Photos by Duncan Chaboudy
Before I start there’s a few amazing things you should know about LEAF. LEAF Community Arts is a non profit that puts on one of the regions most influential and diverse festivals. It is a triad of 1. LEAF in schools in streets 2. LEAF International and 3. The LEAF festival itself. If you’ve never heard of any of these things, you’re missing out on an entire community of art that globally, and nationally ties us all together as human beings. That’s exactly what happens at a LEAF festival- you feel alive. Simply put, LEAF connects cultures and creates community through music and arts. It just so happens to put on one heck of a festival right in our own back yard at Lake Eden in Black Mountain, NC.
This was to be my fifth (and most anticipated) LEAF. I headed through the gates of smiling faces, watching as children scuffled to put together tents, find friends and scamper throughout. As a seasoned veteran of this amazing festival, there was a spot where I knew where to find my LEAF friends, of whom, I literally only see at LEAF. This may seem strange to some people, but they obviously have never been to LEAF. As I set up camp, said my hello’s I made my way down the hill to Lakeside stage where I caught my first act, Turkuaz.
This Brooklyn based power funk band combines many different sounds and influences, but I think power funk is a perfect description. The music is far more intense and in-your-face than you might expect. This intense sound is all due to the super talented ten musicians who make up Turkuaz. Their heavy funk and soul that can’t be pinned to one specific era, which can be attributed to Turkuaz’s willingness to experiment and innovate. You may hear classic funk and soul but what really makes this band shine is the ability to take the old school sound and run with it. This in turn creates something entirely new and it is awesome. How can you not love a Traffic cover of “Feelin’ Alright” ?
After a short DJ set by Infinite Geometry, Red Baraat took to stage as a momentous Friday night headliner. There’s something to be said about a band that doesn’t hold back, and whose energy sustains until the very last note. Red Baraat has that energy. Their nonstop Asian fusion is not to be missed. Percussionist Sunny Jain, is an expert in the double-sided dhol drum from northern India and it is one incredible sight to see, let alone hear. Red Baraat specialise in reviving and updating the music played at Indian wedding processions, along with bhangra and a large dash of funk and jazz. The lineup is rather interesting, with three percussionists matched against six brass players. The trombone or sousaphone often provides the bass lines and riffs, while duelling trumpets and saxophone add the complex melody lines and improvised solos. The music varies from celebratory, high-energy pieces to the slow, almost hymnal tunes, in which brooding brass instrumentation is matched against insistent percussion. Red Baraat comes to town every so often- and after this LEAF set, I’ll be at their next local show. 3:00 am came around quickly. While making my way back to camp, I noticed the clouds hanging low and a slight cool breeze. The considerate neighbors whispered their goodnights and I fell into a slumber.
Saturday morning, I woke up with vigor because I knew The Sugar Shack was here again this year! This food vendor dishes out the best banana pancakes, french toast and even iced coffee to the massive amount of campers at LEAF. It is a difficult task, however, to simply choose just one breakfast. With French Broad Chocolate just across the way, it’s hard to turn down chocolate for breakfast. After a large, scrumptious breakfast I walked over to Eden Hall to see funk looping guitar whiz, Zach Deputy. He was to take stage with his LEAF in Schools and Streets team of kids he had been mentoring. These young performers made magic onstage with Zach and you could tell Zach’s goofy, infectious character rubbed off on them. The proud family of the children snapped pictures and people danced around the stage which was one special moment for them and Zach. He even stopped by Erwin Middle School, right down the road for a daily guitar and music lesson. He had kids tapping their toes to funky acoustic guitar and fun and easy backbeats. This guy is a sweetheart.
After leaving a sweaty, sauna- like Eden Hall, I walked over to see a recently discovered favorite- Elephant Revival. From the atmospheric, long-bowed fiddle lines to the quiet, dreamy harmonies and occasional weeping musical saw, this band grabs any listener with their creative arrangements of traditional-esque songs styles. Of course it helps that every song is danceable, backed by a constant soothing rhythm. Even the slower songs seem to catch a beat that you can’t miss. By the time their emotional rhythms swell under the syncopated build of a couple of fiddles and, ultimately, electric guitar, it feels as though the band has one single beating heart. I highly suggest you check out Elephant Revival!
In the midst of all the amazing acts performing on stage, there’s tons happening around you! Whether it’s highfiving a parade of fairy stilt walkers, watching a group of kids climb rock walls, talented hula hoopers, fire spinners dancing out of control, catching art cars driving by, contra dancing, or even just sitting lakeside to watch canoes and paddle boards go by, there’s is so much to do, it’s almost overwhelming.. Almost.
Taking a stroll, I passed by so many acts I wished I could have stayed to catch such as the LEAF fiddle contest, the Bhagra drum workshop, slide guitar workshop and even a digeradoo workshop! While all this was going on, families hiked through the trails, women were doing healing yoga, kids ziplined into the lake, live paintings were being created, people roamed around to learn about weeds, woodslore and useful wild plants, a shamanic invocation was happening, and even a giant LEAF- style parade marched through! It is a whirlwind of wonderment and exploration. This festival is not just one or the other. It is a culmination of everything!
I picked up an Amber Ale created by the masterminds at the local brewery, Pisgah Brewing Company. This special beer was created just for LEAF and 10% of all the beer sold went to LEAF’s LSS programs. Drink beer and feel good about it? Count me in. After scampering about and chatting with friends, I bought a Mother’s Day gift at one of the many craft vendors. This was not easy! Choosing between hand crafted glass, local pottery, cute clothing, and handmade instruments had me scratching my head. I finally picked out a gift and wanted to spend more money on good causes. I bought a few raffle tickets, placed them in appropriate jars, and hoped for my first ever raffle win. (I ended up winning a LEAF flask and a handbound leather journal).
Saturday had a costume theme of “Cosmic Funk Superheroes” because of the madness that would soon ensue when Bootsy Collins and The Funk Unity Band took stage. People were decked out in sequins, platform heels, capes of all shapes and sizes, and imaginative face paint. The party was happening at LEAF.
I stayed Lakeside and checked out Locos Por Juana. Their afro- Caribbean hip-hop funk was something I’d never heard before. This energetic, cumbia-inspired hip-hop trio sings and rhymes in multiple languages and has developed a sound that is like no other. Somewhere between salsa and rock, funk and hip-hop, is Locos Por Juana. They have hard llicks on the electric guitar, latin grooves, and a hip-hop combination that forms their international sound and electrifying onstage performance. Best way to describe their sound? International party soundtrack.
Finally, the moment had arrived. Bootsy Collins and The Funk Unity Band took stage in “14 karat funk”. Bootsy’s tawdry stage banter and star-shaped bass and shades were funktastic. However, often lost in the funk fog is the fact that he’s one of the genre’s preeminent showman. Unique vocal styles, bombastic bass rumblings and his thunderous clique, the Funk Unity Band, laid the foundation for a slow-ride through Chocolate City, establishing Bootsy Collins as bass’s Baron Von Funkenhausen. Kicking things off with a dripping “Ahh…The Name is Bootsy, Baby” from his classic Rubber Band era, chants of “We Want Bootsy” from his crunkadelic krewe and the masses serenaded the legend onstage for a two hour funkfest. A crowd pleaser, and Parliament hit, “Flashlight” had the entire lake moving and getting “funked up”. With multiple costume changes, “Bootzilla” sounded fresh as ever with a snapping horn section and wall of wah, as did the slow and swanky Bi- centennial “I’d Rather Be With You.” He induced a shout of “I Give a Funk” throughout the crowd before leaving stage. We witnessed a legend, and I hope to see him again.
With spirits high, the LEAFer’s were far from sleep. Parents put the kids to bed and made their way to Eden Hall for a local band, The Fritz. While on the same vein of funky, The Fritz brings the dance party material to a new level with their improvisational, borderline hardrock, jam rock melodies that is evident, they take very seriously. With super talented Jamar A Woods on keys, and a reminiscent jazzy rhythm section, the sweaty, music induced rave kept going.
Zach Deputy would be the night closer. His personality is that of a jolly, barefooted friend you’d invite over for wine. His friendly smile and upbeat attitude helped people move their feet and feel welcome to dance. The musical stylings of Zach Deputy’s live shows range from funk and reggae to tropical world music. In his one-man-band show, he creates the sound of a four-piece band using looping pedals and beat boxing. In true style of a funky Saturday night, Zach didn’t hold back. He kept the songs danceable and fun. The crowds slowly dispersed after the show. We headed up to the infamous drum circle. A steep hike up the mountain, we “stumbled upon a prehistoric gathering”. People chanted and danced around a large bon fire, drum beats pounded through the trees and some huddled in blankets, simply taking it all in. A “fire master” tended the fire and as the flames licked the sky. The stars shone bright from lack of artificial lighting. This was a modern tribe if i’d ever seen one. Late into the night, the drums echoed through the mountains until I laid my head down to rest, once again, in a state of complete mental ecstasy.
Sunday morning I scrambled out of my tent and walked by a pleasant Qi Gong performance. Is there anything better to wake up to than a powerful system of healing and energy medicine from China? It is the art and science of using breathing techniques, gentle movement, and meditation to cleanse, strengthen, and circulate the life energy. It did its circulating, alright and I woke up jubilant! All around me families were cooking breakfast, people doing yoga, and refreshing themselves.
After eating some fruits and taking in my environment for the last time, I walked down to see the faces of these splendid Qi Gong artists. Matt and Heather Kabat made me fall in love with what they do and I thanked them with applause.
I stuck around and saw one of the most amazing performances I’d ever seen. A group called Alash took stage. What these Tuvan men do is an overwhelming thing to witness. They are professional throat singers! The Tuvan way of making music is based on appreciation of complex sounds with multiple layers or textures. To the Tuvan ear, a perfectly pure tone is not as interesting as a sound which contains hums, buzzes, or extra pitches that coexist with the main note being sung. These sounds are compared to things you find in nature, such as birds, wind, camels, oceans and horses. With the wide range of tones these 3 men create, the Tuvan friends are a spectacular sight to see and hear.
Up at Eden Hall, one of my favorite bluegrass acts was starting up to a seriously packed room. First thing I noticed was the amazing swing dancers up front, who were around the age of my parents but moving like athletes. They were great eye candy to accompany the band. Town Mountain is a rough around the edges, bluegrass band, however, they have a serious capability to move from toe tapping to swinging your hips and grabbing a partner. With the success of their latest album, Leave The Bottle, the word is out about Town Mountain and the word is good! Town Mountain are around to blow a hole in all the genre-juggling games of which music writers are so fond.They play serious bluegrass.They play it hard, they play it fast, and they play it like their fingers are bleeding and their picks are breaking. Phil Barker’s ‘Lawdog’ sounds like an unearthed classic, and the group’s tight harmonies alone make this band a treat for any bluegrass fan.
I lept over to the sky tent where I heard there would be an aphrodisiac herb class. Corey Pine Shane was a great teacher and told us all about the power of ginseng, horny goat weed, Fo-tea, damiana, and some I’d never heard of like, muira puama, maca and yohimbe. He told us all about the folklore behind natural aphrodisiacs and how they may help to raise libido and increase desire. They’re being used by an increasing number of people to give their sex lives a boost. I had to get away from all this love making talk, because the mere thought of touching another person made me gag. My skin was sticky with dirt and sweat, my armpits smelled accordingly, and my sunburnt shoulders were appropriately stained with grass and sand. I looked like a person who had a great weekend!
Up next on Lakeside stage was Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars. This afropop roots reggae band was a favorite of LEAF’s and they came bringing the energy! The Refugee All Stars are survivors. Escaping from the horrors of civil war in Sierra Leone, they formed the band to raise their morale, and became internationally known. They have developed a style that matches cheerfully upbeat reggae with lilting African guitar pop, chanting, percussive traditional styles, and multilingual social comment. They add brass and harmonica to their guitar and harmony while singing on the reggae morality tales, Global Threat and Gbrr Mani (Trouble). Even more encouraging are the traditional songs, that uplifted the crowd, and the acoustic reggae of “Watching All Your Ways”, which is proof that this much-travelled band are one impressive show to see live.
I took my nine year old LEAF buddy, Aida to the Roots Family Stage for an intimate experience with Darrel Rose- an astonishing musician. Music is his soulmate–a constant companion in whose company he has achieved a profound sense of serenity. Darrell exudes a calm confidence which acts as a balm upon all who come into contact with his music, instantly setting them at ease with his immense talent with West African drums. Darrell is capable of holding an audience captive through the sheer majesty of his towering presence. Children danced around to the bombing beats and he thanked us all and we waved goodbye to catch the last and most anticipated act of the festival- The Family Stone.
Jerry Martini plays his saxophone to songs that have become an indelible part of American pop culture. “Dance To The Music.” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” “I Want to Take You Higher.” “Everyday People.” “Hot Fun In The Summertime.” All of them have been popular for 40 years and counting, ever since Sly and the Family Stone recorded them to vinyl and created a sensational mix of pop, rock and funk. This band has been there from the start, who experienced all the high points (including performing at Woodstock in 1969) and the low moments, dispersing with Sly in 1975. The mere fact this band is still playing after all these years is enough to check them out. Sly Stone, whose voice, persona, and musical smarts defined the group in its hey-day. But this new version of the band, which features another original member, trumpeter and vocalist Cynthia Robinson, proves that old hits can be performed at a high artistic level even without a band’s most famous member. The Family Stone’s concerts aren’t a caricature of Sly and the Family Stone, or a capturing of nostalgia. It’s Martini and his fellow musicians putting on a show that seems like a celebration of now. The music of Sly and the Family Stone feels as alive today, as meaningful today, as genuine today, as it did in the beginning. That even tiny kids can move to the old songs says everything about the legacy of Sly and the Family Stone.
LEAF is one of the best places to be on Earth. It is a culmination of culture, arts and just plain fun. I have become a better person because of this festival. I have made some of my best friends at this festival. I revived love at this festival. It is also the only place on Earth where I don’t feel that perpetual loneliness while single camping, because I know at any moment, I can make a friend that will last a lifetime. Most go for the acts, and end up finding things about themselves they didn’t know before. There’s also ever-present remembrance in the back of your mind of how you felt when you recollect at home. It’s the idea of how incredibly free and child-like you feel when at LEAF. You find yourself here. LEAF has become a hub of friendly, fun- oriented and like minded people that I can now call my family and can’t wait to see what LEAF fun is right around the corner in Fall. Thank you again for such an awesome, humbling, human experience.