19 June 2008

The Best Semi-Secret Festival on Earth

My favorite secret festival has come and gone once again, leaving me with new cultural impressions, a bit of puzzlement, and a lot of music and laughter ringing in my ears.

The organizers of the Seattle International Children’s Festival aren’t trying to keep it a secret. In fact, they do a great job of spreading the word to area schools, which ship off shouting yellow busloads of kids, filling the theater seats with their noise and energy and fidgeting. Talking, twisting, and being shh’ed by teachers, the kids can seem a little ambivalent about what they’re doing here and what they’re about to see.

It’s exactly the focus on the kids, however, that tends to keep SICF secret. Most shows are held mid-day, when kids are in school and when adults generally toil instead of attending concerts and circus performances. But the festival will gladly sell tickets to those adults willing to pry themselves away from work for an hour or two of entertainment at the hands of some truly compelling global acts.

I attended only two days of the seven-day festival, so there’s much that I missed. Still, I was able to catch five shows (well, okay, four plus one repeat), four of which I enjoyed very much, and one of which failed to connect with me or most of the kids around me.

First, the good. Colombia’s Petrona Martinez and Her Group of Drums were already playing when I slipped past the black curtains that separated the uncharacteristically hot Seattle day from the dark performance hall at the Seattle Center. The three singers and five drummers play Afro-Colombian songs, reflecting their mixed indigenous, African, and European heritage. The drumming was as good as any Latin drumming I’ve seen with the possible exception of Cubans, who are in a class of their own. The group’s songs were varied, from call and response vocals to flute-led instrumentals, but all with an insistent energy that backed up Martinez’s assertion (through a translator) that “dancing is not optional!”

After a short break, Palestinian singer Reem Kelani took the stage. Her band’s cool sophistication was a sharp contrast to the earthy energy of the Colombians, but Kelani established her own claim on the audience’s attention with her first song, a bare vocal piece with clapping and stomping percussion. She followed with he “Galilean Lullaby” before launching into a long raucous dubke (dance) tune that got much of the mixed crowd of kids and adults up and moving.

Kelani is clearly a master organizer/director – not only in leading her band in sometimes unexpected direction, but also in getting the kids to ease from this jubilant dancing to quiet breathing exercises, which she calls chillaxing (chill/relax). Without lecturing, she spoke of the interfaith heritage of Jerusalem then introduced a song based on a poem by Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. Tough to count (17/8 time!) but easy to enjoy, the song is a savory taste of Kelani’s upcoming tribute album to Darwish, who was trained as a Muslim clergyman but was pulled away from the pious life by the allure of music.

“Most of his songs have become pan-Arab classics,” Kelani said in a Spin The Globe radio interview, “and as an Arab musician if you haven’t tackled the Sayyid Darwish repertoire, you still haven’t been initiated.”

Following her set, Kelani called Petrona Martinez back to the stage and their groups merged to perform two more songs, again with much directing and organizing by Kelani and much dancing and clapping from the audience.

Fast-forward two days, and it’s time for SICF’s one-day stand in Tacoma. It’s not the full buffet that’s available in Seattle, but if you time it right, you can get a half-day of work in and still catch three different performances. I caught Petrona Martinez once again, and her group was, if possible, even more energetic and engaging than at the previous show. Kids jammed toward the stage of the Rialto Theater like it was a rock concert, and the musicians obliged, playing drum solos on the edge of the stage and giving high-fives.

I always look forward to the nonmusical events, and two of those were on my list for Tacoma. One was Japanese puppeteer Jo Taira. As the youngest winner ever of Japan’s National Puppet Contest, he’s got puppet cred. His show, however, was quite hit-or-miss. A segment on mouse love – complete with dozens of offspring – was uproarious. But his descents into over-familiar fairytales (Pinocchio, Cinderella) dragged on and on… and my companion turned to me during part of the latter, during which Taira was wearing the iconic (though not glass) high-heeled slippers – and suggested that in another context, this could be a bizarre avant-garde transvestite performance art thing. His musical choices were odd as well, particularly the inclusion of Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite.” The silence and fidgeting of many of the kids showed that we weren’t alone in not getting it.

Finally, the cream: Australian circus troupe Circa. Three men and one woman performing 46 circus acts in 45 minutes. To keep them on schedule, a giant digital clock counts down on the right side of the stage. Their show was perfectly tailored for high humor, short attention spans, and amazing displays of, well, nearly everything. Juggling, tumbling, contortion, strength, balance, even cream-pie-in-the-face slapstick. The names of each of the 46 acts were announced with fanfare (e.g., “Toss the Girl” and “Slapstick 101”), and most of the show accompanied by a brilliantly constructed soundtrack that sometimes included live on-stage mixing by one of the troupe.

Some of the segments – and I’m thinking here about the men's underwear-removing contest – were more theater than circus, but who can complain after 45 minutes of flat-out fun that elicited wave after wave of genuine laughter from kids and adults alike. Oh, and for the record, they finished with 7.08 seconds remaining.

There. At least I’m not keeping it secret anymore.

festival website: www.seattleinternational.org
more festival photos
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