Can’t miss: The Monitors (5:15 p.m., North Carolina Traditions Stage)
One definition of folk music is the culture that people of a particular region or locale have decided together is important and worth preserving. By that definition, it would be hard beat the Monitors, a band with a 60-year history that has excelled at R&B, soul, jazz, blues and gospel — representing many of the currents of African-American music in the post-World War II period. Exemplifying the versatility of black music traditions in North Carolina — they’re based in Wilson County, on the coastal plain — band members have backed James Brown, and Roberta Flack was a former Monitors lead singer.
Other acts: Lutchinha (12:45 p.m., Dance Pavilion)
The lilting vocal music of Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of West Africa, has a haunting quality, perhaps the because the islands were settled in the 1500s as a result of the Portuguese slave trade. It makes sense that many Cape Verdeans wound up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, working in the whaling industry. Lutchinha, aka Maria Neves Leite, is a world-class exemplar of the tradition. She returns to the stage after a hiatus to raise her four children accompanied by an all-star band of Cape Verdean musicians from New England.
Babá Ken Okulolo & the West African Highlife Band (1:45 p.m., Dance Pavilion; 5:15, Belk Stage)
If anyone was more funky and politically on point than James Brown in the early 1970s, it was Fela Kuti in Nigeria. Fela’s revolutionary music built on the foundation of highlife, a dance-music hybrid of Western and traditional African sounds. Bába Ken Okulolo played bass with Fela and other West African luminaries like King Sunny Ade, before settling in the San Francisco Bay area in 1985.
Wild card: Grace Chang (noon, McDonald’s Family Stage)
Blues and jazz, America’s original art forms which laid the foundation for rock and roll, soul, funk, hip hop, electronic dance music and virtually every other genre of popular music, dates back more than 100 years. If you think that’s a long pedigree, try going back 2,500 years to the advent of the guzheng, or zither, in China. Grace Chang, the director of the Chinese Harp Music Center in Queens, NY and one of the foremost players of the instrument, performed recitals in Taiwan, Japan and Korea. She plays solo at the festival and also provides musical accompaniment to Yuquin Wang & Zhengli Xu’s Chinese rod-puppetry act.
Suggested itinerary: Start with the Sunday Gospel & Traditional Music showcase at the North Carolina Traditions stage at noon. Co-hosted by the inestimable Rhiannon Giddens, it covers the stylistic gamut from sacred Appalachian songs by Sheila Kay Adams to African-American congregational hymn singing by the Branchettes. Head over to the Dance Pavilion at 1:45 p.m. to catch Babá Ken Okulolo & the West African Highlife Band. That’s where it’s at for the next three hours, with Garifuna guitarist Aurelio taking the stage at 3 p.m., followed by St. Louis bluesman Marquise Knox at 4:15 p.m. That said, Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj at the Lawn Stage at 2 p.m., Hector Del Curto’s Tango Quartet at the Belk Stage at 2 p.m. and New Orleans’ Henry Butler & Jambalaya at the Church Street Stage at 3:30 p.m. are all tempting alternatives. You could finish out the festival with a bluegrass band from Ohio or a Cajun group from Louisiana, but I suggest giving the home-team advantage to the Monitors, who play the North Carolina Traditions Stage at 5:15 p.m.
— Jordan Green