There's Common Ground in the arts

Festival and classes offer varied cultural education for visitors, participants

July 12, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff

An 11-year-old fiddler, banjo music and a Kiowa-Comanche Indian blues singer helped set the mood yesterday to close out the second American Music & Arts Festival at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

The two-day event also marked the finale of the Common Ground on the Hill program at Western Maryland College, where about 370 students spent a week with 110 artists from around the world.

They were celebrating "the common ground found in the traditional arts," according to Walt Michael, a musician and the college's artist in residence, who founded Common Ground five years ago.

Michael said he's learned that 90 percent of the people coming to the classes and the festival were inspired by word of mouth.

"Last year it felt very stark," said Michael, but this year, "I'm pretty happy with it. People who have been here five years are saying it's the best ever -- and new people are saying it's an experience like they never had."

The fiddler was Claude Martin, of the Montgomery County community of Boyds, sending out the plaintive strains of "My Old Kentucky Home." Although he is only 11, he is a veteran of the Common Ground program -- attending classes since its first year.

"I started [fiddling] at Common Ground, mostly old-timey and Irish," he said. "I've been there ever since."

A hot act

The festival opened on an overcast Saturday. Yesterday's sunshine posed an unlikely problem. One of the most popular acts, the Sankofa Dance Theater of Washington, found the wooden stage too hot for its barefoot African drumming and dancing.

The crisis was resolved when the troupe moved to ground level. The shift didn't put the next performer, Tom Ware, the Kiowa-Comanche bluesman, too far behind schedule.

The Rev. Mary D. Carter of Randallstown settled in to see Sankofa after collecting about eight family members, including her daughter Lucretia Carter, a medical student in Washington, and her mother, Bertie D. Wilson, 73, of New Windsor.

Non-musical arts were represented in booths of painting, photography, jewelry and native crafts lining the walkways of the 19th century farm on South Center Street in Westminster.

`Banjo for Breakfast'

About 40 early birds sprawled under the trees for "Banjo for Breakfast," with musicians Bill Keith, Reed Martin, Bob Zentz and Dr. Richard Wilkie, all instructors at Common Ground.

And what better place than a farm? A rooster crowed on cue during the ancient number, "Cluck Old Hen."

Keith, 59, of Woodstock, N.Y., played in 1963 with the late Bill Monroe -- the father of bluegrass. He has developed a banjo style of his own, and was teaching for a second year.

"I'm enjoying it more and more," Keith said. "The festival makes a great culmination of a great week, to see people of different musical backgrounds, history and cultures. Typically, a festival tends to be one-dimensional: bluegrass and nothing else, old-timey and nothing else, blues and nothing else. I'm most at home playing bluegrass, but I like jazz, pop.

"I have to say I'm looking forward to the day that a sufficient number of people have discovered this festival and planned to come to check it out."

Festivals take at least two to three years to build, he noted. "I'd love to see that happen here. It shows the power of Common Ground," he said.

Laurie Precht, 35, had set up a cool spot under a maple tree, with paper-plate wind-catchers flying. They had been made by her 4 1/2-year-old son, Geoffrey and by Abby Hart, 3, the daughter of Nancy Shaw Hart, 32, of Westminster. Geoffrey was a star of the dance on Saturday night.

"People just had smiles on their faces for three hours," Shaw Hart said of Saturday night's festivities, ranging from Virginia reels to contra and hat dances.

"You come to something like this," Precht said, "and you don't hear parents yelling at their children. You don't see people scowling."

Glen Yakushiji, 42, of Washington, volunteered at the T-shirt and record tent. Like many others, he said he learned of Common Ground through a friend -- and will be back next year.

"I came to see and wandered from class to class" during the week, Yakushiji said. "From African drumming to bluegrass banjo to amazing blues to Celtic and folk -- and that's one day."

At a world-crafts booth nearby, musician Zentz from the banjo breakfast was tuning a hook harp from Kenya -- an "akamba" of gourd and skin, decorated with cowrie shells, and "an ancestor of the banjo," he said.

Scottish invasion

Pete Hawood, his wife, and friends on the Irish drum and pipes came from Glasgow and West Scotland to teach at Common Ground and to play at the festival after meeting founder Michael in Scotland, he said.

Hawood, editor of The Living Tradition magazine, said, "I've seen hundreds of festivals -- and this one is unique. It's a music festival, but there's depth and feeling to it."

"We didn't know much about American politics," Hawood said, but at the Common Ground classes, "we talk to each other and find out who you are -- Native American, African-American. You stay up late into the night, listening to a black American bluesman singing old Scottish songs. There's people here who have the same vision like Martin Luther King had. Everybody's said it's been one of the most exhilarating weeks of their life."

Cultural mix

At the festival office, volunteer Shari Gallery of Augusta, W. Va., said there were about 500 paid admissions -- and that many, or more, instructors, volunteers and family members in attendance.

"Where we live, the population is pretty homogenous," she said, and she wanted her children -- ages 16, 14, and 11-year-old twins -- to meet different people and learn about other cultures.

"That's really what Common Ground is all about," said Gallery. "Music and art is something for people from all backgrounds."

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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