Thursday, July 1, 2010
To toast Independence Day, the Esalen International Arts Festival celebrates not one country, but the world’s 192 nations. The three-day explosion of arts, music and culture represents a typically unique approach for the Big Sur Spirit Garden organizing the event – and a rare chance for the public to visit Esalen’s grounds.
Spirit Garden, a venue-gallery-organization-creativity incubator of its own, organizes the annual festival at Esalen’s 30-acre sanctuary on the Big Sur coastline, assembling intensive creative workshops alongside a spectrum of performances, many featuring artists in both teaching and performing roles.
“Our vision is to bring artists, dancers and musicians from all over the world to one place,” says Jayson Fann, founder and director of Big Sur Spirit Garden. “We’re using arts as a medium to bridge cultures.”
Fann started the festival in 2003, and since then it has hosted artists and performers from over 50 different countries, Fann says. This year’s festival will double as a tribute to Afro-Cuban jazz drummer Francisco Aguabella, who was set to headline the festival but passed away at age 84 on May 7 after a battle with cancer. As an artist who collaborated with a broad range of musicians for decades, Aguabella was not only a skilled performer but, like the celebration itself, a channel for underappreciated music.
“Making this festival a tribute to Francisco is very appropriate,” Fann says. “He was a master of his style, and was one of those few people who took residence here and really exposed Afro-Cuban music to a new generation of young musicians.”
In celebration of Aguabella’s legacy and accomplishments, Cuban performers Jesus Diaz and Pedro Aguilar will lead a workshop on traditional techniques, strokes, and basic patterns for conta, batá and other hand-percussion instruments.
“Presenting anything at Esalen is a really powerful experience. It’s really a unique occasion, and I love the festival.”
Visitors can also explore the creative corners of their minds through workshops focused on singing, poetry writing, filmmaking and general artistic spirit, with opportunities to learn from experts in their respective fields. Renée Wilson, best known for her role as Raelette Pat Lyle in the film Ray, will cover the basics of improvisatory sound and voice technique, while independent filmmaker Bella Shing leads workshop participants to make their own film in any genre.
Performers who take over the stage on Saturday afternoon represent countries such as Haiti, Colombia, Kenya and South Africa, and will display hip-hop dance-theater, poetry performance activism, jazz, blues and reggae. In addition to shows by workshop leaders like Brooklyn-based Climbing PoeTree and reggae-soul purveyor Rocky Dawuni, other artists such as L.A.-based Antics Hip Hop Dance Theater Company and vocal duo Ma Muse perform.
Saturday’s show is an exceptional chance for locals to visit the retreat site, since it is rarely open to the public otherwise – something not lost on the artists.
“Presenting anything at Esalen is a really powerful experience,” says Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo, a Nigerian-American slam poet and musician who will lead a workshop and perform on Saturday. “Esalen doesn’t often open its doors to such a huge crowd at one time – it’s really a unique occasion, and I love the festival.”
Okoawo, who was runner-up at the 2009 Individual World Poetry Slam, will incorporate both poetry and music into her performance on Saturday, a combination that she says “creates a diverse experience for the audience.”
It’s all part of Fann’s effort to bring a whole spectrum of artists to share their efforts.
“We’re trying to bring people to the stage that one might not otherwise see together,” Fann says.
Spirit Garden founder Fann, an avid musician and artist whose “human nests” dot the Central Coast, credits his love of travel and personal passion for art and culture as the reason behind such an ambitious collection of performers year after year.
The festival’s rich offerings also extend to other senses; in addition to the audio and visual opportunities, Esalen’s chef collective will take taste buds through a spread of kales and greens plucked from their own lush gardens, fresh line-caught local fish from AA Sport Fishing’s Jerry Wetle (the kitchen anticipates wild sea bass and halibut served with stone fruit and heirloom tomato salsas), zucchini bread, lemonade and Esalen spring water, all included in the price of admission and served al fresco, farmers market style.
“Art and music is the perfect medium to bring people together,” Fann says. “And food. Who doesn’t love food?”