One of the great things about the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival is that there has always been room for acts that are outside of the box. Acts that are hard to describe.
In the past couple of years, bands like Canailles and Baskery and writers like Wendy McNeill and Evalyn Parry have helped to stretch our thinking about musical and lyrical innovation.
This year, we are going to keep that tradition. Two of the acts to watch are Leonard Sumner and the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra. They couldn’t come from places more different.
Leonard Sumner comes from the Little Saskatchewan First Nation in Manitoba. Manitoba is a beautiful place, but there are large swaths of the province that are prone to flooding. If you are Winnipeg, the province builds a ditch around the whole city to divert the flood waters north. If you are the Little Saskatchewan First Nation, you take your chances. In 2011, the province diverted historic flood waters away from Winnipeg-and right into the Interlachen area. Seven thousand people were evacuated. Sixteen hundred of them have still not returned and are living in limbo in Winnipeg.
For Leonard Sumner, it wasn’t nature that took his home and his community, it was the water management policy. “Kid’s that left when they were 13 are now 18. Some of the elders that were evacuated have died, without ever seeing their homes again,” he recently told CBC radio.
In happier times, Leonard listened to oldies radio and taught himself how to play guitar by watching YouTube. Country music is the unofficial traditional music of the Western Canadian First Nations. Leonard cut his teeth on Dolly Parton and Dwight Yoakum. Eventually though, a young man has to rebel. Living with his head back on the reserve, but with his feet in Winnipeg, he gravitated to hip-hop.
The result is a unique blend–hip-hop lyrics and rhythms sung out over country chords and an acoustic guitar. He has a sweet voice that is at odds with the politics in the lyric. His voice has a hint of anger, a dash of longing and ton of truth. He also has a great way with an audience. He comes by it honestly. When he was starting out, he performed in front of any audience that would have him, entered song contests on Treaty Days and played open stages. It honed his ability to show himself as he is.
Last fall, when I was asking people about who was turning heads out west, his was the first name out of the mouth of almost everyone I asked. Without exception, everyone mentioned how real he was and described his effect on an audience.
Music is a migratory animal. Its pace, for most of human history, has been slow. With the advent of radio and mass migrations of people, the pace picked up considerably. Today, a musician’s ability to gather influences from almost any culture has never been greater, so hybrids begin to appear–hip-hop meets country in central Manitoba, for example.
During the 1940s in Columbia, a courtship music that was originally found in the Afro-Caribbean communities began to migrate. African rhythms moved inland to meet indigenous instruments and dance. Like most grass roots music, cumbia (or kumbia), was frowned upon by polite society. Like most things frowned upon by polite society, it became wildly popular. By the mid-1950s, there were cumbia bands throughout Central and South America. By 2006, there was a cumbia category in the Latin Grammys.
The Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra take the evolution of the hybrid one step further. They have blended kumbia with balkan music and the result is a wild, unrestrained whirlwind of dance and virtuosity that is impossible to resist. It’s Afro-Columbian percussion, with a powerful Balkan style brass section, topped of with a Roma fiddle and a lithe dance troop with serpentine moves, they are a rollicking, roiling wave of colour and sound. It’s not just a performance–it is a spectacle in the best sense of the word.
Their base is Montreal, as it should be. The city has gained a reputation as a cultural melting pot. The clubs along St Laurent have been incubating a crossover world music scene for the past few years. Young Montrealers have embraced the scene. The dancing has been known to spill out onto the street.
Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra have toured across three continents, playing over 140 dates in the three years since they got together. They are playing a full slate of the Canadian festivals this year–a hard thing to do with an ensemble this big. It speaks to the excitement they are generating.
They are not shy and they throw down the musical gauntlet, “We dance. And we will make your body and your mind dance in overwhelmingly beautiful ways.”
We are pleased to serve you Leonard Sumner and The Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra fresh out of the box at this year’s Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival. You’ll find Summerfolk at Kelso Beach Park on August 19, 20, 21 this year. Information on all the performers, tickets and more can be found at summerfolk.org or by phoning our office at 519-371-2995.