Common Ground enters 2nd decade of activism

April 24, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Like a proud parent watching his baby grow up, Walt Michael ponders the future of Common Ground on the Hill as the music and arts festival enters its second decade of inspiring harmony across racial, cultural and religious lines.

"This is big," the founder and artistic director says as he considers the future of the traditional arts and music program that aims to stamp out intolerance by encouraging people to appreciate their commonalities.

In more than 10 years at the helm of Common Ground's initiatives, Michael said he has witnessed the good that comes from bringing together people from all backgrounds with different talents and interests.

"The arts don't need words," says Michael, a leader in the revival of the hammered dulcimer who still performs regularly. "There's nothing lost in the translation."

But he isn't ready to declare victory in the quest to bridge the gaps in cultural understanding and acceptance.

Common Ground on the Hill is a two-week event that brings hundreds of students and performers from across the world each summer to the quaint Westminster campus of McDaniel College for daily courses in music, dance and writing, as well as evening concerts. Morning yoga sessions are also on the schedule.

In addition to the summer event, Common Ground sponsors a concert series that runs from October through April at the Carroll Arts Center. Recent performances have included Rumisanko, a Latin American folk ensemble whose members are from Bolivia, Chile and the United States; Northern Lights, a bluegrass band from New England; and Guy Davis, an internationally acclaimed blues musician.

Michael, the college's artist-in-residence, says he grew up with the keen understanding of racial inequities and the people who suffered because of them. The son of a Methodist minister who was involved in the civil rights movement, Michael spent his youth volunteering at voter registration events and demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

After more than two decades as a professional musician, he returned to his alma mater with the idea of creating a program that would combine his passions for social justice and the arts in an effort to bridge the gaps of understanding. To accomplish this, he called upon other artists he knew who shared his vision.

"Think globally, act locally," he says.

He bristles at the thought that some people may think the music and arts festival is for artists only. He says it has also been difficult to dispel the mistaken belief that because Common Ground is held on a college campus, its target audience is students.

"It's absolutely open to the public," he says emphatically. "We see ourselves as community-based."

The 11th Common Ground on the Hill is scheduled to run July 3-15.

Music, arts festival

The event is broken down into Traditions Week I and Week II with the signature event, the American Music and Arts festival, sandwiched between the two weeks.

This year's American Music and Arts festival, to be held at the Carroll County Farm Museum, is billed as "a music, dance and art festival ... celebrating the `common ground' found in the traditional arts."

The festival will feature a plethora of musical varieties - folk, blues, latino, celtic, Native American, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, Appalachian old time - as well as dance, world percussion, African drumming, storytelling, poetry, juried arts, crafts and ethnic foods.

The festival's headliners will include Hot Tuna, an acoustic blues duo, and Tom Chapin, a guitar player who has also won several Grammy Awards for his narrations of children's books on tape.

Traditions Week I will feature classes on music, dance, writing and art. Participants can learn about the Underground Railroad, understanding Islam, guitar instruction, the Native American flute, African drumming and dance, Cherokee basketry, journaling, juggling and yoga rhythmics. Many music classes are on tap, including Scottish, gospel, blues, harmony and Icelandic singing.

Week I features lessons on 13 types of guitars, including English, Latin American, blues, rhythm and beginning.

Special topics during Traditions Week I will include the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers, a poetry workshop and a session featuring three disc jockeys playing their favorite tunes.

"A lot of people say, `I'm not artistic,' but this can appeal to all sorts of nonartistic people," Michael said.

During that first week, participants will learn about the history of the Underground Railroad by visiting a site along the route in Frederick County that is Michael's ancestral home. He said a cousin still owns the spring house on the property. Participants will steep themselves in the history, stories and personalities of the Underground Railroad.

Each evening during the first week, participants are invited to join the after-dinner "Interracial Gospel Choir and Orchestra."

Traditions Week II will focus on songwriting, guitar, singing, recording and art.

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