Festival teaches cultural harmony Music, dance shows scheduled at WMC

July 12, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Common Ground, a music and arts festival at Western Maryland College, will culminate this weekend with concerts featuring a mixture of blues, bluegrass, jazz and gospel.

Musicians and artists with backgrounds as varied as their styles will celebrate black, white and Native American traditions. Dancers and cloggers will step to the beat of African drums and Appalachian fiddles. Dulcimers, harmonicas, banjos and guitars will create the harmony that is the theme of this year's festival.

After a week of classes in a plethora of subjects, students and teachers now will show off what they have learned from each other. Nearly 175 participants will blend diverse artistic origins and expressions in concerts tonight and tomorrow.

"This is so different from being an observer," said Shari Gallery, a participant from Augusta, W.Va. "You have artists talking to you about what goes on in their heads and how they got to be what they are."

The festival, which she called "an incredible treasure," was a family event for the Gallerys. Her husband, Phil Gallery, a news editor and author, lectured on "Writing to Benefit Your Community." Their son, Matthew, 13, studied with Guy Davis, a well-known musician, and his younger sisters joined a children's program that "exposed them to music, art and many different colors," Shari said.

"In West Virginia, we don't have this incredible mix of color and culture," she said.

"This is an opportunity for our children to see people of color and to get to know people from a completely different background."

Other participants studied storytelling or delved into Native American history with a Creek tribal king. Many picked up a musical instrument for the first time.

Challenging lessons

Dan Fichter, 14, came to the festival to learn as much as he could about instruments that he has never played in his school orchestra in Shanks, W.Va. At Common Ground, Davis, who is also a songwriter, introduced the teen to harmonica and guitar.

Dan found the music lessons challenging.

For Eric Byrd, a jazz pianist and gospel choir director, "Common Ground is what musicianship is all about. You know you have got it, and you want to teach it to others."

Walt Michael, often credited with the revival of the hammered dulcimer, had more than music lessons in mind when he founded Common Ground in 1994 (the first festival was held in 1995). He invited storytellers, artisans and writers to the festival.

Alice McGill, a regular performer on National Public Radio, taught students to write and tell stories, and led them through voice calisthenics -- lessons in breathing, tone and inflection.

'Picture in the mind'

"You want to paint a picture in the mind of your listeners, so they can see it," she said. "If you paint the way you see it, your listeners will believe your story."

Kibibi Ajanku stepped through tribal dances that originated centuries ago in Africa. The founder of the Sankofa dance troupe believes in "reaching back to move forward," she said. Drummers pounded out ancient rhythms as she urged students to focus on the spirit of the music.

"In the Western world, we are so into the feel-good that we forget to dive into the essence," Ajanku said.

Sakim, a Native American tribal king and medicine man, gave Creek language lessons and imparted Native American wisdom.

Mary Johns, a Seminole from the Florida Everglades, wove life lessons into basket classes.

"To some this is just a basket and nothing more," Johns said. "To me, it is a sharing of culture. It is important to carry on tradition and preserve our language and people, to keep things we have always made going."

Reveling in art

As students turned thread and sweet grass, which Johns brought from Florida, into colorful baskets, they fell into an easy banter reminiscent of quilting bees.

"There is nothing you teach yourself," Johns said. "There is always someone you must learn from. And, you learn something about yourself because you tried."

Her lesson is the essence of Common Ground.

"What better opportunity is there to learn something new?" Gallery said. "We are reveling here in wonderful music and art."

Concerts are at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at Alumni Hall on the campus. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for children. Information: 857-2771.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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