It was Subaru mating season. Tom and I stepped out of the car to find ourselves absolutely surrounded by Subarus, new and old, and not the turbocharged WRX sedans that were favored by young hooligans back in Memphis, but the sensible ones, almost all wagons and crossovers, vehicles that in Memphis mostly existed in ad brochures. We were in Black Mountain, North Carolina, up in the Blue Ridge mountains, to attend the LEAF (Lake Eden Arts Festival) Festival, primarily to see two artists, Sona Jobarteh from Gambia, and Jupiter & Okwess from the Congo, and we had parked almost two miles down the length of the long gravel drive that served as one of the festival’s six parking lots. It was going to be a long walk, so we decided to count the Subarus, and spotted at least ninety of them, more than I might see in an entire year in Memphis.
I had known that the Appalachians, the parts of them that have quaint-in-a-commercial-sort-of-way small towns with charmingly irritating street layouts instead of ex-industrial hellholes with uncharmingly irritating air, were full of old hippies and their crunchy physical and cultural descendants, but LEAF was their festival, and instead of slick corporate kiosks and marketing “synergy”, there were hundreds of little tents hawking all manner of handcrafted, all-natural, barefooted (even in windy, damp, 40-degree weather) wares of varying quality. Even the concession prices were surprisingly reasonable and paid for on the spot instead of requiring one to convert one’s dollars into some sort of venue-specific Monopoly money first. The festival grounds were surrounded by tall, mature forests, and normally the leaves would have been turning all manner of shades of red, brown, and gold, but the weather had just recently turned chilly after a period of unseasonable warmth, leaving the foliage still looking mostly like summer.
On the one hand, smartphones cause distraction, depression, anxiety, loss of attention span, and media addiction. On the other hand, mine caused me to take this picture despite not owning a camera or possessing photography skills.
To a flatlander like me, there is something transcendent and awe-inspiring about mountains. The earth in the Mississippi River delta is always subject to continuous remodeling, whether from erosion caused by the river and its many tributaries, or the actions of developers who see the plain as a canvas that offers them near total freedom. The Appalachians, by contrast, seem ancient, immovable. They existed before the dinosaurs came to be and they will endure long after humans cease to be. Where mountains stand, the designs of humans must metaphorically and literally bend to accommodate them, not the other way around. Even in downtown Black Mountain, the natural lay and contours of the land control and constrain the built environment that just doesn’t happen in Memphis. I could have spent hours gazing upon them, and between shows on the day we attended the festival, we spent a good two or three hours, in several stints, sitting at a secluded picnic bench we had picked out and looking out across a lake at the mountains that stretched out for miles beyond, while none of the shows we wanted to see were playing. Anyone who has never seen forested mountains in person should rectify this in their lifetime; even the roads are majestic with the cliffs, terraces, and overlooks caused by dynamiting switchbacks into the side of the mountain, and they’d probably be fun to drive fast if one didn’t have to share them with other cars.
The things that make those roads so lovely to behold and so wonderful to drive in the dream-world of a computer simulation game, however, make them a physical, mental, and emotional gauntlet for two travelers stuck in a small sporty coupe when someone trashes his car and backs traffic up for miles because it is so hard to get rescue teams out and there is so little room to get around a wrecked vehicle. We were held up about five hours on the drive to Black Mountain on Friday, so we arrived at our “historic” hotel late at night, exhausted and cranky. It didn’t help that this particular “historic” hotel decided having televisions, refrigerators, ice, or even glasses in rooms would somehow ruin its quaint character. The hotel’s absurdly smug proprietor, who looked, talked, and acted like Dean Armitage from Get Out, didn’t make either of us feel more comfortable, and neither did the complete absence of a telephone in the room aside from our own smartphones. This “historic” hotel had decidedly contemporary—and cheap—wrought iron furniture, interior drywall, and “popcorn” ceilings, and the room we stayed in had bizarre gray woodgrain-ish flooring that was obviously plastic (the complete lack of soundproofing was probably pretty historically accurate, though not at all welcome). The hotel kitchen served bland food that managed to be equal parts pretentious and vulgar at the same time. I ended up drinking the beer I brought warm and listening to Manilla Road on first my laptop and then my phone long into the night, unable to get to sleep. I’ve always had a hard time sleeping in hotels, and shabby, creepy hotels only magnify the problem.
Though Sona Jobarteh was playing on both Saturday and Sunday, we decided we would only catch the Saturday set because staying in Black Mountain for the Sunday one would have meant returning home well after midnight. The weather that day was chilly and damp, and the sky would rapidly flip from cloudy to clear and back again, but when the clouds parted there was almost always something striking to look at. The place where you redeemed your tickets was a few miles away from the actual festival grounds and easy to miss, so we had to turn back and get lost for a while before we got our wristbands (which were impossible to remove without cutting them, so they stayed on the whole weekend) and were admitted to grounds and found a place to park.
The festival grounds were once the site of Black Mountain College, for whom the LEAF website claims an impressive list of alumni that include Albert Einstein or Buckminster Fuller, but when we were there, it appeared to be a park with little evidence of the college ever having been there. The footpaths are all paved, and you can wear decent shoes to the festival without worrying about ruining them. Aside from the music and vendors, there were several other attractions, including a campground with both tent space and rented cabins, a boat dock that rented kayaks and canoes, and a zipline that sent guests unafraid of the cold plunging from a bluff down into the frigid water below. Screen addicts will find attempts to give into their cravings frustrated by the awful cellular data reception, which doesn’t work most of the time and is very slow when it does work. It must be especially beautiful in the spring when the weather is better and the crowds aren’t there.
Sona Jobarteh demonstrates techniques on the kora.
After a while getting lost a grip on the layout of the festival grounds, our first stop was a workshop held by Sona Jobarteh and a couple members of her band in a tent where they would play songs from their repertoire with a reduced selection of instruments and Sona Jobarteh would answer questions from members of the audience about her music and her instrument, the kora, a complex and fascinating combination of harp and lute that can be used to play multiple melodic lines at the same time like a piano. The gathering was small enough that the small sound system used seemed mostly unnecessary except to allow Sona Jobarteh to speak to the audience without raising her voice, and the excessive treble in the mix damaged the quality of the sound somewhat, especially since the balafon (an ancestor of the marimba with wooden bars and gourds for resonators) was left unamplified and, as a fairly quiet instrument to begin with, was completely drowned out. I inquired about how the kora could be made to harmonize with Western instruments and Sona gave me a quite detailed explanation of how the kora has been adapted to Western equal-tempered tunings (the fact that her kora has machine heads instead of the old-fashioned leather rings to hold the strings in place and in pitch probably makes this much easier).
With a few hours to kill before Sona Jobarteh’s full concert set, we continued to explore the festival grounds, and on the south side encountered a series of Mardi Gras-style parades, including marchers in bird costumes, a performer inside an animatronic representation of Death, and, the highlight of the early afternoon, a marching band in bright purple uniforms who serenaded us with a New Orleans brass rendition of War’s “Low Rider”. Alas, no floats, except for a small Chinese dragon made of plastic grocery bags, were present, nor was there enough room along the narrow footpaths for them to pass. Tom even had a brief conversation with Sona Jobarteh’s son (and balafon player) Sidiki, who was playing by the stream near our picnic table between sets. We also had some barbecue from one of the food tents, which was quite good despite the normal attitude of Southerners that the barbecue from regions other than one’s own is incorrect if not outright barbarous.
Sona Jobarteh and her band in concert.
Around 4:00 PM we headed over to the festival’s main stage to catch Sona Jobarteh’s performance. Jobarteh comes from the Diabaté clan of jeli (also called “griots”, although this word was invented by the French), but broke with traditional jeli gender roles, as she is the first woman to play the kora on a professional level. Her music is also less traditional than musicians like Toumani Diabaté (Sona Jobarteh’s cousin), and uses relatively little of the kora’s capacity to play two opposing lines against each other like a piano, instead usually preferring to use it as a lead instrument in a largely jazz-based style of music, using her leads to communicate and engage with the other band members, often in a call-and-response form where another musician plays a lead related to but contrasting with her own. Though they might not be an ethnologically correct representative of “griot music”, Jobarteh’s band are impressively tight and, in the live setting, the songs were extended with jam sessions that highlighted the dexterity and improvisational skills of the performers, to the extent where the jams were often the best parts of the songs. The highlight of her set was a modernized version of the traditional jeli song “Jarabi”, with both Sona and the guitarist trading solos over an up-tempo groove that was considerably more energetic than the other songs on display, which sometimes felt a little too polite for their own good.
After some more between-concert rambling and taking in a brilliant red sunset, it was time for Jupiter & Okwess. Where Sona Jobarteh’s music was laid-back, every second of Jupiter & Okwess’ music crackles with energy and chaotic exuberance, a tornado of afrobeat, punk, acid, and psychedelic rock, funk, and novel invention that sounds fresher than any white guitar music I’ve heard from the last twenty years. The ripping “The World Is My Land” especially comes on strong and works its way into an absolute frenzy, musicians bouncing up and down but still in total control of their instruments. There are three vocalists but none of them really sing that much, nor does the music require it, much like white punk rock and thrash metal, their barks both deliver the lyrics and keep cranking the energy level up and up and up. Indeed, there’s not much melodic content in general, as the band go all-in on rhythmic drive and hard, aggressive sounds. While they were playing, a strong gale blew through, causing no disruption to the performance (aside from showering the front of the stage with light debris) but wreaking utter chaos among the small tents elsewhere on the fairgrounds, with some of them being blown into the lake. We had planned to stay later into the night to catch Digable Planets around midnight, but after having attended two concerts with standing room only, we were too tired and footsore to continue and returned to the hotel.
Though we only got to see one day of the festival, and not all the acts we planned, both sets we attended were brilliant, and LEAF is as yet relatively free of brands and ugly corporate advertisements and not as utterly jammed with people as many of the bigger festivals, making it more palatable to someone of my temperament than something like Bonnaroo. The one thing that sticks in my mind most about the whole experience, though, was how white it was. I’m from a city that’s two-thirds black; in my experiences black people are everywhere, part of everyday reality even in suburbs, but at the festival they seemed almost entirely absent. There was plenty of music by black people and even more based on black culture, but this world seemed almost entirely separate from the one most black Americans inhabited. The weirdness of it all never fully left me, not even when I was caught up in the power of the Jupiter & Okwess concert. Still, if you want to experience a relatively modest and inexpensive festival with a broad range of musical acts, LEAF is well worth a visit. You just might have to bring your own television.