At a Quartz Street stage packed to the gills, the smile on the face of singer Aditya Prakash says it all, yet another of many highlights from the 2010 National Folk Festival. Much like Benedicte Maurseth, the Aditya Prakash Ensemble provided an oasis of cool amid the high-octane performances of other acts like Roma Nota and Dale Watson. Another testament to the quality and diversity of the acts offered by the National Folk Festival.
Carnatic music, the ensemble’s specialty, comes from southern India and is based in the Hindu tradition. Simple on first appearance, Carnatic music typically involves a small number of performers. In the case of the Ensemble, it’s just voice, violin, and a type of drum called the mridgangam (one of good ol’ Ganesh’s favorite drums, so they say). The violin and mridgangam provide a foundation that the singer soars over.
All the walking up and down the hill, listening to the sounds of the world, it makes a man hungry, so I took advantage of the early evening gap in the Festival schedule to head to Pork Chop John’s, a Butte institution, for a chop, loaded deluxe. Across Mercury Street at the Silver Dollar Saloon, some locals had gathered to talk about how great everything was, and to take a breath before the Saturday night push. The house band, Montana Deluxe, was warming up on the Dollar stage for their late-night, after-the-Festival gig. If you dig the blues and early rock-and-roll, they’re the band for you.
I had loitered enough, and I was anxious to check out the Moroccan Gnawa music of Hassan Hakmoun up at the Original Stage. Gnawa music comes from the Muslim tradition. If the organizers could have found some Buddhists, the Festival would have been the most peaceful gathering of all the major world religions since a rabbi, a priest, a monk, a mullah, and Ganesh walked into a bar… But I digress. And I misspoke a bit. Gnawa actually predates any Islamic influence in Africa, as the word refers not just to a style of music, but an African people.
Gnawa the music is based on repetition, and incorporates elements of prayer and acrobatics. Quite a combination. Hassan’s band consists of Hassan on sintir (he calls it the “grandfather of all basses”), and three other members on percussion instruments, including a qarkabeb, which is Morocco’s version of castanets, with a little bit of cymbal thrown in.
(Note: The photos here are from Hassan Hakmoun’s Sunday performance at the Montana Tourism Dance Stage on Park St. I was lucky enough to catch him Saturday night at dusk beneath the Original headframe, but alas, no photos.)
While I wove my way through the masses of humanity in front of the old Original mine hoist house, the percussive waves of Hassan and his band washed down the hill. I arrived a few minutes after the set began and found a spot at stage right. A lot of the Folk Festival is a sit-down affair, but looking out over the crowd at the Original as the light faded, at least half of the place was on their feet. Look, I’ll just say it- Hassan Hakmoun blew my socks off.
With only a drum kit, a percussion kit, two elaborate hand cymbals (the qarkabeb), and a homemade bass contraption (the sintir), the band exploded with infectious polyrhythms. The melody comes only from Hassan’s bass and the vocal chants, but what a melody it is. The emphasis on repetition and variation is similar to the Aditya Prakash Ensemble, but the rhythms and melodies that develop within that structure are distinct. In Hassan’s music, you can hear the beginnings of blues, funk and hip-hop, particularly when a guitarist from one of the other Festival acts (The Legendary Shining Stars, if is powder-blue suit was any indication) joined in for an extended jam that sounded akin to Sly Stone on one of his best days.
And again, sheer showmanship shines through. Hassan periodically puts down his bass to do a kind of wild breakdancing, leaping in the air and running in place. It’s a spectacle of sheer joy. Meanwhile, the qarkabeb-ist twirls his tassle to the beat, and they both punctuate their dances with leaps for the top of the Original headframe.
All this went on directly above the old Original mineshaft. Like most shafts in Butte, it has been “capped” (concrete slab poured over the opening) for years. The Original Stage sits roughly on top of this cap. As Hassan beat the heck out of that sintir, it was easy to imagine the sound waves vibrating through that cap, bouncing a few thousand feet down the shaft, echoing through the toxic water down there under the earth, turning the whole Butte hill into a kind of subterranean pipe organ. The ironworkers who built the Original headframe and the miners who sunk the shaft and blasted the tunnels and the executives back in New York who made a mint off the deal, none of them could have imagined that here, roughly 100 years after the boom and a half century after the long bust started, here was a band of Morrocans by-way of L.A. performing a Muslim-influenced trance music for thousands of people from parts near and far on top of the Original mine. Some of the copper from that hole could have been hiding in the amps, returned home after a mighty diaspora.
I didn’t know if I had the mental energy left to absorb any more music after that (and after writing that purple-prosy last paragraph), but I decided to give it a go. It was back to the Montana Tourism Dance Stage on Park Street for some salsa by-way of Brooklyn. La Excelensia practically demands a dance stage, with a killer horn section, more percussion than even Hassan, and a good dose of salsa exuberance. La Excelensia’s style of salsa is known as “hardcore” for its head-on lyrics about social issues. I took exactly one semester of Spanish, so I will have to leave it to better linguists to comment on Excelensia’s social relevance, but their booty-shakin’ relevance is indisputible.
In the course of one day, I had heard music from Butte, India, Texas, Central America, Morroco, Norway… It’s enough to make the brain glow. And we haven’t even made it to Sunday yet. More correspondence forthcoming. Until then, tap ‘er light.
One more note- this (2010) was the last “National Folk Festival” in Butte, but 2011 will mark the community’s debut effort to keep this house a rockin’. For preliminary surveillance, go here: http://www.montanafolkfestival.com/