.m. Sunday at the McDonald’s Family Stage at 12:15 p.m., the LeBauer Park Stage at 1:45 p.m. and the Dance Pavilion at 3:30 p.m.
Masterful beatboxing is shocking. Particularly for those who aren’t familiar with the art form and its wizards of noise, its engineers of sound, beatboxing is barely believable. While tongues, lips and breath make carnivals of intonation and calisthenics of the human mouth, a naive audience’s jaws can only drop.
The art form took off as a part of the birth of hip hop in the 1970s, and the two evolved together, each bent to the new reaches of inventiveness and technology that continued to birth new sounds.
Growing up in Queens, Rahzel — “the Godfather of Noyze” and a former member of the Roots — has been beatboxing for decades. But though he may be the most accomplished beatboxer at the Folk Festival, the father and daughter joining him might just steal the show.
If you’re thinking of skipping their Folk Festival performances, watch the Nicole Paris and Ed Cage beatbox battle at nationalfolkfestival.com. Their imitations don’t stop at the drum kit, or even the drumline. These beatboxers can imitate a disc jockey — a really good one — complete with scratches, loops and rewinds.
They incorporate the robotic snatches of words, the jackhammer rumble of a double-pedal kick drum and the gunshot smacks of a snare, all while leaving space for silence. Their talent drops you on the dancefloor of a Berlin club, less a few thousand dollars of equipment. Among the synthesized, fierce, industrial sounds comes rapid gesticulation. Paris even incorporates words, including “Smash that,” a flash of power that rightly dismisses her delighted dad from their competition.
— Joel Sronce
Dale Ann Bradley (Middlesboro, Ky.) performs all three days of the festival: Friday, on Lawn Stage at 7:15pm, Saturday at Lebauer Park Stage at 1:15 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., News & Record Backstage Beat at 3:15 p.m., City Stage at 5 p.m. and Sunday on City Stage at 2 p.m. and Lebauer Park Stage at 4:15 p.m.
Remaining steadfast in tradition, Dale Ann Bradley has been named one of the greatest contemporary bluegrass musicians of her generation. Having earned five International Bluegrass Music Association awards for best female vocalist, Bradley performed widely across the South. With family roots reaching deep in Kentucky, Bradley grew up the daughter of a coal-mining Baptist minister in a household of heavy religious restrictions. The influence of traditional bluegrass music was a part of her childhood, growing up in a poverty-stricken community where music became her life’s focus. Since receiving her first guitar at age 14, Bradley has since carried the bare-boned, nearly religious tradition of bluegrass and country music in its purest form to stages across the country. With the 2015 record Pocket Full of Keys, she earned her first Grammy nomination for best bluegrass record.
Her jubilant and joyful music blends a myriad of stringed instruments from guitar and banjo to fiddles and mandolins, calling forth the thrilling tones of string music. Above it all, Bradley’s angelically sweet and fluid vocals call to mind the stylings of singers like Rhonda Vincent and Allison Krauss, along with the powerful Southern emotionalism of the late Hazel Dickens. In the span of her career, Bradley has revitalized the role of female musicians in traditional music, delivering the heart-throbbing, bare-knuckled punch of lyrics tackling poverty, loss and love with a gentle, joyful voice.
— Spencer KM Brown
Dark Water Rising (Robeson County, NC) Saturday at the NC Traditions Stage at noon.
Claiming roots with the Lumbee Indian Tribe in Robeson County, Dark Water Rising has grown in popularity and importance, earning three Native American Music Awards since forming nearly a decade ago. Featuring powerful lead vocals from Charly Lowry (a former “American Idol” finalist), influences of blues, gospel, rock and folk rush through the veins of the band’s music, blended with traditional Native-American drums and melodies. The group performs with powerfully inventive skill.
As a means to explore and share their heritage and culture with fans, Dark Water Rising incorporates themes of their Native American heritage, bringing to light various struggles and hardships in their lyrics, giving it a new life through more modern modes of music. As active members of the Lumbee and Coharie tribes, Dark Water Rising’s music deals with themes of race, poverty and pride in heritage, bringing a thunderous and memorable performance to the stage.
Having toured relentlessly across the United States, Dark Water Rising has garnered boughs of critical praise for two full-length albums and a third to be released later this year.
— Spencer KM Brown
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Dom Flemons (Hillsboro, NC) Sunday at the NC Traditions Stage on at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
African-American singer-songwriter Dom Flemons has become an integral talent in the North Carolina folk scene. As a founding member of Grammy-winning folk group Carolina Chocolate Drops and now as a solo artist, Flemons blends traditional melodies and lyrics with an innovative twist to his songs. Moving between ragtime, gospel, blues and Appalachian traditional Flemons’ music has reanimated a lost tradition of Southern music, bringing it to stages across the country.
“It’s the music I love,” Flemons told Triad City Beat in spring of 2017. “I’ve studied it almost all my life, and I think the history of where it all came from is as important as the music itself.”
Incorporating a wide array of instruments — from guitar, banjo and fiddle to spoons, harmonica and fife — Flemons focuses on the importance of African-American musicians in traditional music, undertaking numerous projects and sharing the stage with such acts as Jonny Grave, Paperhaus, the Hackensaw Boys and Letitia Van Sant.
— Spencer KM Brown
Innov Gnawa (Brooklyn, NY) performs all three days of the festival: Friday at the Dance Pavilion at 9 p.m., Saturday at LeBauer Park at 12:15 p.m., News & Record Backstage Beat at 7:15 p.m., Lawn Stage at 9 p.m., and Sunday on Wrangler Stage at 1 a.m. and Lawn Stage at 3:45 p.m.
Led by Maâlem Hassan Ben Jaafer, the Brooklyn-based sextet Innov Gnawa carries the ancient tradition of Moroccan gnawa music to the stage. Founded in 2013, the group features a distinctive, throaty singing style, with hypnotic, ancient melodies played on the guembri, a three-stringed, long-necked lute. With acclaimed musician Jaafer as the band’s leader and frontman, the five backing vocalists complete the sound with thick-layered vocals, accompanied by a backing rhythm of distinctive iron castanets known as qraqeb, drums and traditional stringed instruments.
Gnawa is a rich Moroccan collection of ancient African and Islamic religious songs and rhythms. The centuries-old heritage combines ritualistic poetry with traditional music and dancing. Innov’s music features the enchanting use of repetitive melodies and verses, blended with an inspiring and provocative performance featuring its members often clad in the centuries-old style of clothing, traditional of Morocco. The rhythms — performed mostly with castanets and hand-clapping — are the lifeblood of gnawa music, with rich layers of strings flowing jagged yet soothing above the beat. Hailed by critics, Innov Gnawa are an act not to be missed.
— Spencer KM Brown
Sun Ra Arkestra (Philadelphia, Pa.) plays on Saturday at the Lawn Stage at 1:50 p.m. and at the Dance Pavilion at 6:45 p.m. The ensemble performs its final Folk Festival show at Citystage on Sunday at 3:20 p.m.
According to many scholars, cultural critics and other-worldly figures, Afrofuturism began with Sun Ra. As an intersection of black culture, imagination and freedom, Afrofuturism encompasses the aesthetics of sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, the psychedelic music of Jimi Hendrix, the alien avatars of OutKast, and the alternative works of many other artists. But years before these contributions, Sun Ra first took flight.
Born Herman “Sonny” Blount in Alabama, the jazz artist changed his name to Sun Ra — an homage to the Egyptian sun god — after joining the Chicago jazz scene in the 1940s. The following decade, the Sun Ra Arkestra formed. Over the years, its many members have let soar Sun Ra’s avant-garde incorporations of fusion, swing, bebop and free jazz, while the ensemble’s elaborate garb has always coupled ancient-Egyptian robes with Space-Age ornamentation.
After Ra’s death in 1993, the Arkestra’s leadership transferred to Marshall Allen, one of the group’s original members. Allen, now 93, leads the Arkestra today, bringing Ra’s cosmic style to new ears and new worlds.
In October, the Arkestra takes the stage with Solange in Washington, DC — part of what the music star has dubbed “the lineup of my actual dreams.” In some far off place, many light years in space — where human feet have never trod, where human eyes have never seen — Sun Ra waits in a world of his own abstract dreams.
— Joel Sronce
Los Texmaniacs (San Antonio, Texas) play on Friday at the Wrangler Stage at 8:45 p.m. as well as on Saturday at the News & Record’s Backstage Beat at 1:15 p.m. and at the Dance Pavilion at 2:45 p.m. The band ends the festival with three shows on Sunday, playing at the Dance Pavilion at noon, the Lawn Stage at 2:30 p.m. and the Citystage at 4:30 p.m.
Conjunto Tejano embodies the border — the struggle, the culture and the blooming of creation along the trumped-up line where the United States and Mexico meet. It’s as old as its migrants and colonies. It’s Tex Mex without the exploitation, the commodification, the tortilla shells made of fried chicken.
For Los Texmaniacs, the mix of classic conjunto with rock and R&B doesn’t cheapen any culture or genre; rather its fusion reaches out to wider audiences while maintaining, and celebrating, the existing traditions.
When Eastern-European immigrants began to migrate into the lands that now make up southern Texas, their button accordions — as well as polka and other genres of music — met the already vibrant Mexican musical traditions. From this immersion, conjunto emerged.
Born in Albuquerque, NM, Los Texmaniacs founder Max Baca started learning the accordion at age 5. His ascension in the world of conjunto music led Baca to one of his idols, accordion legend Flaco Jiménez, who asked Baca to join him on the bajo sexto, a 12-string Mexican guitar.
Baca continues to play bajo sexto in Los Texmaniacs, alongside fellow members who wield the accordion, electric bass and drums.
In 2010, the group’s album Borders y Bailes won a Grammy Award for best Tejano album.
This year, the band celebrates its 20th anniversary.
— Joel Sronce
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