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- Posted on Jul 14th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
The Festivus music and culture festival -- named, of course, for the 'Seinfeld' creation, "a holiday for the rest of us," that has become a surprisingly persistent pop culture phenom replete with its "traditional" aluminum pole and rancorous banter -- is channeling that fiction-based frivolity into real-world good. Billed this year as "Manifestivus," the event is in part funding supplies, teachers and tuition at the Sabu School in Conakry. Topping a truly global bill will be Malian song queen Oumou Sangaré, Jamaican icon Barrington Levy and North Carolina-based Afro-jam band Toubab Krewe, which has been building a solid following on the club and festival circuit for several years now.
The event was created by and is held on the Cabot, Vt., family farm of Toubab bassist David Pransky. It's a band that has not just drawn on West African music for the base of its infectious grooves but has spent time studying in Mali and Guinea with local musicians. The importance of those ties is clear in pretty much every note the band plays, with Justin Perkin's kora (the African harp-lute) percolating with Drew Heller's pointillist electric guitar, Pransky's rubbery bass and the interlocking patterns of drummer Teal Brown and percussionist Luke Quaranta, as you can hear in the track 'Autorail,' from the recent live album 'Live at the Orange Peel':
Toubab Krewe, 'Autorail'
This intersection of music and global service outreach is what brought the band together in the first place and what brought Pransky into the fold a little later. His sister was a student at service-oriented Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., and headed to West Africa as part of a school culture and arts group called Common Ground.
"They took this whole posse of 15 people there, and in between the music and dance lessons they would go five days a week teaching at the school -- earth science, math, all this stuff -- for a month while they were there," the charmingly chatty Pransky says. "When Common Ground went, they were all studying drums. And then Justin was like, 'What's that? A kora? I gotta play it!' And Drew was always a guitarist -- my God, there's such a rich history of guitar in Africa. And Toubab Krew formed out of that."
The band members have gone back periodically both to learn and to participate in the communities. And when they can't be there themselves, they try to help in other ways.
"Toubab Krewe has mainly existed out of our own pockets," Pransky notes. "But as we get more financially stable, we wanted to try to make a more organized effort at that, supporting the school when we can and also supporting a lot of out teachers and their families. That's something that's always been in our hearts. Even when times are tough we gotta get $100 to Lamine Soumano and his family. He was mainly Justin's teacher on the kora."
Festivus has grown from essentially a backyard party hosted by Pransky and his sister into a strong regional gathering of 2000 people. This year, he says, is a real breakthrough in what might be termed a "think globally, party locally" philosophy.
"My first band, Sol Harvest, would one night of the year in the summer throw a party where we'd play, a few hundred people there," he says. "And it just evolved. The site is on my family's land. My mother has been running a summer camp there for, like, 20 years. Officially, this is the third year we've taken it into the big field. My brother-in-law built a timber, environmentally sound stage. The back stage goes into the woods -- very elvish.
"Our intentions with the Manifestivus and how it's evolved has been supporting the community both locally and worldwide. So there are a lot of local arts and a huge children's and family scene. And we're also having a food drive, working alongside Ben & Jerry's so you can bring a can of food and get free ice cream. That goes to our local food bank."
As for the African initiative, "We're kind of on a learning curve since it's the first time we've done that," he says. "A lot of it will be based on ticket sales. But our terms are very clear and we want to focus on supporting 20 students at the Sabu school for a year, as well as send supplies to the school and some financial support for the families that we have spent time with in Africa."
And then there's the music.
"It's like, 'Wow, I get to bring my favorite acts!' My favorites and Toubab's favorites."
Getting Sangaré, he says, was a major coup that has widened the interest in the festival, with people coming from both world music and African immigrant communities from New York to Montreal. Reggae legend Levy is also a special treat, he says, since Toubab recently spent time in Kingston, Jamaica, recording tracks that may anchor an upcoming studio album. Ditto for a special appearance by another reggae legend, guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith, who played on many if not most of the essential classic Kingston sessions from the early '70s on. The band Midnite, from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, will also add Caribbean reggae vibes to the bill, while Mali's Boubacar Diabaté and his band SambaLolo provides more West African presence. And if visa matters sort out, hopes are for Toubab's teacher Lamine Soumano himself to perform. On top of that, the late-night Saturday "after hours" dance party will feature artists and DJs from a wide range of genres and regions, complementing daytime puppet theater shows, 'Yoga in the Woods' sessions and African drum and dance workshops.
"Manifetivus is manifesting the great experience for all," he says. "We have all this family fun and also have the late-night things after, dancehall and cats from Montreal and hip-hop guys from Brooklyn. Pretty wild. Super-excited that we created this and to be able to invite 2,000 people to your backyard and enjoy this event is pretty amazing -- if I do say so myself."
Oh, and there's another VIP he's hoping will make an appearance.
"Hopefully, the sun will shine on us," he says. "I've invited Mother Nature. We'll see if she wants to come hang out."