Black Mountain’s LEAF Festival celebrates the world and its people
You’d be hard pressed to find a place as picturesque as the grounds that host the LEAF Festival.
Held at the home of the former Black Mountain College, few gatherings boast the array of culture exposure and musical variance that this festival owns.
While the Appalachian mountain town might seem to be a surprising locale for a world music festival, it’s actually a fitting place for such an event. Much like the former illustrious art college that earned stays from such artists as Elaine de Kooning (abstract expressionist), Robert Rauschenberg (influencer of the Pop Art movement) and John Cage (composer), the festival serves as an oasis of expression and comfort for people from all walks of life.
As soon as you arrive, you realize there’s something special going on. The Fall 2016 festival billed itself as a “Carnival of Wonder,” and no matter if the sun is shining or the moon is your only guiding light, there is plenty going on.
People are dressed up. Some wear extravagant pajamas (it’s cold for the October version), and some wear neon lined dance attire. Tents are everywhere, both from vendors and attendees.
At first glance it looks like a bit of a mess, but it’s actually one of the smoothest and most eloquently directed festivals I’ve attended.
Part of that seems to come from the communal atmosphere that is created by trusting people to keep it together and smile. In this case, diversity comes with comfort, and that’s quite an accomplishment.
The venues vary as much as the music on the lineup. There’s a cozy barn where you’ll find Americana and Bluegrass charm and a recreation center where Contra (and other dance) is held throughout the weekend (these people are serious, be careful).
Then there’s the main stage, which housed the largest acts like Balkan Beat Box, Beats Antique, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Third World as well as up and coming artists like The Hip Abduction. There’s also a jam tavern and a family stage and several pop up venues that take shape throughout the weekend.
The festival takes place twice each year (once in May, once in October).
The fall installment of LEAF marked the 43rd such gathering, and it’s plain to see how the organizers are able to get by with having two per year.
It’s a creative space and I imagine it has been since the famed college was created with 21 students by John A. Rice in 1933.
It’s no big deal to see Tibetan Monks walking around the festival grounds while you’re waiting in line to get coffee.
Yes, it’s a very amorphous experience.
If you fancy a fire, you can go back to your campsite. If you’re looking to move around a little, there are hiking trails and lakes for canoeing or swimming. There’s even a zipline for the little ones of for those just young at heart.
The festival isn’t all about the fun, though.
LEAF Community Arts is a non-profit organization that connects cultures and creates community through music and arts. And that’s a year round gig. There are seven tiers of membership if you’d like to be a part of LEAF (I’m taking a break to sign up as I write this). While the two festivals are the lynchpins of the collective, there are four separate entities.
There’s LEAF School and Streets, which uses cultural arts programs to bridge cultures and create community-building experiences with a focus on upcoming youth.
Then there’s LEAF International, which is dedicated to cultural preservation, exchange, and fostering global citizenship. This is where LEAF collaborates with international communities to support Culture Keepers who teach local youth their traditional arts in places like Rwanda and Haiti.
And there’s LEAF Downtown, a celebration of creativity, diversity and families in the heart of Asheville, NC. This signature and inclusive community event encourages interpersonal exchange, cultural awareness, artistic excellence and welcoming spaces for all walks of life.
All things considered, LEAF is as important as ever in today’s cultural landscape.
It’s comforting to know that twice a year, those is East Tennessee can follow the French Broad River just past Asheville and find jewels from all over the world, just a couple of hours away.