A talk with drummer Mickey Hart and others about the California WorldFest in Grass Valley
Under a canopy of tall trees in the Sierra foothills, dozens of international musicians and artisans will converge next weekend at the California WorldFest in Grass Valley. For four days, the expansive grounds will host five stages and turn itself into a colorful, self-sufficient community full of music, camping, dancing, crafts and food.
The sixth annual WorldFest lineup will feature an almost unending list of music genres, including rock, bluegrass, reggae, Celtic, blues, roots and world beat.
This festival makes a point of welcoming children, creating a true family environment. The California Kids “playground” offers games, crafts, juggling and more. And for the kid in all of us, Mortal Coil, a Vancouver performance group affectionately known as Chix on Stix, returns to WorldFest with its unique and captivating costumed stilt-dancing.
KVMR, 89.5 FM in Nevada City, will once again broadcast the festival live, making it possible to retire to your campsite and still dial in to the music.
Diversity will reign supreme at the festival, co-coordinated, as always, by Chico Performances Director Dan DeWayne and his wife Christine Myers.
“Instead of a festival that is genre-specific (folk, jazz, bluegrass, blues, etc.), this festival has a multitude of music styles,” DeWayne said. “The artists seem to appreciate the diversity and feed off the ideas of each other. Magic seems to happen when you introduce great artists to each other.”
The diverse set of artists include performers representing Turkey, Ireland, Australia, Zimbabwe, India, Virgin Islands, Italy, Scotland, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico and the United States.
The festival gets underway Thursday but will begin in earnest Friday. Headliners, who will wrap up each day’s activities with 9:30 p.m. appearances on the Meadow Stage, include Fruit (Friday), Mickey Hart with Bembe Orisha (Saturday) and the Wayfaring Strangers (Sunday).
Mickey Hart spent more than 20 years playing a never-ending array of exotic instruments as percussionist for the Grateful Dead. In addition, he has always assembled and performed with his own musical projects. At the festival, he’ll appear with Bembe Orisha, an eight-piece ensemble that combines Afro-Cuban sounds with Middle Eastern, Iranian and good ol’ American rock’n’roll influences.
In West Africa, Bembe Orisha means “party spirit,” Hart said, and he especially likes bringing that spirit to outdoor festivals such as WorldFest.
“That’s the stuff—living life, celebrating, dancing to a good groove,” Hart said. “And people get up [to our music] and shake their booty. This is not New Age. It’s a rock-'n'-roll band. It’s got some guts to it.”
Bembe Orisha is truly international in flavor and plays a veritable museum of instruments. Aside from Hart’s always inventive, always purposeful polyrhythmic explorations, the group spotlights Iranian siren and songstress Azam Ali, who also plays a hammer dulcimer.
“She brings the sensibilities of that part of the world, the Arab world,” Hart said of Ali. “Musically potent and classically trained, she’s the real thing, she’s right on, dead on.”
Bembe Orisha also includes popular Bay Area musicians Bobby Vega (bass), Barney Doyle (guitar) and Greg Ellis (traps and drums), Sikiru Adepoju (drums), as well as two other female vocalists, Nengue Hernandez and Glennys Rogers. In addition, Hart said, Bembe Orisha features these instruments: belefons (like marimbas) from Kenya, udu (like clay pots) from the Congo, nakar (metal drums) from Turkey, as well as Middle Eastern, Indian and Cuban drums.
“The stage will be full of percussion; no violins or flutes,” Hart said.
Hart is clearly excited about how the band, less than a year old, is coming together. Calling Bembe Orisha “a work in progress,” he said, “with a new load of [Grateful Dead lyricist Robert] Hunter songs, I’m on the trail of the good.'”
And what about Grateful Dead fans? Will anything surface that they will recognize? “Oh, I’ll throw in a couple of ringers,” Hart said. “I’ll ring their bell.”
Two weeks following WorldFest, Hart will join the surviving Dead members for a weekend affair at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin.
“We got together again in Novato, and it was bliss, being back with my old brothers. We’re ready to rock again. We all got together one night and found out that the love was still there.”
Fruit, the darlings of last year’s WorldFest, return once again from its home in Adelaide, Australia. This will be the third time that Fruit, which features three frontwomen, has offered its harmonies and eclectic pop-rock at WorldFest. They are scheduled to play twice on Friday, including an intimate afternoon set.
“Fruit has been a sensation,” DeWayne said. “Their first U.S. festival was the California WorldFest, and they’ve been our most requested group to return.”
And while the band won’t be camping on-site, “we’ll be hanging around, playing drums and hackey-sack with people,” said vocalist/guitarist Susie Keynes.
Winners of many Australian music industry awards, the women of Fruit are often compared to many of today’s dynamic contemporary female performers, but give them 10 minutes on-stage and you’ll quit trying to compare them to anyone. They perform every song in their bountiful, seven-year-old catalog with passion, mixing different degrees of blues, rock, soul and pop. Mel Watson’s army of horns and Watson, Keynes and Sam Loh’s three-part harmonies are guaranteed to bring joy to the entire fairgrounds.
Keynes is pleased to be coming back to Grass Valley. Will Fruit fans hear many of their favorites? “Definitely,” she said. “We like to keep them happy. And we also like to introduce them to new songs—we have about a half-dozen—as we keep them on the musical journey we’re on.”
Keynes, who just wrapped up a solo album (all three vocalists now have their own albums), said Fruit included some of the new songs on its recently completed live album. One such track is Watson’s “Sunsets and Hurricanes.”
“It’s a gorgeous song,” Keynes said. “It’s about our lives swinging peacefully one minute and stormy the next, and how we brush ourselves off and move on. With us, our musical journey is always a challenge, because each of our songs pulls us in different directions. It’s not boring. I’d like to watch a Fruit gig myself!”
WorldFest is especially lucky to have booked The Wayfaring Strangers for Sunday. The group, which offers a unique mix of Bill Monroe-style bluegrass, contemporary jazz, modern classical, and klezmer sounds, play only a few gigs per year.
“We rarely get together; we all have other irons in the fire,” said Matt Glaser, violinist, the band’s musical director and long-time professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Glaser, who described the Wayfaring Strangers as having “a somewhat floating membership, but an all-star membership,” listed the group that will be in Grass Valley.
“We’ll have banjo wizard Tony Trischka, bluegrass diva fiddler Laurie Lewis, amazing, multifaceted Tracy Bonham, who’s been knocking everybody on their behinds, and great Hungarian jazz pianist Laszlo Gardony.” WorldFest attendees can also catch Glaser and Trischka in one afternoon workshop and Lewis and Bonham in another.
With live shows that are said to transfix audiences, Thomas Mapfumo, a singer from Zimbabwe, is also scheduled to take the main stage Sunday evening. A musician “since the beginning, right from school,” Mapfumo will lead the group he’s led for 25 years, Blacks Unlimited, in a set of “chimurenga” music. His lyrics, some in English, but mostly in Zimbabwe’s local language, draw on concerns he experienced watching some of his people living in rural hardship, while others went off to his country’s war for independence, which was in 1980. Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited shared a stage in 1980 with Bob Marley and the Wailers. Twenty-two years later, his music is banned in Zimbabwe.
“They don’t play my latest music on the radio,” he said. “They think it is attacking their government. When we started playing this music, liberation broke out in our country.” The group will feature the spiritual sounds of a metal-pronged mbira, as well as lead guitar, bass, keyboards and drums.
Not surprisingly, DeWayne is enthusiastic about all of the performers, but with a little prompting, he specifically extolled the virtues of several. The first he mentioned, Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser, now makes his home not far from Grass Valley. “Alasdair is a great ambassador for music and dance,” he said. “He wants everyone to make music and learn a jig. His campground jams are legendary, and his encouragement of young artists is wonderful.”
DeWayne also sang the praises of the Wayfaring Strangers, singer/songwriter Alice Peacock and the Gen X New England folk sisters, The Nields.
And that’s only a brief sampling of all the acts slated to appear at the WorldFest. A trio of guitar masters—Peppino D’Agostino, Lawrence Juber and Brian Gore—will appear twice, as will world-renowned Sikh vocalist Dya Singh and Celtic guitarist Tony McManus. Other artists include acoustic trio The Waifs, African/gospel female sextet Adaawe, Afro-Mexican dance outfit Conjunto Jardin, two-time national guitar champ Don Ross, Latin/African jazz combo Wild Mango, world fusion outfit Ancient Future and singer/guitarist Ben Demerath.
DeWayne added these last words of wisdom for those coming to the festival.
“Bring a hat, sunglasses and light jacket for the evening. Grab your best friend and family and get ready for a wonderful weekend of music, dance and discovery.”