David Michael Miller
The Handphibians will transport the crowd to Rio.
The Marquette Waterfront Festival isn't just the little sister of La Fete de Marquette. It's the most meta of local events: a neighborhood festival to celebrate the idea of neighborhood festivals. This year, it's also a celebration of Latin music, with bands from Chile, Austin and Madison on hand to show just how fun cumbia, maracatu and other south-of-the-border sounds can be when played outside.
As Bob Queen, the guy who books the bands, manages the stage and oversees fundraising for the fest, points out, enjoying Latin American culture is also a way of celebrating Madison, whose ties to Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia grow each year thanks to immigrants, university students and other world travelers.
Despite America's rich history of immigration and acculturation, the idea of celebrating newcomers may rub some people the wrong way. This won't faze the fest one bit, though. While this party celebrates physical pleasures such as sunshine and fresh air, it was founded upon challenging people's cross-cultural comfort level.
"We started the Waterfront Festival 21 years ago because we wanted to do something to celebrate our neighborhood. The [Marquette neighborhood] wasn't fashionable back then, so we had to find a way to get people out to see our sensibilities and sample our restaurants," Queen says of the festival's origins.
In other words, the fest was a political act, using music to draw folks to the other side of the tracks and interact with people they once perceived as mysterious, even threatening, due to geography, cultural difference or socioeconomic status.
Queen says that bringing world music to Yahara Place Park helps make it easier for people with limited cash to have a multicultural learning experience.
"We want to bring the world, and a sense of global, to our community, to our neighborhood, and one way we can do this is with music," he says. "We can't always afford to travel to faraway places, but people from all over the world will come to us, and we can learn from that, too."
So who's doing the teaching at this year's fest? Local Afropop wonders Kikeh Mato will get the crowd's minds and bodies moving on Saturday, June 12, as will local klezmer fanatics Yid Vicious and from-Russia-with-love five-piece Optometri. A funky Latin orchestra called Grupo Fantasma will lead the lessons that night, blending the African, European and indigenous influences that shape Latin music with the Tex-Mex trappings of their Austin, Texas, hometown. Meanwhile, Chico Trujillo will make ska out of Colombian cumbia, and the Handphibians will transport the crowd to Rio with some magical rhythms from Brazil.
Part of the magic of the Handphibians, two dozen local percussion players who join forces to learn Brazilian music and share it with the community, stems from the fact that their tunes are designed for outdoor celebrations.
"All the music we do is supposed to be played at parties like Waterfront Fest. It's loud and fun, the kind of stuff that makes people want to jump up and down and dance and go crazy," says Handphibians co-leader Johanna Coenen.
Lately, the ensemble has been particularly keen on maracatu, fast-paced dance music from northeastern Brazil that's making a big splash in New York and L.A. at the moment. Coenen says the Waterfront Fest is a great chance to get to know the genre without buying a plane ticket.
"People are just starting to understand [maracatu] here," she says. "It's not as popular as samba, but they may have heard the beat before. Even if they haven't, they'll like it: It's really, really fun music that's great for spazzing out to."
Sunday, June 13, will feature Nigerian drummer extraordinaire Tony Allen, who helped bring Afrobeat to the masses as part of Fela Kuti's band, as well as folky, Toronto-based indie songsters Great Lakes Swimmers, local bluegrass-and-Americana six-piece the Oak Street Ramblers and several others.
While Sunday's bands don't play mambo or mariachi, they're also sure to get the crowd smiling, spazzing and shakin' it, all in the name of community. Jeff Kunkle, bassist for the Oak Street Ramblers, says his group is bursting at the seams with east-side pride, which is bound to translate into a lively set at the fest.
The band's act, which began as a beer-drenched, guitar-heavy garage jam on the corner of Oak and Union, grew into an inspired patchwork of Appalachian melodies popular at east-side watering holes such as Alchemy and the Malt House.
"This festival does such a nice job of bridging the local and the international, so we're really grateful to be considered part of the local. We're about as local as you can get, and so are the taverns where we play, so neighborhood pride is our thing," Kunkle says. "The more of it we bring, the more of it our fans will bring, too, and that's a big part of what this festival's all about."