Not sure which performers you should check out at the Richmond Folk Festival this weekend? Well, we’re going to tell you.
Ah yes, the Richmond Folk Festival is happening this weekend. I don’t know how many times I have to say this for it to sink in, but the festival has nothing to do with aging, balding, pony-tailed Caucasians strumming acoustic guitars and singing about a brighter tomorrow. If it were, rest assured I would avoid it like the plague. Not that I have anything against Caucasians living out their hippie folk dreams; I just feel better when I don’t have to hear it.
No, ladies and gentlemen, the type of folk that the festival is showcasing this weekend is, “music originating among the common people of a nation or region and spread about or passed down orally, often with considerable variation” with an emphasis on, “considerable variation.” Of all the music-related things I have been part of until this point in my life, The Richmond Folk Festival is by far the cleanest, having nothing to do with commercialism, making money, or getting anybody laid. Simply put, The Richmond Folk Festival is free of the sleaze that infects most (if not all) music gatherings with the simple desire to showcase music that most people would never get a chance to hear at all, let alone for free. Having lived in Richmond as long as I have, the fact that this festival is happening at all (and on a yearly basis, no less) is nothing short of a miracle considering that our fair, humble southern abode has long been defined by its cultural shortcomings (at least, above ground anyway). I chalk up my inclusion on the festival’s programming committee to me being a better liar than I give myself credit for or them being strapped to find another opinionated, balding white guy who thinks he knows everything about music. Either way, I have to pinch myself whenever the powers-that-be summon me to get my precious opinions on who should play the yearly event. Without getting too mushy about it, I can safely say that being part of this festival is one of my proudest achievements as a music promoter.
So anyway, here are some of the acts playing this year that I will be paying close attention to:
This is the only act I had a direct hand in securing for the festival. Jorge Negron lived in Richmond for the better part of two decades, and when we first met serving whitey at the Commonwealth Club in the mid-80’s, we used to pass the time singing 9353 lyrics under our breaths as we catered to the culinary needs of the then exclusively white clientele (that only changed when Doug Wilder become the state’s governor in 1990). He formed Bio Ritmo in the early 90’s before moving back to his native Puerto Rico after his father, a renowned DJ in Pounce, died. I visited him shortly after his father’s death, and coupled with his tumultuous ousting from the band that had come to define him, he was not in good shape. Despite this, Jorge took me to places on the island that the average gringo would never see exposing me to the abundance of great music only the natives knew about. All these years later, Jorge is still involved with music and his enthusiasm remains undiminished. His Master Bomba (a uniquely Puerto Rican musical genre for dance with strong African rhythmic influence) Ensemble is indicative of his ongoing love affair with music from his native country. Jorge’s winning musical trick is that everything he does stands on the shoulders of the giants that proceeded him instead of meekly sitting on them. I am proud to say he is my friend, but more importantly, I know the fucker won’t let me down because if he were to fail, my word won’t be shit at the programming meetings in the future. Thankfully, that is something I don’t have to worry about. The man has always been able to deliver the musical goods.
(Learn more about Jorge Negron’s Master Bomba Ensemble.)
I am a fan of the bizarre, and to western ears, Khogzhumchu, a group of Tuvan throat-singers from Kyzyl, Tuva, are about as bizarre a group you might ever hear. The members of Khogzhumchu are leaders in a new, post-Soviet generation of musicians that incorporate elements from western styles in a way that not only enhances the breathtaking impact of this ancient traditional form, but their updated style adds to the serious mind fuck they create. Oh, I can’t wait. They are more, “out there” than Trout Mask Replica-era Beefheart or Sun Ra, heavier than Messhugah and convey more power than Stravinsky, The Bad Brains, and Nina Simone combined. This is the group’s first time in the States. I, for one, hope it won’t be their last.
(Learn more about Khogzhumchu.)
Deep East African groves from the man whose voice has been described as “melting between the ears.” What else do you need to know?
(Learn more about Samba Mapangala & Orchestre Virunga.)
For the last couple of years, all I really wanted to listen to was dub and reggae. I don’t know why really, but I just sort of gravitated to it like I didn’t have any choice in the matter. Then I heard Asian pop. I think all those years of listening to throbbing low end had more than a little something to do with it, but when I heard those impossibly high-pitched voices, I was hooked. And that brings us to Sue Yeon Park and the Sounds of Korea. With roots in ancient Buddhist shaman rituals, Park’s highly regarded group specializes in ensemble dance numbers, powerful choreographed drumming, and plaintive, solo dance pieces in traditional dress. It is an experience for the ears and eyes, conveying the deep cultural legacy of Korean society where getting rid of evil and creating prosperity is done by shamanistic ritual. Music does have the power to heal. It’s nice to know that some cultures haven’t forgotten that.
(Learn more about Sounds of Korea.)
The first time I heard of Swamp Dogg (AKA: Jerry Williams), I was searching for new 45’s for the Millie’s jukebox. I came across his version of John Prine’s, “Sam Stone” and decided to chance on it. I’m glad I did. That fucker gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. From there, I sought out anything and everything the man did, and 9 times out of 10, everything I found of his took me to the Promised Land. He has to rank as one the great lost American soul artists of his time, though word of his funky, soulful goodness thankfully isn’t the secret that it once was. His newer stuff has that high pro glow that is depressingly, “Innsbrookie,” but live, the man, the myth, the legend delivers the goods that make lesser players look silly. If you want to make your life all it should be, I strongly suggest picking up, “Excellent Sides Of Swamp Dogg Vol.2 (Cuffed Collared Tagged and Gassed/Gag a Maggott)” or any of his quintessential 70’s releases. You’re welcome.
(Learn more about Swamp Dogg.)
This Indian slide guitar master has the good sense to know what not to play. He sounds like Ry Cooder if he got his inspiration from watching old Bollywood movies. As he explains, “My tradition is my foundation as it represents my roots. It enables me to be wild in terms of innovation, without losing control… to be able to play with fire in the musical sense, to live dangerously and come out unscathed.” That is a mighty hard trick to pull off. Amazingly, he makes it sound easy.
(Learn more about Debashish Bhattacharya.)
Here is another group sure to bewilder and frighten the serious fuck out of people. To the uninitiated, one would reasonably assume that they were hearing the tortured cries of lost souls writhing in eternal pain in hell instead of music rooted in the tradition of the Cheyenne nation. The intense, repetitive rhythms and soaring falsetto singing remind me of the frenzied, maniac energy of the Balinese music drama known as Kecak. It would be the perfect music for a horror film. With their rapid increases in volume, tempo and intensity of their singing that drives the dance, North Bear are downright creepy. Creepy good that is…
(Learn more about North Bear.)
Trouble Funk was the soundtrack of my youth. I can’t tell you how many nights my mother would scream at me at 4 o’clock in the morning asking where the fuck I had been all night. I was out seeing Trouble Funk. By far my favorite DC Go-Go band, their classic tunes, “Drop The Bomb”, “Get Up With Your Get Down” and, “Super Grit” still makes their way onto my turntable (yes, turntable) with alarming frequency. I remember them blowing Minor Threat off the stage more than once without even trying. A truly amazing live band, Trouble Funk has the power to move mountains.
(Learn more about Trouble Funk.)
It’s a pity what has happened to bluegrass and country music these days. Some people call it modern country or country pop, but I prefer to call what they are playing today “dog shit.” What is lost in the modern age of Americana is it’s soul. As a mandolin player for Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, Williams helped inspire every budding bluegrass band that came after them, and with nine solo releases and a Grammy nomination under his belt, he is the reigning king of bluegrass gospel. And man, can the guy play a mean mandolin. He is to the mandolin what Hendrix was to the guitar.
(Learn more about Paul Williams & The Victory Trio.)
Well, there are my picks for this year’s festival. Hope to see you there. I’ll be the one smiling ear to ear.
(Photo by Dick Kettlewell, The Rapid City Journal)