Summertime and the music’s easy 

Beyond such headlining acts as Richard Thompson, Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, and the Roy Hargrove Quintet, the 20th annual Detroit Festival of the Arts blows up like polychrome batik. Flamenco dancers, French emcees, ambling folk singers, Caribbean guitar players, blues guitar stingers and Ethiopian reggae singers — if there's a stiltwalker playing Motown covers on a lute, then the festival will be better than any beer tent 'n' T-shirt booth fair you hit all summer. Even without the stilts, it's a Putumayo compilation come to life with nearly 60 performances. Here we've singled out a few noteworthy artists performing.

Teddy Afro

It's not so far from Ethiopia to Woodward Avenue

The title "New Bob Marley" springs up every five years or so, usually applied to an artist with equal amounts of political, spiritual and rhythmic verve. For Ethiopian reggae star Teddy Afro, it's not about people calling him the next Bob Marley. It's about being worthy of the comparison.

Afro is already a star in Ethiopia. His single "Tarik Tesera" ("History is Made") became a nationwide anthem after Ethiopian distance runner Kenenisa Bekele won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. But his international presence is growing too — the tour leading up to his June 11 performance at the Festival of the Arts includes stops in South Africa, Israel, Holland, France and Norway.

Afro's breezy blend of reggae and East African pop is certainly catchy; "Promise" and "Eyanbu Eskista" blend pleasantly meandering reggae rhythms with expressive vocals, traditional instrumentation and the sheen of modern production. Like Marley, it's Afro's earnest pleas for peace that get his fans going. Ethiopia is embroiled in a border dispute with neighboring Eritrea, and is struggling with ethnic and social divisions within. But with Yasstesseriyal ("It Heals") and other albums, Afro's trying to show the way to tolerance; he's challenging his listeners to put themselves in their neighbors' shoes. Though he sings entirely in Ahmaric, the melodies are often strong enough to get his point across.

Local educator Saba Gebrai has long been an activist for peace in the Horn of Africa region, and has continued to raise awareness of African issues in Detroit. She qualifies Afro's music like this: "The pain, struggle and redemption of the characters in his songs can help us challenge the age-old, long-rooted stereotypes and misunderstandings that have always separated us from one another," she says. "When Teddy makes everyone in the same room or at the same concert happy, he's making us understand that our differences are OK in a way. Like Bob Marley, he's saying that we can work things out."

Or, to put it another way, everything's going to be alright. —Ed Hancock

At 7:30 p.m., Sunday, June 11, at on the MASCO/Metro Times Stage.

 

Steppin' In It

Not folk music but music for folks

Growing up in southwest Detroit, Steppin' In It bassist Dominic Suchyta listened to as much MC5 as he did John Lee Hooker or Howlin' Wolf. So while his band plays roots music with the homey feel of old timey country, swing music and the blues, he has an affinity for what moves people in the D. "I know it's raw music of any kind that runs in the city's musical veins," he says. In addition to Suchyta's standup bass, the Lansing-based Steppin' In It features the guitar and vocals of Josh Davis, Andy Wilson on harmonica, accordion and trumpet, and Joe Wilson on steel guitar, dobro and trombone. It all adds up to a sound that's as comfortable with folk and bluegrass elements as it is with the finger-snapping R&B of Louis Jordan. "Crowds love the variety of instruments and the variety of music we play," Suchyta says. And each region of the country has a different favorite. "In Texas," he says, "they love the steel guitar and Cajun accordion."

With a trailer full of vintage equipment and stock of originals as well as classy covers — they infuse Mississippi John Hurt's "Candy Man Blues" with their own particular skip — Steppin' In It has a seemingly endless supply of ways to entertain. And the variety works because, at the heart of it, they know it's really about pop music.

"Folk music really was America's first form of pop music," Suchyta says. "The tunes were simple enough to learn quickly and were swapped all over the country." The quartet wants to revive that sense of community, and maybe a little of what America's lost over the years. They like to think that the simple pleasure of a good song can offer solace from life's everyday hardships, especially when it's a jaunty, Django-influenced number like "Nobody's Sweetheart" or the gentle country ballad "My Setting Sun." They also like the tarnished romance of America's mom-and-pop diners and roadside motels. Steppin' In It's Web site features a Spoon Atlas, with their picks for the best eats all over Michigan. The band's local favorite? Duly's Coney Island in Suchyta's old southwest-side stomping grounds.

At 4 p.m., Friday, June 9 at in the LaSalle Bank Music & Literary Lounge.

 

Rachael Davis

A voice that comes in colors

"There was always music in my house growing up," Rachael Davis says, speaking of her childhood in Lansing. "All kinds of music." Then she pauses, and considers. "Maybe that accounts for my eclectic style." Though her own songs are drifting, longing things with elements nicked from both folk and pop — guided always by her bright, clear vocals — for the Festival of the Arts Davis will perform with Steppin' In It as Shout Sister Shout. The quintet is a tribute to the smoky, sophisticated sound of 1930s and '40s jazz, with plenty of influence from Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole Trio and Sarah Vaughan, and it's a trip to hear Davis channel those old greats. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a bunch of guys playing the hell out of vintage instruments as backup. "I love so many styles of music I can't imagine sticking to the singer-songwriter thing," she says. "I'm always hearing new things and am influenced by the new things I hear."

Rachael Davis (with Steppin' In It backing) performs Friday, June 9, at 5:30 p.m. in the LaSalle Bank Music & Literary Lounge.

 

WEI

'Growing up in China we thought the only music in the U.S. was country, like John Denver'

A lineup featuring an erhu, mandolin and bluegrass guitar? Don't say the Festival of the Arts isn't pushing the artistic envelope. Local trio WEI calls it alt-chamber music, and that's about right. With Xiao Dong Wei's two-stringed Chinese violin carrying the melody lines and the rootsy jangle of Mitch Matthews' guitar and Paul Ossy's mandolin underneath, WEI's sound travels easily between ancient, contemporary and dusty front porch. There are similarities to composer and bassist Edgar Meyer's Appalachian Journey and Short Trip Home albums, where he brought such classical musicians as violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Yo-Yo Ma together with bluegrass players Mike Marshall and Sam Bush. "Evening Fragrance," for example, unfolds like an old-time parlor waltz, but for the erhu's pristine warble, which gives the piece a striking exoticism. But WEI's penchant for covering Western pop songs also gives their sound the easygoing, unbuttoned feel of a kitchen table jam session. On "Vanessa's Song," an interpretation of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" WEI's ehru emulates Robert Plant's caterwauling vocal.

Wei was a child prodigy on both the erhu and guzheng (a type of zither) in her native China, leaving her childhood home at 11 to attend Beijing's prestigious Central Conservatory of Music, where she studied for more than 10 years. She originally planned on being a classical musician. But after immigrating to the United States in 1998 and absorbing all kinds of different music, Wei decided to experiment. She did record one classically minded erhu album. But after meeting Matthews and Ossy, the concept of mixing the graceful tones of the erhu with the rambling, bluegrass-minded guitar and mandolin seemed to just click.

It's all part of what she loves about living in Detroit and the United States. "Growing up in China we thought the only music in the U.S. was country, like John Denver," Wei says. "And maybe 'Say You Say Me' by Lionel Richie. That's all they let us hear. Now, I hear music everywhere. In America, there's more space for music. There's more variety." And WEI definitely counts as that.

At 1:15 p.m., Sunday, June 11, at on the Casino Windsor Music Café stage.

 

June 9-11, at Warren and Cass avenues in Midtown Detroit on the campus of Wayne State University. More information, call 313-577-5088 or see detroitfestival.com.

 

Friday, June 9
MASCO/Metro Times Stage
"All That Jazz" presented by the Arts League of Michigan
5:30 p.m. - Tumbao Bravo (Ann Arbor, Cuban Jazz)
7:30 p.m. - Kenn Cox Quartet (Detroit, Jazz pianist)
9:30 p.m. - Roy Hargrove Quintet (New York, Jazz Trumpter/Composer)

Wayne/State WDET Stage
"WDET Friday Night Festival Birthday Party!"
4 p.m. - WDET-FM Radio Host "20 GRAND" Music Motown Mix
4:45 p.m. - Soweto Street Beat "Gum Boot Dance" (South Africa, Gum Boot Dance)
5:30 p.m. - Magic Kompa Band (Michigan, Haitian Kompa Music)
7 p.m. - Festival 20th Birthday Celebration!!!
7:30 p.m. - Children of the Revolution (Seattle, Contemporary World Music)

LaSalle Bank Music & Literary Lounge
4 p.m. - Steppin' In It (Lansing, MI, American Roots Music)
5:30 p.m. - Shout Sister Shout: Rachael Davis (Cadillac, MI, Blues/Jazz Vocalist)
7:30 p.m. - Tartan Terrors (Nova Scotia, Celtic Music/Dance/Comedy)

Casino Windsor Music Cafe
4 p.m. - Jamison (Rock & Soul)
5:30 p.m. - The Biddies (Folk Diva Trio)
7:30 p.m. - Blanche (Gothic Country Music)
9:30 p.m. - La Vieille Ecole (France, Hip-Hop)

Saturday, June 10
MASCO/Metro Times Stage
3:30 p.m. - ODU Afrobeeat Orchestra
5:15 p.m. - Thornetta Davis (Detroit, Funky Blues Diva)
7:30 p.m. - Bettye LaVette (Detroit/California Soul Singer)
9:30 p.m. - Solomon Burke (California, King of Rock & Soul)

Wayne State/WDET Stage
Noon - DSA Vison Male Ensemble
1:50 p.m. - Cornmeal (progressive bluegrass)
3:50 p.m. - Children of the Revolution (Seattle, World Beat)
5:50 p.m. - Aurelio Martinez (Honduras, Honduran Garifuna Soul)
7:50 p.m. - Richard Thompson (England British Folk/Rock Icon)

LaSalle Bank Music & Literary Lounge
LitFest noon-5 p.m. - presented by Springfed Arts
Noon - Inside Out Poets featuring Dr. Terry Blackhawk
12:45 p.m. - Michael Jones, The Dancing Poet (Detroit)
1 p.m. - Metro Detroit Writer & Public Open Mic
2:30 p.m. - Brian Gilmore (Washington, DC)
2:50 p.m. - DJ Renegade (Washington, DC)
3:15 p.m. - Barry Wallenstein (NYC) and The Magic Poetry Band (Detroit)
4 p.m. - Annie Gallup (Ann Arbor)
4:30 p.m. - Dick Siegel (Ann Arbor)
5:45 p.m. - Charlotte Blake Alston, "Telling on the Downbeat", with the John Blake, Jr. Quartet
7:30 p.m. - John Blake Jr. Quartet (Washington DC, Jazz)

Casino Windsor Music Cafe
1:15 p.m. - Victor Ghannam (Middle Eastern Innovations)
3:15 p.m. - Luke Sayers & The Last to Know (American Roots Music)
5:15 p.m. - Hot Club of Detroit (Detroit, Swinging Detroit Jazz)
7:15 p.m. - Tartan Terrors (Nova Scotia, Celtic Music/Dance/Comedy)
9:30 p.m. - Wallace Coleman (Cleveland OH, Blues)

Sunday, June 11
MASCO/Metro Times Stage
3 p.m. - Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Detroit, Classical)
• Festival Overture (Shostakovich)
• Hungarian March from La Damnation de Foust (Berlioz)
• Overture to The Barber of Seville (Rossini)
• Hungarian Dance No. 6 (Brahms)
• Morning Mood from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 (Grieg)
• Thunder and Lightening Polka (Strauss)
• Blue Tango (Anderson)
• Franz von Suppe (von Suppe) and the Finale from Symphony No.4 by Tchaikovsky
5:30 p.m. - The Gospel Truth (Renaissance Unity Choir)
7:30 p.m. - Teddy Afro (Ethiopia, Reggae)

Wayne State/WDET Stage
12:50 p.m. - Mosaic Singers (Detroit, Celebrated Youth Ensemble)
2:50 p.m. - Aurelio Martinez (Honduras, Garifuna Soul)
4:50 p.m. - Perla Batalla (Los Angeles, World Music Vocalist)
6:50 p.m. - Quetzal (Los Angeles, New Chicano Music)

LaSalle Bank Music & Literary Lounge
LitFest noon-5:00pm - presented by Springfed Arts
12 p.m. - Metro Detroit Writers Award Winners
1:30 p.m. - Keir Jackson (Michigan)
1:50 p.m. - Anca Vlasopolos & Christopher Kreipke (Detroit)
2:15 p.m. - Arthur Pfister (New Orleans) and The Magic Poetry Band (Detroit)
3 p.m. - Mikhail Horowitz (Woodstock, NY)
3:25 p.m. - Jabiya E. Dragonsun and Friends of the Family (Detroit)
4:15 p.m. - John D. Lamb (Royal Oak)
4:30 p.m. - The Chris Chandler & David Roe Show (The Streets of America)
5:15 p.m. - Detroit Working Writers (Spring Readings 2006)
6:30 p.m. - The Wood Brothers (California, American Roots Rock)

Casino Windsor Music Cafe
1:15 p.m. - Xiao Dong Wei (Alternative Chamber)
3:15 p.m. - La Vieille Ecole (France, Hip-Hop)
5:15 p.m. - James Blood Ulmer (New York, Blues vocal/guitar)
7:30 p.m. - Susheela Raman (India, E.Indian World Vocalist)

Johnny Loftus is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to jloftus@metrotimes.com

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