Saturday, October 9, 2010

Folk Me

What's the best thing about the Richmond Folk Fest over the National Folk Fest? That would be the increasing focus on international music and tonight provided a an unparalleled kick-off to that emphasis.

I was meeting a favorite couple, so I arrived just before 6:30 to stake out the best seats (second row center) for a 7:15 show. Already in place in the same row was a guy looking as eager as I no doubt did, who immediately engaged me in conversation. He turned out to be a drummer who recently moved back to RVA from Colorado after 8 years away.

You can imagine what a conversation starter that was! He's just discovering all the changes in our music scene since he was last here and he was terribly impressed when he learned how often I'm out for live music ("I wish everyone was like you.") and asked for recommendations on local bands to check out. Happy to oblige, friend.

After last year's Folk Fest performance by Debashish Bhattacharya, here, I knew that if I was only going to see one performance this weekend, it was going to be Zakir Hussain playing tabla. As my handsome Indian friend (and half my couple date) had told me, the man is a maestro.

Midway through his first piece, the audience began clapping and cheering during one especially fast part, causing Hussain to throw out his hands in a "What are you people doing?" gesture. I had been wondering the same thing since they were drowning out the man's playing.

During the next piece, he was even clearer with the overly-noisy and enthusiastic, admonishing them "I'll tell you when to clap." Of note was that the sizable Indian contingent of the audience knew better than to mar the performance with making noise mid-music.

My new drummer friend, who was not clapping either, said between pieces, "People always do that on a drum solo. They don't know any better." Presumably they did after being told by the maestro.

Hussain had said that all the tabla movement was from the wrist down ("We get tennis wrist.") and at times, his fingers flew so fast they were unrecognizable as digits. His partner, playing the melody, had fingers just as fleet. And it wasn't just me who was left wowed.

After the encore, the drummer turned to me and said, "I can die happy now" with an enormous grin on his face. Drummer nirvana from the second row for both the talented and the mere fan.

That performance alone would have made for an absolutely amazing night, but due to the genius of the programming staff, there was more to come. Ensemble Shanbehzadeh, an Iranian trio, followed with a performance unlike anything I could have imagined.

Leader Saied Shanbehzadeh (now exiled in Paris because he wouldn't alter his music to suit his government) is a master of the double-reed bagpipe, which, I might add, was pink and tasseled. It's hard to describe the magnificence of a man passionately dancing while playing a pink bagpipe between two drummers (one his teenage son).

There may be men with more sinuous dance stylings on the planet, but I doubt you could find a member of tonight's audience who would believe that. From Cossack-style leg kicks to provocative pelvic thrusting and the most fluid hips imaginable on a man, you could almost see the females in the crowd responding.

At one point, the female half of my couple date looked over at me, her eyes enormous and just nodded knowingly at me. I nodded right back. Words weren't necessary, although we came up with a few choice ones later.

Afterwards, I spotted a friend who looked a little glazed and she said, "I need to go find someplace to dance and release some of this pent-up energy after that." I'm quite sure she wasn't the only one feeling that way. The man was a force of nature and the music's raw emotion was captivating.

With a mere 45 minutes to perform, Shanbehzadeh eschewed stage banter, saying only that he "loved people of all countries." He closed the show with, "Next year, all of us in New York!" Don't I wish.

Walking back up 5th Street, the handsome one suggested Lemaire to finish off the evening with wine, cocktails, cheeses and beef tartare. Since we'd been engrossed in music all evening, it was really our first chance for extended conversation.

He, like Hussain, is Indian, she's from Ukraine and the ensemble was Persian, making for a most international night at the Richmond Folk Fest.

I couldn't feel any more white-bread or any more thrilled to have witnessed such far-flung talent tonight.

Did I mention those hips?


  1. Karen, you capture the evening perfectly. Hussain is an amazing man and musician, and he stayed another hour to pose for photos with his mob of fans. I liked that he took a front row seat to watch Ensemble Shanbehzadeh and to honor their music while so many reporters and fans clamored to meet him.

  2. As a devoted music lover, I see an amazing array of peformances all the time. Last night made me proud to be a fan of music and part of the global community.

    Thank you, Richmond Folk Fest!

  3. *laughs*

    yes--audience hand claps are so absurd to me bc they're ALWAYS off-beat. playing in a marching band taught us that--the conductor conducts to the people at the very back, and everyone else has to play based on the sound coming forward, like a wave, so that it hits the audience all at once. if everyone plays to the conductor, then everyone sounds off. so when i've played shows at which people start clapping, everyone in the band looks at each other quickly, resolved to stay focused, remain standing through the battering waves, to favor one pulse over the other. but i suppose that's probably the collective unconscious and i can't condemn it!

  4. You can do whatever you want. I condemn freely.