Immediately after leaving New Orleans, we flew to Miami for GroundUP Music Festival 2018. Last year was such an incredible experience that we had to go again. The format was pretty similar to last year. The biggest change was that performances didn’t start until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, as opposed to a noon start-time last year. Noon-time in Miami was entirely too hot as an audience member and I’m sure the performers were sweltering. Pushing the start by a couple hours was really helpful. They ended up having workshops (in a sheltered area) frontloaded on the schedule, which was cool.
There were too many great acts to write about, but here are some my personal highlights:
Harold Lopéz-Nussa Trio was a piano trio from Cuba. They led kicked off the festival as the first performance on Friday. The whole trio interacted as a fun and energetic unit, playing rhythmic ideas off each other like a percussionist jam (the cool kind) in a piano trio. I haven’t been able to find recordings of them as a trio online, but I’ll be checking out Harold’s other albums for sure.
C4 Trio, confusingly comprised of 4 people, were a mostly acoustic band from Venezuela. Three of them played the “cuatro”, a traditional Venezuelan instrument that looked like a small guitar with 4 strings (bigger than a soprano ukulele, a little smaller than a tenor, I think). They were accompanied by an electric bassist. It’s always really impressive to me when bands are able to have that many multiples of the same instrument and never have them clash with each other. They traded roles of playing melody, strumming accompaniment, and percussion by hitting the body of cuatro. They’d occasionally switch to playing rhythms on the strings too, kind of like how montunos function on piano in afro-Cuban music. Their repertoire consisted largely of traditional Venezuelan songs, but they played a couple fun arrangements of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely. They had fun arrangement tricks where they’d split a melodic line playing little sections one after another. They also pulled a really entertaining stunt where the three cuatro players sat close to each other and each strummed and fingered each others’ instruments in a circle.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones Trio with Victor Wooten on bass and Futureman on drumitar and percussion played the final set of the last night. Flawlessly tight and dizzyingly radiant solos from all three musicians. I first listened to the Flecktones in high school and it was really great to get to see them live for the first time.
Bob Reynolds (Snarky Puppy saxophonist) has a vlog that I follow and really like. For awhile he’s been talking about this bebop band started by Jay Jennings (Snarky puppy trumpet player), the Yay Yennings Quartet. I was really looking forward to hear this band, as the only recordings they’ve put out have been short clips on Instagram. They played at the late set starting at 3am, which was a little rough to stay up for, but boy did they bring it. The quartet (trumpet, sax, bass, drums) played all originals, and they played fast. It was cool to hear them play without a chord instrument (guitar or piano) comping behind them; Bob would usually play targeted long notes or light hits behind Jay’s playing, and Jay would respond in kind for Bob.
Roosevelt Collier, pedal and lap steel guitarist, played in a band called Bokanté last year, but he led his own band this year. I’m a sucker for gospel-y funky groove bands (especially ones with Hammond organs), and his set did not disappoint. So much funk, so much groove. His debut album comes out in March and I’m buying it.
Knower is the weirdest band and has the weirdest lyrics. Louis Cole (drummer, composer) wore a muscle shirt, literally a spandex shirt with muscles printed on it, and a giant gold chain. Genevieve Artadi (singer) hyped up the crowd, jumping around. She sings like a drummer. I loved how the vocal rhythms were really complex and she delivered with the utmost precision. The band originally consisted of just those two, and their recordings were overdubbed and produced in bedroom studios. They have a really layered and complex sound, with very precise funky rhythms and lines. Since going on tour, they’ve added a bassist and two keyboard players, and it’s impressive how well they’re able to play it live, especially at the breakneck tempos that Knower likes.
Eliades Ochoa, from Buena Vista Social Club, played a set with Sammy Figueroa. I’ve been a big fan of Buena Vista for a very long time and it was amazing to get to see these two Cuban heavyweights play a set. They played a lot of well known Cuban classics (Chan Chan, El Cuarto de Tula), which was really fun to hear live.
Hosting band of the festival, Snarky Puppy, played three sets, each showcasing a slightly different roster of musicians. Just as with last year, I loved watching bassist and bandleader Michael League conduct the band while playing, either with a shake/nod of his head or a quick gesture. The compositions are layered and beautiful, yet flexible enough to handle instrumentation changeups on stage. All musicians are great listeners and instinctively know when to react to each other, which meant League could switch each instrument “on” and “off”, making for unique on-stage arrangements of groove/vamp sections. My favorite soloists of the three sets were: Bob Reynolds on sax, Shaun Martin on Hammond organ, Zach Brock on violin and Bill Laurance on keyboards.
The workshops this year were a range of semi-directed conversations between artists and Q&As. Victor Wooten and Michael League had an hour long conversation about music, politics, and bass. Most of the workshop involved Michael asking Victor questions. Victor talked about how he disagreed (but understood) why a lot of people want musicians to “stay out of politics”, but he felt that if he had a platform to speak for something they cared for, it’d be irresponsible to not use it. He also spoke how he thought it was ridiculous that governments tend to pour a ridiculous amount of money into militaries and warfare which divide and kill, yet continually slash budgets for arts and music which bring people together. Victor also spoke of the importance of finding your own voice in music, that there imitating others (he was quick to differentiate between imitating and being inspired by) was a disservice to the world because deprived the world of another unique voice. I like how he talked about finding your voice as a lifelong quest of discovery. He discussed how powerful simple bass lines are and how silly it is that bassists spend so much less time practicing simple lines versus complex stuff, since bands more often want simple lines that support the band well. Lastly, he asked the audience to give one word descriptions of what music meant to them. Answers included life, love, and purpose. “Notice that none of you said scales, technique, instruments. These are tools for making music. Never mistake them for being music.”
Béla Fleck (banjo) and Lionel Loueke (guitar) played some improvised duets and had a conversation about exploring your individuality. Béla mentioned about exploring different kinds of music that I really liked, “If you hear something that you really like, that’s your inner voice telling you to explore it more”. He also reassured that if you like a style but there’s too much to learn and it’s overwhelming, it’s perfectly acceptable to start with just learning one thing, one phrase, and letting it “infect” your playing. Lionel expressed about practice that you should “go for something you like, not just what you already know”. He stated that he felt that practicing what you don’t know helps make what you already know stronger.
Bob Reynolds and Chris Bullock (Snarky Puppy saxophonists) moderated a discussion with Josh Redman (sax) that was really cool to hear. On learning music, Josh spoke of the importance of depth vs breadth of learning, how young musicians often jump around too much yet don’t spend enough time with a small piece of music. He admitted to only having transcribed or learned only twenty or so solos, but really spent a lot of time digging into them. He spoke of preparing for shows by memorizing music, in order to be as in the moment as possible when playing, yet caveated that there are times one can be more in the moment if there was sheet music available. He stated the importance of listening first, and playing second. He very transparently spoke of how he’s a very self critical musician and how was lying awake the previous night, fretting over messing up a 16 bar trade with Lionel Loueke. I was amazed at his willingness to be as vulnerable as he was and once again heartened that world class musicians like Josh Redman have the same insecurities as a musician that I do.
In another amazing workshop, Michael League sat with two record label executives and spoke about the state of the music industry. It was pretty bleak. Big takeaways: selling records does not and will never again break even, much less make money. Streaming doesn’t make money; Snarky Puppy makes more money selling merch in one night than 4 or 5 months of streaming revenue (and this is for a 3-time Grammy winning band!!!) Touring is incredibly expensive, and out of 15 GroundUP artists, only 3 make money on tour. There’s some legislative things in place to make the situation a little better for songwriters, but for artists that aren’t writing songs, nothing is changing. At the end, Michael said that this entire discussion was about monetizing art and monetizing art sucks. He implored the musicians in the audience to never do anything artistic for the purpose of making money and promised to post online an actionable list of things musicians should be doing to improve their financial situation.
Yet again, the festival was an amazing array of a wide range of styles of music and I’m coming home with a stack of CDs and an even bigger list of musicians to pay attention to. The workshops were inspiring and it was such a treat to hear some of my favorite musicians speak about the music making process, as well as getting to speak to meet some of them while wandering the festival grounds.