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REDEFINING THE MODERN MUSIC FESTIVAL FROM THE GROUND UP

John Henry Dale

While onstage at the GroundUp Festival at the North Miami Beach Bandshell in February, the band Snarky Puppy won their third Grammy for their latest album, Culcha Vulcha. But the group’s founder, Michael League, could hardly be bothered with celebration, as he was both playing live with most of the groups on the bill and directing several of the music education workshops featured throughout the weekend.

Though a scan of the weed-smoking fan base at the festival might lead one to assume otherwise, Snarky Puppy is not a jam band. Founded by League while studying at the University of North Texas College of Music’s world-renowned Jazz Studies program, Snarky Puppy has since relocated to Brooklyn and, over a decade of relentless musical hustle, have been met with substantial critical and commercial acclaim. Their unique orchestrations of modern jazz, funk, and soul instrumentals—combined with frequent guest vocalists, instrumentalists, and collaborations with classical ensembles such as the Metropole Orkest—are multivalent exercises in precisely arranged tempo, harmony, and melodic phrasing.

Yet the group somehow still manages to make deeply technical and virtuosic instrumental music sound catchy. The band’s increasing popularity and influence has led to some compelling artistic partnerships with, among others, jazz phenomenon Esperanza Spalding, classic rock legend David Crosby, Cuban percussionist and bandleader Pedrito Martinez, London’s modern funk and soul singer Laura Mvula, and Brazil’s Banda Magda, all of whom were featured performers at the three-day, inaugural edition of the festival, organized by League and his colleagues at GroundUp Records. The performances lasted throughout the day into the evening, with nightly after-parties at the nearby Deauville hotel that extended into the wee hours.

Spalding was listed on the festival bill as “Artist at Large,” mercurially appearing on many of the festival artists’ stages for a song or two throughout the weekend, often to thunderous applause. Having recently performed at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center in fall of 2016 while on her Emily’s D+Evolution tour, Spalding was also sure to attract some of Miami’s jazz aficionados. Playing her standup bass, Spalding’s collaboration with David Crosby (on vocals and guitar), Becca Stevens (on vocals), and Michael League (on acoustic guitar) was an exercise in tasteful restraint from her usual virtuosity. It was an ethereal and stirring folk-jazz ballad, reminiscent of a more straight-ahead Mingus-era Joni Mitchell tune but with three-part harmony.

Though she excelled, as always, in her collaborative performances with other bands, Spalding’s own solo set seemed to leave the crowd underwhelmed. After admitting that she and Laura Mvula had drunk a bottle of wine together immediately prior, she and singer/songwriter Becca Stevens turned her performance–which was not billed as one of the festival’s workshops–into a kind of improvised, public songwriting session, never actually playing a song completely through. Some people headed to the other main stage, but the majority of the crowd was ultimately forgiving, if a bit puzzled. They barely pulled it off, but it was an unexpected showing from a jazz star typically known for her flawless performances.

The addition of David Crosby as a kind of musical elder statesman to the festival was a good one for a first-run festival in a city where jazz, funk, and folk rock music do not always fill venues the way pop, EDM, and Latin music acts can. His master class with Michael League on “Chasing the Muse” was easily the most well-attended workshop of the festival, and he could often be seen hanging out with his wife Jan at a table to the side of the bandshell stage, clearly enjoying the music acts he likely helped curate.

While typically classified as soul (or “neo-soul”), Laura Mvula’s music is not easily definable, with elements of gospel, jazz, choral, pop, and atmospheric electronica. With Spalding on back-up falsetto vocals, Mvula’s live rendition of her torchy, orchestral waltz “Can’t Live with the World”—from her 2013 Mercury Prize-nominated debut studio album Sing to the Moon—replaced the real string section on the album with a synth strings preset from a custom, all-white Roland AX-7 “keytar” that could have come straight out of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme song. The song had a lullaby’s effect on the crowd, and somehow seemed a welcome reprieve from the dystopian global politics blowing up our newsfeeds. By emotional and rhythmic contrast, her hit song “Green Garden” was re-imagined as a crowd-hyping shout-and-praise gospel jam, with the whole Snarky Puppy band bringing their Sunday best church funk. She’d saved the best for last, and “Phenomenal Woman” lived up to its title: a tight, modern funk banger, with a Rhodes keyboard hook reminiscent of Prince’s “Erotic City” and Mvula, backed by Becca Stevens and Malika Tirolien, bringing out the most sonorous vocal performance of the whole weekend.

When I spoke with Mvula about how she’d come to collaborate with Snarky Puppy, she shared having previously been intrigued by an online debate regarding a collaboration between Snarky Puppy, pianist Robert Glasper, and vocalist Lalah Hathaway about the “validity of the band…them and the whole white musicians playing soul or black music.” Such debates in the music world, especially in the jazz scene, are nothing new. In 2011, jazz trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Branford Marsalis became embroiled in a now famous internet debate over the renaming of jazz as “Black American Music” (or #BAM as it was hashtagged on Twitter). The BAM movement has gained support over the last half decade, with proponents demanding accountability of a music industry that has routinely and systematically exploited the achievements of black musicians while giving them little, if any, credit.

Snarky Puppy, a band with influences firmly rooted in historically black music, seems an exception to this practice, stating on their website, “at its core, the band represents the convergence of both black and white American music culture with various accents from around the world. Japan, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Puerto Rico all have representation in the group’s membership. But more than the cultural diversity of the individual players, the defining characteristic of Snarky Puppy’s music is the joy of performing together in the perpetual push to grow creatively.”

When an invitation from Snarky Puppy to collaborate came her way, Mvula, a self-described “crossover musician,” pondered whether or not she belonged in the same musical environment as the world-class jazz musicians she’d just been reading about. But she accepted, and after an initially tense introduction to the group, she grew more comfortable with the collaboration. Of their work together on Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner Vol. 2 album, she says, “I quickly realized that I was there based on the value of my own internal voice and they wanted to share in that and celebrate it, and it I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually really special.’”

Perhaps the most groundbreaking performance of the festival came from a band called Bokanté, yet another collaborative music project created by Michael League. The band had their first ever live performance at the GroundUp festival, and played the most unexpected and compelling music I heard the entire weekend. As a drummer myself, I was fascinated by percussionist, André Ferrari, a fifty-year-old mohawked Swede. He played a hybrid acoustic-electronic drum kit that included a Nord Drum pad triggering reverb-drenched electronic percussion samples, several large Brazilian pandeiros in the place of snare and tom drums, and a rack of bells, chimes, and Chajchas (goat hoof shakers) that infused the whole performance with a kind of percussive ceremonialism.

If that was his intended effect, it worked; several drummers from other bands performing that weekend stood in front of me watching him play closely, transfixed by the complex combination of instruments and odd-accented meter. Supported by an ensemble consisting of several Snarky Puppy members, Guadeloupean vocalist Malika Tirolien’s vocals seemed to be processed through some kind of octave pedal, which allowed her to harmonize with her own voice to impressive and surreal effect.

On their website, Bokanté describes their own sound as such: “Rich in the sound of both delta and desert, the unusual but evocative instrumentation blends musical worlds to convey an urgent message of social awareness against the rising tide of exclusion and human indifference.” League adds, “Though the ensemble is multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-generational, we all feel connected as musicians and people. And in combining our different accents I feel that there is a strangely common and poignant sound, one that can reach and relate to listeners around the world.”

This snippet from Bokanté’s bio could serve as a kind of thematic summary of GroundUp. While Snarky Puppy anchored the festival, it was clear that League, Spalding, Crosby and every other act were trying to cultivate something different from the corporate branded mega-festivals that have become so commonplace in the American musical landscape. To that end, GroundUp was an unqualified success, not only due to the depth and breadth of international talent on hand in a city where these types of acts do not often play together, but to the evidential and deep respect for making music for music’s sake.

John Henry Dale is a DJ, Producer Musician, and current resident artist at Art Center South Florida’s Lincoln Road campus. He also works as the Manager for Distance Learning and IT at the New World Symphony when he’s not reading or writing about music.

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