It’s Not Quite Womad…
…But the annual Mountain Culture Festival in the Village of Hunter puts on a pretty good variety of international music all the same. The six year old Festival takes place over a full weekend on open space in the heart of Hunter, with gorgeous views of the ski mountain when the weather co-operates. Eschewing the usual County Fair clichés, the Festival attempts to promote the finer aspects of rural life with a focus on artisanal crafts (furniture makers come from as far as Canada), local food and wine (Brotherhood Winery pours free samples all weekend), and includes, as bonuses across the road, the traveling Mountainfilm Festival (which I found shockingly disappointing, to be honest), an all-day Poetry event, and recitals on vintage pianos. There’s also a tent full of entertainment for kids; apart from a hay slide and the inevitable face-painting, there are plenty farm animals on display, of which the llamas and alpacas are always the most popular.
In the midst of all this, live music provides a continual focus to a grateful audience. Last year’s attempt to promote an African group, Kékélé, ran into problems when the band, on the first night of an American tour and more familiar with shows that last through the night, demanded a pre-show soundcheck, and the PA crew quickly grew impatient. This year’s acts still played music from around the world, but all of them were American-based and clearly familiar with the no-frills set-up of the weekend festival. As such, the event went off almost without a hitch, despite the tropical downpour and subsequently chilly temperatures on Saturday.
I don’t have pictures of the Shumei American Taiko Drummers, who have opened and closed the Festival these last few years. That’s a shame, because they were the most visually arresting of all the acts, approaching their performance as if a martial art. As such, they’ve become the festival’s firm favorites, but the biggest applause for the weekend, surely, was for the Dixie Hummingbirds, a gospel act whose longevity puts even the Blind Boys of Alabama in perspective. As lead vocalist Ira Tucker, Sr., explained, sitting down for but a brief period, he’s been in the group some 66 years – and has no intention of quitting despite recently turning 80. Tucker is credited as providing inspiration for such renowned R&B talents as Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson; he may never have shared their fame or fortune, but he’s still singing and they’re not.
Other members of the Dixie Hummingbirds have not been so fortunate: Tucker offered regrets that one member could not make it as he was currently in a coma, and later dedicated a song to those members who had passed on. (It was a lengthy introduction.) That said, the group, which also included the phenomenal bass tones of the newest member Cornell McKnight, sang as if they still had something to prove: not surprisingly, their collaboration with Paul Simon, ‘Loves Me Like A Rock,’ received the strongest applause from an audience that regularly offered standing ovations.
At the other end of the age scale, I missed the Celtic music of Brendan Carey Block, a young fiddler backed by 18-year old violinist Mari Black, 16-year old guitarist Owen Marshall and 18-year old drummer Matt Phenix. I did notice that the bassist in Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys appeared to be in his teens, though that just must be getting older: he’s apparently in his early twenties. The attention of the group is actually very much on the front line of accordion player/fiddler Riley, guitarist Sam Broussard, and fiddler David Greely. It was interesting to note that the one time Riley withdrew from front of stage, the interaction between the other front men ground to a halt: there’s a reason some groups are named after one man. The Mamou Playboys, who were nominated for a Grammy in 2004 and have released several albums on Rounder, ended with the song ‘Oh Mama,’ which they explained had been written by the rural Cajun musician Carlton Frank at the age of 75 shortly before he died. His nephew then recorded the song and, as is often the way with these things, had a major hit in Louisiana with it. Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys, despite their party name, are very much about keeping that tradition alive.
Sones de Mexico were a little too broad for my taste, mixing traditional Mexican mariachi music with the blues from their hometown of Chicago, Native American and African sounds, and including set dance pieces too. I did, however, appreciate the introduction to their Spanish language version of ‘This Land Is My Land’ as “the immigrants’ national anthem.”
Finally, venturing over the road into another land, and another age entirely, we caught up with Vladimir Peshakov at the Peshakov Piano Museum. The Russian-born performer, who has toured the world with his wife and now lives in the Catskills, where he is amassing a world-beating collection of vintage instruments and books in the hope of establishing an endowment, played music written by the relevant composers on the Museum’s ‘Mozart’ piano, made in London in 1789 with only a five-octave range and no foot pedals, and its ‘Beethoven’ piano, made by Tischner in St. Petersburg in 1826, the only one of its kind not in private hands. Peshakov offered his sentiment that these hand-crafted pianos tend to “play the player” rather than the other way round, but I noted as an extension from that, that the instruments also reflect the composers with whom they are associated. The ‘Mozart’ piano was dainty and delicate, the ‘Beethoven’ instrument grand and imposing. At a time where most of us live and work with tools (from computers to cars and stereos) that are mass-produced for mass convenience, it was a useful reminder of how individual pieces of art inspire… individual pieces of art. And the Festival as a whole encouraged us to believe that rural American culture need to succumb to mass market culture to survive and thrive.