Saturday, October 13, 2018

Facing Fall

You don't go to 13 out of 14 Folk Festivals without learning that Friday's where it's at.

There's a low-key vibe to opening night that is unlike any other point during the festival. Mac, Mr. Wright and I walked down to the river from J-Ward, arriving not long after 6 and heading straight to Gregory's Grill for crabcake sandwiches and eastern Carolina barbecue.

Overheard along the way was, "I didn't expect anyone to be here yet!" although the speaker looked to be about 17, so I'm not sure her frame of reference for past festivals was wide or particularly deep. Then with sandwiches in hand, we made our way to the Altria stage where Cora Harvey Armstrong was already taking people to church with her gospel singing and piano playing backed by a singing quintet of sisters and nieces.

The ground was too soggy after Hurricane Micahel's wind-swept rains to sit on the hill facing the river, though it didn't stop a woman in shorts and flip-flops. Mac stated the obvious - "Why would anyone wear shorts and flip-flops on a night when it's going down to 49 degrees?" - as the sounds of testifying filled the air.

To make things even more spiritual, the sun was setting behind the Lee bridge and the pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle, filling the sky with streaks of red and purple framed like tableaux between sections of the bridges' supports. Overhead, a sliver of a moon hung in the evening sky and the light posts on the bridge stood in for low-hanging stars.

After a few songs, Cora told her back-up singers to take a break and asked the crowd to call out their requests. "And if I know 'em, I'll sing 'em and if I don't you can go home and sing them to yourself," she laughed.

Launching into "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," I was reminded how that it had been in the song books of my elementary school music classes - with a notation that it was a "Negro spiritual" - that we used to sing.

I'd bet my bottom dollar that children in elementary schools today no longer are taught Negro spirituals.

After singing five requests and trying to control the crowd's enthusiasm for suggesting more - "I'm gonna get to that one, just let me sing this one first" - she told the adoring audience that we should donate generously to the bucket brigade and she'd come back again and "play more of your songs."

"Come on, ladies!" she called to her backup singers and went back to her set list after introducing her band and singers and explaining how each one was related to her. Like me, Cora was from a family of all girls and shared a story she said her sisters tell her not to. "Daddy said he turned that bed every which way but he never did get a boy."

I have no doubt my Dad could relate to that.

By the time she got to the closer, a song about loving Jesus, the guy behind me was saying, "She's like going to church two days early!" Obviously he'd missed the part where Cora had told us that she's an ordained Baptist minister.

After scoring some sticky toffee pudding from the fish and chips truck, we slogged through mud behind Tredegar to get to the Community Foundation stage to see the first female kora virtuoso in the history of Gambia.

A friend had warned the Facebook world, "Don't sleep on this one," and he's someone whose musical advice I take. Thanks, Michael, for the best advice of the day.

Sona Jobateh came out in a spectacular Gambian full-length dress of deep reds, greens, gold and black, strapped on the 21-stringed instrument and proceeded to blow the mind of everyone under the tent and probably standing outside it, too.

She immediately became my spirit animal when she announced, "It's good to be here, but it's cold!" Amen, honey, I'm suffering every second with this abrupt switch to fall post-Michael. When Mac showed up in jeans and a top with jacket in hand, I'd detailed my many layers - slip, dress, sweater, scarf, jacket, shawl - and she'd scoffed. "Really, Karen? Really"

Yes, really. By the end of the evening, I was grateful for every single layer.

But Sona made me forget my cold hands and feet with a robust performance of Gambian music, new and traditional, and a fluidity on all those strings that no doubt belied how challenging it was to play. At one point, she brought out her son to play a vibes-like native instrument to accompany the band.

Her guitar player was stellar and his Carlos Santana-like guitar face was every bit as good. During one song, she faced off with each of her musicians - bass, guitar, drums and percussion - matching their rhythms note for note. Other songs, she taught the crowd the words and encouraged us to sing along.

But is was seeing and hearing this beautiful, talented woman play an instrument that for centuries has only been played by men that blew our minds. Mac suggested that it was the phallic nature of how the instrument is worn - it juts out from the pelvis, attached to a heavy leather strap - that had made it off limits to women for so long.

Regardless, sitting under the tent atop that hill, listening to Sona and her band play epitomized everything that is magical and wondrous about the Folk Festival. If not for the organizers, I could have gone my whole life without ever hearing griot played by a master. A female master, so even better.

Oh, and that one out of fourteen festivals that I missed? I was in Italy that year and if anything excuses a Folk Fest absence, it's world travel.

Still, Richmond was where I wanted to be last night.

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