Four-day festival returned in full force after two years of COVID-related cancellations
By Paul R. Huard for Ashland.news
Richly dressed in traditional costume, Sophia Blanton and eight other dancers swayed sensuously to the sound of Middle Eastern music.
The audience of about 300 people gathered Sunday at Butler Bandshell in Lithia Park for the Ashland World Music Festival’s main event were thrilled by what they saw and heard.
As far as the audience was concerned, the weather — about 60 degrees — was warm, the music was beautiful, and the time was right for people to come together again.
“In this moment in time, I think it’s about a return to community,” said Blanton, who also serves as the festival’s program manager. “A concert in the park is really iconic.
“It feels so wonderful to return to music in the park after the forced hiatus due to the pandemic,” Blanton continued. “It feels good to see people smile.”
So far, about 3,000 people have attended the four-day festival, according to organizers. It was the first time since 2019 that the festival was a completely live performance. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival had been presented online as a virtual event.
Sunday’s main-stage event at the bandshell showcased a full day of “culture-bearing performances” with Rik-Sha, Okaidja Afroso, the San Francisco Yiddish Combo, Ratie D, and Grupo Masato.
Other events included a percussion workshop Friday with Ghanian musician Okaidja Afroso at the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, “HeartBeat Stories” on Saturday performed by storytellers at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, and a series of “SoundWalks” available Friday, Saturday, and Sunday throughout downtown Ashland that blended visual-art installations with on-demand, streamed festival music for a self-directed cultural experience.
Ana Byers, executive director of Rogue World Music, said the event with its numerous performers and outdoor venues offers listeners more to do more than just attend.
“People can learn and participate, not just sit and listen,” she said.
In an era of music festivals with stiff ticket prices, the multi-day festival remains open to audiences at no charge. More than 30 business sponsors, numerous anonymous private sponsors, and several grants help fund the $60,000 budget to keep the festival free of charge.
The Ashland Parks & Recreation Department is an essential partner as well, said Byers.
“We want this to be inclusive,” she said. “We want everyone and anyone to be able to show up.”
When the Almeda Fire destroyed more than 2,600 homes in September 2020, organizers also decided that the festival could use a virtual format to support the most urgent community need: fire relief.
In a media release, Byers said that the festival joined forces with the Phoenix-Talent School District to raise more than $10,000 during the virtual festival in November 2020. A hybrid festival that combined online and live acts during Memorial Day weekend in 2021 raised $10,000 for immigrant family and farmworker fire relief fund administered by UNETE, a farmworker assistance organization, she said.
But sheer joy in the richness of world music presented live seemed to be the most powerful reason for the festival this year.
Blanton and her family immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia during the 1970s, bringing with them a heritage of folklore and dance that remains essential to her.
“It is part of who I am,” she said.
Email freelance reporter Paul R. Huard at firstname.lastname@example.org.