"This festival has a feeling of friends performing for friends," asserts dancer Severine Gaubert-Rousseau. She's talking about the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival (LAAFF), which, a handful of years since its inception, is still fiercely local in orientation.
Sure, it spans the shopping area of North and South Lexington Avenue. It features local artists, musicians, performers and vendors. But this year -- at least as far as performances go -- what's local in nature is also increasingly global.
Take Flamenco Saltado, Gaubert-Rousseau's trio: It features a Spanish-born guitarist and Flamenco dancers from France and Louisiana.
Looking for more world beats? Cabo Verde plays their version of modern Flamenco; perennial favorite Baraka Mundi performs Middle Eastern music and belly dance; Banana da Terra serves up electric Brazilian jazz; the Shining Rock Reggae Band does Caribbean-flavored grooves; and Nbale (Newborn Ancient Love Ensemble) will feature Biko Casini of Strut on West African balaphone.
"It's like the best block party," surmises musician August Hoerr, who will play his third LAAFF with hypnotic Egyptian-inspired trio Soora Gameela. "This is how a festival should be."
"A predisposition to a certain sound"
It's not exactly coincidence that LAAFF has moved in a world-music direction, though Jeremy Long (a percussionist with Avec La Force Percussion and Dance Initiative) says that international bands and dance groups aren't the festival's sole focus.
"The planning committee decided LAAFF needed to be more diverse this year," Long notes. "We decided we didn't want to do the same thing every year."
Festival attendees would likely be hard-pressed to find anything mundane about past LAAFF events: Think art-car contests, costumed revelers and bicycle jousting -- hardly your run-of-the-mill dunking booth and Moon Walk.
But planners wanted to up the ante.
"Asheville is an amazing place for world music," Long continues. "You can [find] almost every genre. So many people are drawn to this area. It's got a reputation as an arts and music town, so people are moving from all over."
"It's always been one of our goals," LAAFF organizer Erin Scholze says of the increased diversity -- although, interestingly, she interprets this year's music menu a little differently: " ... We're representing the punk and indie-rock scene a little more," says Scholze. "We owe a lot to BoBo [Gallery] for setting up a stage there."
Soora Gameela is one of the groups playing at BoBo. And the trio's sound lands quite far from typically hectic punk thrashings -- "We have a lot of shows where people just sit down and close their eyes: It's trancelike," Hoerr attests. Still, if you read "punk" as "grassroots," the connection is more easily made.
"I am devoted to things that had their heyday long before I was born ... and will probably never, ever be back in style again," Hoerr says on his Web site (check out the band at myspace.com/sooragameela). He tells Xpress some of his early influences include Tom Waits and an Egyptian accordion player. "I was predisposed to a certain sound: a minor key," explains the musician, who now plays accordion and rababba, an ancient Egyptian violin-like instrument.
Soora Gameela came into being five years ago as a backup band for belly dancer Diana Shahein. "Over time, as we were playing, we wanted to try different things and pull from different sources," says Hoerr. The band -- a reportedly democratic endeavor -- includes New Orleans-based percussionist Gwendolyn and bassist Joe Burkett. Despite being geographically far-flung, the trio recently released its first album, The Thread, available at Harvest Records.
"We all have a certain kind of music we want to play," says Hoerr. "[Ours is] cinematic and full of longing. When the three of us get together, that happens."
Where drum-circle experience doesn't count
Equally cinematic -- though possibly more party-oriented -- is Flamenco Saltado. "It [means] to be freed -- like someone who was captured and then set free," says guitarist Nelson "Papito" Morales.
"We'll be doing a lot of traditional Flamenco, which is very rhythmic and dramatic," he promises. "We'll also do something with folklore, too."
"Folklore" is a theme shared by popular drum-and-dance troupe Avec La Force, whose members come from outfits like The Afromotive and Ballet Warraba.
"We're sticking to the roots of West African dance music, but we're trying to incorporate the whole drum-and-dance folklore style," explains Long.
Folklore, in this case, refers to the difference between theatrical, prop-oriented performances (which, Long explains, was the prerogative of now-defunct Ballet Warraba) and a down-home, in-the-streets show.
"But it's still choreographed," Long affirms. "These are really intricate rhythms that take a long time to learn, so [people who attend drum circles] can't just sit in."
Morales levies a similar claim. "Anyone who tries to get the [Flamenco] beat -- even percussionists -- they can't. The first six beats are structure, and the last six are counter-structure.
"I've been playing since I was nine years old," he points out. "There was a time I was only playing a couple times a week, but now I'm playing four hours a day ... like I was born to."
Both Flamenco Saltado and Avec La Force bring syncopated rhythms and athletic dancing to downtown Asheville -- a combination that performers and festival planners hope will inspire audiences.
"It's good for dancers and [dance] teachers to get exposure, too, because dance is not as widely accepted as music," says Long. Avec La Force percussionist Kevin Meyame teaches African dance classes regularly at Future of Tradition, and drummers are also welcome to attend.
Similarly, Flamenco Saltado is a spin-off of a local Flamenco class. LAAFF will be the trio's debut performance -- but they're not sweating it. "We're actually more excited than scared," Morales laughs. "We just do it."
LAAFF facts & acts
The Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival runs Sunday, Sept. 10, from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. See arts2people.org for more information.
The Electric Stage
11 a.m.: Katie Kasben's Jazz Trio
12:10 p.m.: Tyler Ramsey
12:55 p.m.: J.P. Delanoye of Ghost Mountain
1:30 p.m.: Cabo Verde
2:40 p.m.: Wayne Robbins & The Hellsayers
3:25 p.m.: The Hunab Kru with local hip-hop
3:50 p.m.: Shining Rock Reggae Band w/special guests
4:35 p.m.: Mid-Afternoon Costume and Music Parade
5 p.m.: Sidney Barnes and his Good Time Band
6:10 p.m.: Hollywood Red
7:20 p.m.: Jen & The Juice
8:30 p.m.: Agrolola
9:30 p.m.: The Rebelles Burlesque
Performing Arts Stage
11 a.m.: Jarrett Leone on didgeridoo
11:20 a.m.: Ash Devine
12:20 p.m.: Jodie Taylor and her Dancers
12:40 p.m.: Blake Burris: Shake it Like a Caveman
1:05 p.m.: The Asheville Interplayers(TM)
1:25 p.m.: Pierce Edens
1:55 p.m.: Veil of Fractured Moon Dance
2:15 p.m.: Taylor Martin and Johnny's Inhaler
2:45 p.m.: Seve's Modern Dance Ensemble
2:50 p.m.: Menage
3:30 p.m.: LEAF in Schools and Streets
4:30 p.m.: Deep Roots Sound
5 p.m.: Butoh with Julie B.
5:10 p.m.: Avec La Force Percussion and Dance Initiative
5:55 p.m.: Flamenco Saltado
6:20 p.m.: Nbale: The NewBorn Ancient Love Ensemble
7:05 p.m.: Chicotlatolxochitl Aztec Dancers
7:30 p.m.: Hunab Kru Breakdancers
8:25 p.m.: Baraka Mundi Live Music and Dance
9 p.m.: Unifire Fire Spinners