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Annual WorldFest sweats out a ninth season in Sierra Nevada foothills

The ninth annual California WorldFest just finished a four-day run of live music and dance from around the world on seven stages spread out among the towering pines of the Grass Valley fairgrounds. The popular WorldFest is the brainchild of Chico locals Dan DeWayne, who doubles as director of Chico Performances, and his wife Christine Myers.

Inspired by the example of such well-known festivals as North Carolina’s MerleFest, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the couple began the fest in 1997 with the goal of bringing quality world music, music workshops, international food and crafts vendors and family camping to the Northern California foothills.

Past WorldFests have featured such performers as Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser, country-folk queen Iris Dement, the West African Highlife Band, multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Lucinda Williams and Paris Gypsy-klezmer-swing octet Les Yeux Noirs.

This year’s festival, held July 14-17, boasted such exciting and varied headliners as South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, L.A.'s Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, young blues guitar phenom Jackie Greene and Aussie folkies The Waifs, among the many other groups and solo artists appearing.

Photo By Christine LaPado

The CN&R sent two reviewers to the event, each to cover one day’s events.

Friday, July 15

Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, who famously appeared as the back-up band on Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre, were Friday’s headlining band on the large Meadow Stage. Playing just before Los Camperos, on the smaller, adjoining Spotlite Stage, was young Hawaiian ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro.

To say that Shimabukuro is a master of the ukulele is in no way an overstatement. Jim Dwyer, CSUC librarian and performance poet and one of the many familiar Chico faces seen in attendance at WorldFest, characterized Shimabukuro as “the Tommy Emmanuel of the ukulele.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Introduced by the emcee as one of those acts that each year “takes everyone by storm,” the cute and snappy (and increasingly sweaty—it was a very hot WorldFest) Shimabukuro proceeded to tear it up, playing the ukulele like it was a guitar. Any prejudices anyone might have had about the ukulele being a corny instrument must surely have been shattered by Shimabukuro’s enthralling performance. From his opening number, George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” to his originals “Blue Rose Falling” and “Cross Current,” to his lovely version of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Shimabukuro’s playing was phenomenal—technically amazing and thoroughly captivating. He even showed us a perfect imitation of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar stylings at one point, just for fun.

The nine-piece Mariachi Los Camperos—four violins, two trumpets, guitarrên, the guitar-like vihuela and a giant harp on wheels—appeared in the red light of the Meadow Stage in all of its impressive, smartly costumed splendor to the yips and yells of the excited audience.

Photo By Stephanie Bird

Led on this night by violinist and singer Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán (Los Camperos’ musical director of 45 years, Nati Cano, was away “on business in Guadalajara,” we were told), Los Camperos glided us through song after glorious song, treating the audience to soaring, passionate vocals sung in Spanish, majestic trumpet playing and beautiful ensemble violin work that could only come from one of the finest mariachi bands in the world. The stellar rhythm section of guitarrên, vihuela and harp provided the unerring foundation—with the harp providing a percussive, melodic sound much like a steel drum—for this sabroso nonet.

Another Chico face, drummer Dave Breed, turned to me toward the end of Los Camperos’ hour-and-a-half long show and exclaimed: “Amazing! The best mariachi I’ve ever heard!”

—Christine LaPado

Saturday, July 16

Ah, to leave the valley floor and ascend into the mountains for a music festival of epic diversity and dimension. To camp beneath the pines and the stars and eat camp stove cookery and festival grounds cuisine. To sip an ice-cold Sierra Nevada brew while having one’s brow cooled by breeze-borne mist and soaking up the performance of a dynamic sextet of East L.A. Latin rockers. That’s the kind of stuff than can motivate a person to get the hell out of Chico and head for Grass Valley to attend the California WorldFest.

Novices to the festival might be a bit surprised to find that driving uphill into the Sierra Nevada for an hour or so doesn’t necessarily mean that the daytime temperature will be significantly different than that on the valley floor. But festival producers have made every effort to make the setting as comfy as possible, with plenty of misting hoses around the concession stands, a misting tent beside the concourse between major stages, and one stage in a fully air-conditioned building.

Photo By Stephanie Bird

Those expecting an anti-establishment, counterculture happening will be either chagrined or elated to discover that the Worldfest is a non-political, family-oriented event catering much more to the middle-class liberal with kids than the bong-huffing neo-hippie who still hasn’t figured out what to do now that Phish isn’t touring anymore.

Our party arrived at the festival site at midday on Saturday and within minutes was setting up camp in the midst of a bunch of fellow Chicoans who’d been on site since Thursday. The background music for erecting our tent was provided by Tiempo Libre, a group of young Cubans now based in Miami whose syncopated bass, horn, piano and percussion arrangements were perfectly suited to whipping up a dirt dance floor frenzy even in 90-plus-degree heat.

After the overheated exercise of setting up camp we headed directly for the air-conditioned “Welcome Stage” to catch a set by gypsy-jazz Django Reinhardt devotees the John Jorgenson Quartet. Excellent.

Then it was time to brave the heat and check out the vendors—everything from cowboy hats to pottery to hand-dyed sarongs—and concessionaires selling things like organic smoothies and barbecued salmon. Walking around meeting up with friends from various social circles and enjoying encounters with intriguing strangers, one developed the sense of the festival as a model for an idealized human community, a community based on the most positive aspects of the human condition: mutual respect, acceptance, and diversity coupled with the hard work necessary to keeping such a community healthily functioning.

Weaving the whole environment into a tidily comprehensible whole was the incredible array of musicians, providing either a subliminal soundtrack or a highly energized focal point depending on one’s level of engagement at any given moment.

All-in-all a great break from the day to day.

—Carey Wilson