VIRGINIA KEY GRASSROOTS FESTIVAL

Published on March 4th, 2022

DONNA THE BUFFALO by Rich Levine

Once upon a time, a band from a small town put on a music festival and donated proceeds to organizations fighting AIDS. The vibrations were so good at the inaugural Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance in 1991 in upstate New York that the founders, Americana band Donna the Buffalo, made it a regular thing.

As attendance grew and word spread, companion events sprouted — one on a farm in North Carolina and one near the shore in Miami. The ninth Virginia Key GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance takes place March 11-13 with weekend campers welcome and the band that started it all, Donna the Buffalo, headlining.

As the flagship event in Trumansburg, N.Y., prepares for its 30th edition this summer, GrassRoots spokesperson Russ Friedell tells PureHoney how a version landed in South Florida.

“The festivals were going so well we wanted to make them a seasonal thing,” Friedell says. Looking for a winter location they found Historic Virginia Key Park — isolated, with camping, yet just a couple bridges away from downtown Miami.

Once a segregated beach for Black Miamians, the park had hosted the Bob Marley Caribbean Festival in 2002 — the same year the site joined the National Register of Historic Places. But when GrassRoots settled in at Virginia Key beginning in 2012, other festivals followed — most famously Ultra in 2019.

Friedell is quick to note the differences: “This festival is world music-focused and family-friendly. All kids under 16 get in free. We have yoga, dance workshops, and health and wellness vendors.”

“What differentiates us from other festivals,” he says, “is this is really about the audience coming together as a community. It keeps alive that generations-old vibe of a community dancing together under a tent.”

Along with the zydeco-infused Americana of the festival’s visiting headliner, there is a big South Florida contingent in the 30-act lineup — and a unifying theme of Latin rhythm. “When we’re in New York or North Carolina we feature a lot of African bands,” says Friedell. “When we’re in Miami we can connect with Latin music.”

“I’ve always been amazed at the amount of talent in Miami,” he says.

Cortadito by Luis Olazabal

Among the locals at GrassRoots this year, Locos Por Juana mix bilingual lyrics with cumbia, champeta and Afro-Colombian rhythms, with the occasional snippet of hip-hop like in “For the Ladies,” their collaboration with rapper Talib Kweli.

Afrobeta — spouses Cristina “Cuci” Amador and Tony Smurphio — marry electro-pop beats to a danceable Afro-Latino pulse. The instrumental quartet Electric Kif play “post-nuclear fusion,” in the words of bassist Rodrigo Zambrano —“electronic music with analog instruments” and “progressive rock with funk and jazz.”

“It’s modern, weird, and not commercial,” Zambrano tells PureHoney.

Miami Killian Senior High School alumnus Roosevelt Collier, famed for his pedal steel guitar playing, has shared stages with B.B. King and The Allman Brothers Band. Elastic Bond are soulful in both Spanish and English. Juke call themselves “anti-blues” although it’s clear from listening that they’re not anti-harmonica. The idea, singer Eric Garcia tells PureHoney, is “something more groove-oriented that wasn’t just a guy singing his complaints” and an audience willing to forgo “traditional blues songs played traditional ways.”

Electric Piquete by Edwin Cardona

Los Wizzards conjure with three horns, bass, drums, cuatro and a beatboxer on vocals. Electric Piquete, led by bassist Michael Mut are Latin funk freaks — heavy on percussion and melodious horn play. Jose Albizu leads a jazz trio influenced equally by Dizzy Gillespie and Buena Vista Social Club. Jesus Hidalgo is a Venezuelan shaman and musician scheduled to both perform and lead a workshop on healing.

It’s a lineup that attracts “communities that don’t come together ordinarily,” Friedell says, “and gets everyone dancing together.”

Singer and guitarist Matthew Sabatella, who will lead the old-timey Rambling String Band at GrassRoots, tells PureHoney that “organizers have created their own definition of grassroots music. It’s not a single genre. They pick up artists in each location that embody the local culture. Then they bring some of those artists to perform at the other festivals.”

“And it all seems to fit,” he says.

Festival gates open 9am Friday, March 11. Single day tickets start at $25. virginiakeygrassroots.org
Donna the Buffalo, Locos Por Juana, Roosevelt Collier and the GrassRoots Get Down, Jesus Hidalgo, Los Wizzards, Electric Kif, MannySwagg, Cortadito, Fabi, Elastic Bond, Afrobeta, Richie Stearns, Pepe Montes Conjunto, Itawe & Pockit!, Jose Albizu Trio, Juke, Lemon City Trio, House Savage, Miamibloco, Twyn, Spanglish City, Oigo, Electric Piquete, Machaka Band, Tyler Westcott, Maddy Walsh & Friends, Dom Martyr, Miami Room, School of Rock N. Miami, Jody Gaskin, Matthew Sabatella & Rambling String Band ~ David Rolland

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