Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It pays to volunteer...

RICHMOND, Va. (Sunday, October 12) – One of the highlights of the National Folk Festival during its stay in Richmond was the Saturday night party. The event was invitation only – and the only way to earn an invitation was to be a performer, staff, or volunteer.

Like all parties, the event offered attendees a chance to relax, talk, or dance – but the real magic was in the jam sessions that inevitably started when musicians gathered together.

Ralphtafari takes a turn at the microphone, with backup vocals from Terry Montgomery (right).
The smile speaks for itself.Planners of the Richmond Folk Festival hoped to carry on the tradition, but for awhile it seemed like the party would be a dud – not much was happening upstairs at the hotel. Quite a few potential guests were at the hotel bar (some of the members of BeauSoleil, for example, were watching television in horror while their LSU Tigers were getting whupped by SEC rival Florida).

In the first hour or two of the party, the only signs of action were a group of musicians playing klezmer music in a hallway where it was being held. About midnight, however, Sharde Thomas and members of the Rising Sun Fife and Drum marched in, their pounding of the skins shattering the unseen walls of decorum.

Sticks and strings: Alonzo Pennington (with Telecaster, left), Tino Jackson, Ralphtafari, and Steve Lecky (on drums)
Thomas and her crew stopped after a few minutes, but the gauntlet was thrown, and shortly after midnight another group of musicians accepted the challenge with joyful noise of their own.

The action is too fast to keep up with.
In past years – with the possible exception of bluegrass jams – several members of the same band would anchor a particular set. Saturday night there was no such pattern. The only two constants were Ralphtafari (of reggae band The Itals) on a six-string bass and Alonzo Pennington (of the flat- and finger-picking father-and-son duo Eddie and Alonzo Pennington) on a Telecaster.

The front four: Tino Jackson (left), Alonzo Pennington, Ralphtafari, and Aubrey TurnerFor most of the jam, Pennington was accompanied by Tino Jackson (of E.U.) on a Stratocaster. Likewise, Gordon Jones, a local saxophonist invited to the party by a friend, sat in most of the session. The group went through a succession of drummers – including Tim Keiper (of Vieux Farka Touré), Andrew Field-Pickering (of the festival staff), Steve Lecky (Richmond Folk Festival manager), Terry Montgomery (sound engineer and jazz drummer from Montana), and Jimmy Breax (accordion player for BeauSoleil). Several players, such as Aubrey Turner (of Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife & Drum), Steve Weisberg (of Howard Tate’s band), and Peanut (of the Itals) took turns on the keyboards.

Jammin' with TinoDespite the ephemeral nature of the “house band” lineup, the playing was seamless and energetic. The dancing was equally energetic. The singing, though, proved a problem. Despite repeated pleas, few volunteers – such as Kada Porter of the Itals – stepped up to front what proved to be a stellar backing band.

Then the miracle.

Oscar takes a James Brown pose as he comes to the rescue of those searching for soul
A singer only known as Oscar had been performing elsewhere in the hotel for a private party. As he left the gig, he heard the noise and decided to investigate. He came, he saw, and he asked if he could take a turn out front. With no objections, he seized the mike and began to channel James Brown.

The voice in the crowd.
Oscar and the band whipped the partygoers into a frenzy. Oscar strutted, slid, and stutter-stepped his way across the dance floor. The least inhibited danced wildly. Others bopped their heads, stamped their feet, clapped their hands or pounded them on whatever was available. Everyone smiled.

Alonzo Pennington tries the longneck pick
The music lasted past 1 a.m., then 1:30. By 2 a.m., Oscar had taken a break. The long hours of working the festival, combined with the expenditure of energy dancing, had claimed most of the guests – only a handful of faithful remained. Jackson had packed his guitar and left, Montgomery had stepped away from the drum kit. Breaux, who had not played drums in some time, claimed the throne for himself. No one was singing, and with the party looking like it might break up, Oscar stepped up to the mike again and the real magic happened.

For most of the party, the band would play a song, stop, decide what to play next, and start again. But shortly after 2, the ensemble started a musical marathon that didn’t stop until nearly 3.

Whip that baby!
It began with more James Brown, but after a few minutes Pennington slipped into a riff from the extended jam in Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” Ralphtafari and Breaux shifted seamlessly, and Oscar danced away. After a few minutes of the San Francisco acid rock scene, someone slipped into Sam & Dave mode with “Soul Man.” Oscar did Sam Moore proud on the vocals.

From Sam & Dave, Pennington switched to the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out.” Ralphtafari and Breaux adjusted accordingly – Oscar, however, sprinkled some James Brown vocals on top of the Allmans’ riff and backbeat. Like a good gumbo, the combination of ingredients worked perfectly.

Synchronized jukin'
All the while Jones pitched in with his sax, and eventually Ram Bhaqat (of Drums No Guns) strapped a drum to his hip and began assisting Breaux with the backbeat.

The Allman Brothers’ late, great guitarist Duane Allman first attracted attention as a session player at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Allman played for a number of musicians, including Wilson Pickett. Appropriately enough, the band trucked their way from the JB/Allmans hybrid into Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.”

Another lineup: Tino Jackson (far left), Alonzo Pennington, Kada Porter, Ralphtafari, Andrew Field-Pickering, Gordon Jones, and Peanut
The musical journey then passed through as varied territory as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”and “Ain’t too Proud to Beg,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” (This blogger probably missed something along the way.)

For nearly 45 minutes, the music did not stop. Pennington or Ralphfatari initiated changes on the fly. Breaux followed without missing a beat, and Oscar made no-look adjustments – as soon as he heard the new riff, he changed his tune. He rarely looked back at his compatriots during the sequence – and he never looked when they decided to swing to another song.

Yurika Chiba of San Jose Taiko gets the spirit.
As with all things, the jam had to come to an end, but the magic stayed strong as the musicians eagerly exchanged contact information and the non-musicians praised them collectively and individually.

Montgomery, who in 35 years as a jazz drummer in places such as Kansas City has seen his share of jam sessions, later said the jam Saturday night ranks in the top two or three of his life.

The hardy ones who remained will not soon forget what transpired, and will look forward to seeing what musical spells will be cast next year. You, too, can share in the magic.

But you have to volunteer.

Just getting' started...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Taking flight

RICHMOND, Va. (Saturday, October 11, 2008) – Wednesday morning, a small crowd of people came to watch a key event in the preparations for one of the performances at the Richmond Folk Festival – the raising of the pole from which Tezcatlipoca Voladores, a quintet of Mayan “Flying Man” sundancers, will dance and then “fly” back to the ground as their ancestors have been doing for 2,000 years.

The pole on Wednesday afternoon
First, a hole 13 feet deep needed to be dug. Then two members of the Tezcatlipoca Voladores, David Garcia, a shaman, and Apolinar Simbrón, the group’s director, would perform a ritual blessing of the site to ensure the group’s safety.

The first holeUnfortunately for the crowd, the setting of the pole had to be delayed. Attempts to auger into the soil on the grounds of NewMarket Corporation’s property along Second Street met with failure about two feet down. A layer of rock and other material lay in the way.

After several attempts to bore deeper met the same fate, the crew from C. W. Wright Construction called in a backhoe and waited through the afternoon for it to arrive, and by Wednesday evening, the hole was dug – the pile of material containing large chunks of concrete, rocks, and even debris from buried timbers. Given the hour, the blessing ceremony would have to wait.

The pit
The backhoe and some of the debris removed from the pit

The “Flying Man” sundance has long been practiced by the Totonacs of Mexico. The nation has lived the rain forests of Veracruz for at least two thousand years. At their culture’s peak, they built pyramids and other religious structures that rivaled other Mesoamerican groups such as the Aztecs. All but one of the Tezcatlipoca Voladores hail from El Tajín, an ancient city in the Totonac heartland, about halfway between the better known cities of Tampico and Veracruz.

The dance traditionally serves a number of purposes for the Totonac, such as to honor the Sun, to heal the sick, and to bring rain to parched crops.

A small crowd watches as a construction crew gets ready to move the pole
By 7 a.m. on Thursday, a smaller crowd awaited as the construction crew prepared the more than 90-feet-tall pole for movement into a position close to the hole. The riverfront was quiet, traffic barely noticeable, only small flocks of geese announcing their imminent passage.

A worker from C.W. Wright hooks a lift strap to a cable from a craneThe work on the pole was painstaking. Place a lift strap about mid-way up the pole. Hook the strap to a cable from a crane. Move the pole, minding the ropes that the members of the group will use to swing down to the ground as well as the spikes hammered into the pole for them to climb. Stop, reposition the lift strap, and move again.

Workers guide the pole to a new position
David Garcia and Apolinar Simbrón position a platform over the top of the pole.
About 30 minutes after the construction crew began, they stopped. Garcia and Simbrón positioned a platform made up of a central wooden drum with a square wooden frame attached via ropes over the top of the pole. The drum, hollowed out, fit over the pole’s cone-shaped tip.

David Garcia sprinkles tequila into the hole.As the sun was beginning to rise behind the clouds on the Eastern horizon, Garcia and Simbrón began their ancient blessing ritual – a plea to the spirits of their ancestors for protection during the sundance. Garcia lit a cigarette and set it aside. The two men sprinkled tequila into the hole – from each of the four cardinal directions: on the north, west, south, and east sides of the hole.

David Garcia places some incense sticks beside the hole. Colleen Arnerich holds the rooster behind him, while Apolinar Simbrón looks on.
The rooster checks out the scenery at the bottom of the hole.Garcia and Simbrón placed smoking incense sticks around the hole, also at the north, west, south, and east sides. As they did so, Colleen Arnerich – asked to help with the ceremony to provide a required female spirit – brought a rooster to the site. Garcia tied the rooster’s legs to a string, and lowered the resistant rooster into the hole. The role of the rooster, as well as other animals used in the ceremony, is to imbue the pole with its spirit.

David Garcia plays a flute while also banging a tiny drum
Once in the hole, the rooster calmed down, and Garcia began playing a bamboo flute while simultaneously banging a small drum. He and Simbrón danced around the hole, again stopping at each of the four cardinal directions, then Simbrón pulled the rooster out of the hole. Garcia put the cigarette on a rock on the north side of the hole, where the smoke from it and the incense served as an offering to their ancestors.

Colleen Arnerich holds the rooster. David Garcia and Apolinar Simbrón perform a ritual dance.The three began to bless the pole. First stopping at the middle, Arnerich held the rooster on the pole while Garcia played his flute and drum and he and Simbrón danced. They stopped again at the top of the pole, just below the platform, with Garcia and Simbrón dancing first on one side, then by the top of the pole, then on the other side. They moved back to the middle of the pole on the opposite side of where they began, repeated the dance, and finally moved to the base of the pole.

Colleen Arnerich sprinkles tequila into the hole while David Garcia (foreground) plays a flute and Apolinar Simbrón looks on.
Despite the rooster’s protests, he was lowered back into the hole. Garcia and Simbrón repeated their dance around the hole, then all three sprinkled tequila into the hole from all four cardinal directions. At the blessing’s conclusion, the rooster was pulled back out of the hole. Garcia tossed the burning cigarette in. All three – with rooster in hand – got out of the way to let the construction crew get back to work.

The pole is in position.
The crane lifted the pole, the men positioned the base over the hole, and lowered it in. Within minutes, a cement mixer arrived on site to fill the space around the pole with concrete.

The Tezcatlipoca Voladores begin their sundance ceremony.
One of the voladores climbs the pole.The blessing ceremony was interesting, but the actual performance of the sundance was spectacular. The quintet, most of whom hail from El Tajín, Veracruz, Mexico, began with a prayer and dance – again featuring the flute and drum – around the base of the pole. They again stopped in the four cardinal directions, asking for the blessings of the Creator before four of them ascended the pole.

The Tezcatlipoca Voladores wind their ropes around the pole.
One upon the platform, they wound the ropes that they would use to descend from the wooden platform up to the wooden drum on which the shaman would stand. By the time they were finished, only a small amount of rope remained. They tied that end around their waists.

Symbolism is just as important in the sundance as it was in the blessing ceremony. For example, the pole itself represents the connections between Earth and heaven. The rope that is wrapped around the pole from bottom to top symbolizes the umbilical cord.

The shaman normally ascends last, but Simbrón, because he remains on the ground to describe some of what is to happen to the festival crowd, this time ascended last. One he reached the top, he took a seat on the frame and Garcia moved to take a seat on the wooden drum resting upon the tip of the pole. Once there, Garcia began playing the flute, which represents lightning, and drum, which represents Mother Earth. The flute carries a song offering to heaven, the drum carries the shaman’s footfalls through the pole to the Earth.

Shaman David Garcia dances on the top of the pole.
Garcia stood upon the drum. Nothing but his balance upon the wobbly drum kept him from falling to the Earth. The crowd, in awe of his feat, applauded in appreciation. He sat upon the drum, bracing his feet upon the frame, while continually playing his tune.

Then the four flyers fell backwards off the platform, each slowly unwinding from the pole upside down in graceful arcs – one held an American flag, while another held a Mexican flag. After a slow descent, they righted themselves near the ground, each holding his rope firmly.

The voladores begin their flight.
They fly.
They fly.
Vertigo time
A voladore displays our colors.

Coming in for a landing
One to go
The shaman stopped his tune, climbed to the edge of the frame, grabbed a rope and descended hand-over-hand to the ground.

Scenes from a nighttime performance
Scenes from a nighttime performance
Scenes from a nighttime performance
Scenes from a nighttime performance
Scenes from a nighttime performance
Scenes from a nighttime performance
Scenes from a nighttime performance

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The mystery of the Irish nachos

RICHMOND, Va. (Saturday, October 11, 2008) – One of the things the National Folk Festival was known for in its three-year visit to the city was the food. The Richmond Folk Festival is carrying on the tradition.

Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil fiddles away at the Richmond Times-Dispatch Dance Pavilion
Of course, some of the traditions seem a bit bizarre. A festival staffer was observed eating a strange concoction backstage at the Richmond Times-Dispatch Dance Pavilion during BeauSoleil’s performance.

“It’s Irish nachos,” he said.

Hmmm. Irish nachos?

Closer inspection revealed elements of baked potato, cheese, jalapeño peppers and trace amounts of other materials.

This blogger isn’t quite sure what folk culture Irish nachos represents, but on second thought, they don’t sound so bad....

Richmond Folk Festival off to a great start

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. (Saturday, October 11) – The Richmond Folk Festival got off to a great start last night, with the largest crowd in attendance since the National Folk Festival first came to Richmond in 2005.

Unfortunately, yours truly could not be there, as he had another engagement – something that involved a paycheck – but he has heard reliable reports of great performances, enthusiastic crowds, and a nighttime sundance. He even heard that that Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine took a break from dealing with the state’s budget woes to play harmonica with the Dan Tyminski Band.

Yours truly planned to write you something last night, and post it last night, but as yours truly approaches geezerdom, he tends to doze off at the keyboard in the wee hours of the morning after he finishes his other work.

Yours truly promises not to let that happen today and tomorrow. He will be on-site both days – all day. If you think you see Charles Manson running around the festival with a camera, don’t worry, HE is not on parole. It is just this blogger trying to do a job.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Keeping eyes on the sky

RICHMOND, Va. (Monday, October 6, 2008) – In 2005, during the first year of Richmond’s run as host of the National Folk Festival, the city learned to keep an eye on the weather.

Fair skies expectedRainy weather on Friday and Saturday forced festival organizers to scramble performance schedules so that the festival-goers who braved the elements could shelter under tents. Some prospective festival-goers stayed away. Staff and volunteers and staff either sweltered under raingear or opted to get cold and wet without.

But the show went on, and sunny weather on Sunday brought warmth, crowds, success, and enthusiasm for future festivals.

That enthusiasm was rewarded. The next two incarnations of the National Folk Festival here were blessed by fair skies.

With the Richmond Folk Festival opening tomorrow, the weather should not be a problem. Earlier this week, showers seemed a possibility, but the chance for that has diminished as the opening of the celebration neared. High temperatures should be in the upper 70s; low temperatures may drop into the 40s. The sun should be shining.


Even if clouds moved in, the show would go on, just as it had in 2005.

“First of all, we plan for rain, and then develop a sun alternative,” said Dwain Winters, technical director of the festival. “We design the festival so it operates in inclement weather. It’s not an afterthought, it’s fundamental.”

Winters said that the on-site command center has Internet access to a number of weather sources. In addition, they often communicate with local weather-watchers who can keep them abreast of developments.

Violent weather is the greatest concern. But rain is more of an inconvenience than a problem.

“Just plain rain, we’re ready for that,” Winters said. “It becomes then a decision with the outdoor venues whether they can continue operating in instances of heavy rain – we have covered stages, but the audience is uncovered. That is a decision for the senior management team of the festival.”

If a decision is made to cease operations at the outdoor venues, festival management will adjust the performance schedule accordingly, as it did in 2005, so that the audience can experience the full range of acts the festival has to offer.
Given the timing of the festival – in October – one can be sure the weather here will be interesting.

“We have both the opportunity for tropical storms, and we have the opportunity for the first of the early winter cold fronts to come through,” said Winters. “The first year, we got both in the same weekend.

“But we are well prepared for the rain, so people can be confident that if they come to the event, there will be an event here to see.”

For more information:

Richmond current conditions and forecast from the National Weather Service

Richmond current conditions and forecast from WeatherUnderground.com

Richmond current conditions from The Weather Channel

Monday, October 6, 2008

No distance too great, no pole too high

RICHMOND, Va. (Sunday, October 5) – One thousand miles is not too far to come to help a friend start a new phase of its life.

Richmond is about to embark on a new adventure – the Richmond Folk Festival – and the friends traveling here to help see to the launch include hundreds of volunteers and contractors.

James River
Preparations have been under way for little more than a week to prepare the Brown’s Island area for the tens of thousands of visitors eager to experience new frontiers of performance, craft, and food.

Organizers of the Richmond festival hope to build upon the three years of success of the National Folk Festival, which had been held here the previous three years.

While the national festival has moved on to Butte, Mont., the Richmond Folk Festival features the same production partnership, Venture Richmond and the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which has been assisting with the National Folk Festival and succeeding festivals in its previous and current host cities.

Randy Jones pulls a tent wall out of the truck.Success depends on contributions from many sources: dozens of corporate sponsors, city and state government agencies, community organizations, local media, and people -– lots of people. More than 1,000 volunteers will be needed. Some of the tasks that make the festival possible, however, require contractors, some coming from as far away as Canada.

Matt Tabor takes a (short) break.Randy Jones and Matt Tabor are part of the Canadian contingent. The two men work for Commercial Tent Rentals & Sales Ltd. of Sussex, New Brunswick, Canada. They and the rest of the Commercial Tent crew drove more than 1,050 miles, arriving on October 2 to begin setting up tents on the site -- including those of the Wachovia/Wachovia Securities Stage and Richmond Times-Dispatch Dance Pavilion on Brown’s Island, the tents of the MWV Folklife Area and Stage at Tredegar Iron Works, the Genworth Foundation Family Area and Stage up the hill from the Tredegar works, and a number of vendor and information tents throughout the site.

As he and Tabor searched the contents of a tractor-trailor Sunday afternoon for an appropriate color wall partition to use on one setup, Jones estimated they have nearly 100 tents to raise by Friday.

“The biggest ones are on Brown’s Island. They are 80 by 120,” Jones said, “and our smallest ones are 10 by 10. Everything in between –- I would say our average tent is 20 by 20.”

Jones further estimated that their crew had about two thousand pieces in all to assemble – about 130 sections for the tops, about 200 sections for the walls, more than 500 legs, and an unknown number of joints, fasteners, ropes, and other parts.

Dave Jones hangs the lights.
Jones and Tabor weren’t the only ones hard at work. Richmonder Dave Jones, Hanover County resident John Pirro, and Catonsville, Md., resident Jim Burns were stringing lights in the Wachovia/Wachovia Securities tent. Jones rode the top of a scaffold on wheels while Burns and Pirro pushed him from one tent pole to another so that he could hang the lights out of reach of this weekend’s crowd.

A flag marks the spot.Elsewhere, people were staking out the locations of vendor tents near where the Ukrop’s/First Market Bank Stage will be set up. In the grassy area along Second Street, a very tall, straight wooden pole lay above the ground, propped up upon Jersey barriers. The pole will soon be lifted up -– from its top members of the Tezcatlipoca Voladores will perform their “Flying Man” Sundance. One look at the scale of the pole and one knows their performance is a must-see.

It is bigger than it looks.

BLOGGER’S NOTE: Please come back and revisit these pages over the next few days. Each day before the festival begins, I will write about preparations and post information about what to expect after the festival begins.

Each day of the festival, I will post as often as possible, sharing news of hot performances, good food, interesting workshops, and maybe even write about what some of you think about each day’s events.

I look forward to seeing you on the Internet – or even better, at the festival!