The World (Music) Comes to Hunter
Last weekend saw the return of the Mountain Culture Festival, an annual arts and crafts treat that stands head and shoulders above the average Catskills festival or fair. (Read 2005 review here; 2004 review here.) Local craftsmen (and women) come from far and wide to hawk home-made wares that range from candles, honey and soap to chairs, quilts and boats. Farmers bring out alpacas, llamas, horses, tortoises, hedgehogs, snakes and, this year, the PacMan Frog – so named because it eats its own. (Occasionally.) And music comes in from all around the world.
This year, I only saw the first day of the festival (something about a World Cup Final on the Sunday), and therefore missed Brendan Carey Block, The Roches and the Doc Marshalls. But what I saw on the Saturday was its own mini-World Music festival.
The married couple Ana & José Vinagre are proponents of the Portugese folk style Fado. Literally translated, Fado means “fate,” and female performers like Ana (shown above) are traditionally expected to perform in black. As such, the music has earned the term “melancholy,” something that José (whose English was excellent) and Ana (whose English was enthusiastic) went to great pains to refute. They likened Fado instead to the American blues, with which it shares in common a mandate of singing about all that is “life” – and the sense that in doing so, one exorcises one’s troubles.
José had his turn at lead vocals, but Ana is the star, throwing herself into her performances with considerable gusto. She included a song made famous by the Queen of Fado, Amália Rodrigues, during the time of dictatorship, when metaphorical lyrics were important not just for poetic value but to enable a song to be heard in public. Another number had been written by two Brazilian fado song writers (Brazil was initially a Portugese colony), which got me thinking about the Brazilian folk music called foro and whether there’s a connection. In truth, though, foro is more country music than it is the blues.
The Portugese blues was followed by the real American deal. Well, real enough: Guy Davis, son of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, was raised in middle-class New York suburbs rather than the poverty-stricken deep south, and he’s appeared on Broadway and in the movies, but given that his parents were Civil Rights activists, that his debut album was produced for the Folkways label by Moses Asch, and that he’s spent most of his life immersed in the cross between folk and blues that was once the reigning sound of Greenwich Village, there are few who challenge his credibility.
Certainly, Guy Davis was the performer most had come to see, and he delivered on their expectations, his own delicate acoustic guitar playing offset by the freewheeling electric solos of his sidekick. The songs were, at least for the most part, not original, but it was hard not to be swayed in the Saturday sun by the earnest renditions of ‘I Believe’ and ‘Things About Coming My Way.’ Davis performed for over an hour and seemed to spend almost as much time thereafter signing CDs. He was the nearest the Festival had to an actual star.
No such euphoric reception for Abdelli, the Algerian singer, composer and author, whose ever-present smile suggested a man of considerable inner peace. While essentially a proponent of his native, threatened Berber culture, Abdelli ensures to include other World Music elements, adding South American cajones, guenas, tormentos and charango to traditional North African instruments like mandolas, darbukas, and bendirs. Here at Hunter, he seemed to focus more on his native Berber culture, with a succession of delightfully peaceful and pleasant mid-tempo Algerian songs highlighted by a particularly frenetic percussion break.
Abdelli is supposedly also an interpreter, but if he speaks English, he offered little evidence, preferring to bow gently and smile graciously between songs rather than engage his audience in conversation. I was left thinking of a famous Algerian who would be playing on the World stage just 24 hours later, hopefully exhibiting the same Zen-like calm. Zizou let his people down in that regard, of course, but Abdelli, who has released albums on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, left me perfectly satisfied.
While the live acts vary somewhat each year, the Mountain Culture Festival opens and closes both days, and always, with the Shumei America Taiko Drummers, whose rhythmic onslaughts were so loud on this occasion that they immediately set off local car alarms. Kids and adults alike love them: the performance combines the discipline, tradition and physical strength of martial arts with the precision and clarity of the finest percussionists. Watching them play their array of drums, most of which are individually bigger than your average rock group’s entire kit, serves to remind of our world’s vast and varied musical culture – and watching it in the hills north of New York proves how intertwined we have all become. As always, it was a low-key delight.