Mile of Music Festival

World Music Foundation Podcast | Season 1, Episode 9


“Music is a birthright.”

About this Episode

We were delighted to discover the Mile Of Music Festival, which curates international music workshops alongside concerts of Americana and Folk music. Several of the Americana acts were imported nationwide and even internationally, but all of the international music is taught by people from within their small Appleton community. So which music is ‘local’?? We attended this 3 day festival, attended the workshops and spoke with the organizers to fully understand the blurring of this dichotomy.

John Gardner: Hello, Hello and welcome again to the World Music Foundation podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today we are speaking about a fantastic musical event that takes place in Appleton, Wisconsin, called “Mile of Music”. Alongside this series of concerts is a fantastic educational series on international music, and we are thankful to be speaking here today with two people who play a huge role in making this possible. Thanks for being here today.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: Oh, we’re so glad to be here.

John Gardner: If you could just introduce yourselves and your role in the festival, please.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: So, I’m Lelia Ramagopal Pertl and I am the music education curator for the “Mile of Music”.

Brian Pertl: And I am Brian Pertl. I am the Dean of Lawrence Conservatory of Music and the main partner of Mile of Music that sort of helped get the music education and advance on that Mile of Music radar.

John Gardner: Now, a lot of festivals will have alongside it kiind of smaller either workshops or educational components. What stood out immediately when discovering (?) is the range of workshops that you have, I mean all over the world. We have 1:15Balinese Gamelan, we have Samba, Afro-Cuban. Was it a conscious decision to cover international music or how did this become part of Mile of Music.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: It’s always been a value of the music education mission, which is by the way, music is a birthright, to first look around our community and to see who are the people we live with? So, we looked around and it’s just amazing how many of our neighbors come from these gorgeous music cultures that maybe our community didn’t know anything about, and it’s really important to not organize something for people, but organize something with people.

Brian Pertl: Foundationally, Lawrence University and Lawrence Conservatory music has always had a vision to integrate world music traditions into a high-level classical music education. And so, for many years, Lawrence has had international music cultures. 2:24Brazilian Samba, Afro-Cuban Drumming, and singing, Ghanaian dancing and drumming, and a little more recently, Balinese Gamelan, and then Australian Aboriginal Didgeridoo. Those traditions are just a little part of who we are and maybe a high-level classical pianist who’s also doing dancing and drumming. And so, when we started Mile of Music, Lawrence plays such a big role in the education team that we immediately integrated those into sort of the central part of what we did and then built on those.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: Yeah.

John Gardner: What was it like bringing that out to the Appleton community? How was the response? We were experiencing some workshops ourselves when it was first starting? How was it received, the idea to have these elements?

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: Well, the community has been just so excited. It’s really a lot of fun for me to see people coming out and you know maybe hitting one of those 3:56Gamelan bars for the first time and the look on their face is just incredible.

(GAMELAN BARS PLAY)

VOICE IN GAMELAN CLIP: If there was only one thing you remembered from all the instrument names, it would be the gong, ok? So, because that’s our foundation, our heart and soul.

(MORE GAMELON PLAYS)

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: …Or you know, trying to do the hand coordination. You know, their brains get working. This afternoon, for instance, with 6:37Afro-Cuban drumming, watching people step on the beats and clap clave and also sing at the same time. What I love about that is that is the beginning of a really organic understanding of the complexity of another type of music, which I feel once it’s sort of vibrating through your body like that, working hard at it, that you’re also building relationships with the people who created that music.

Brian Pertl: And in fact, most of the people that weren’t sure that the public would embrace a music festival of all original singer/songwriter music. There was a notion in this part of the world that unless you’re playing Journey cover songs, you wouldn’t be able to get a live audience for live music and so everything was a little bit of a gamble. We thought that what we did would be embraced. On the last day of the first year, we had a 8:03Samba event in Houdini Plaza, which is the central plaza and it was at eleven o’clock in the morning on a Sunday and it was raining. And we had seventy-five people out there doing 8:20Samba drumming in the rain. We looked at each other and we said, this is it. You know, we know what we’re doing.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: They were hungry for it and the thing that- my personal teaching philosophy in my teaching career in the public schools and on this campus is that music is a birthright and that we are all fundamentally musical beings. And so, what I hear and see around me a lot though is, you know, the myths of who is musical. The way people express that, oh you know, I’m not 9:00YoYo Ma or I’m not going to become a professional violinist and so why should I be taking music lessons? And so, I set out to minds on that matter and through the schoolwork of course, year after year through the training of our teachers at Lawrence University. One of the things that was important for this whole music series was that people come and not just watch the bands on the Mile, which is terrific. It’s amazing. But it’s all original music, and what I want of the participants that are coming to the musical festival to get is that if the bands are creating music, we create a way for you to understand that on a primal level. What does it mean to create music? Well, guess what? We’ve got all these events now where you can come in and participate and it’s amazing how life-changing trying to figure out a groove on a drum you’ve just now made a sound. And that moment can be life-changing for people.There are so many world music cultures which I feel do this so and are inclusive and very direct affirmation of their musical self.

John Gardner: So on one hand, a major driving factor is not just the fact, okay lets get music here specifically of other cultures, and that’s a part of it, but also the goal of wanting to have an inclusive music-making environment. Music of other cultures filled that role better in a lot of ways than what we might call domestic music, or local music. Everybody’s not going to sit up there and, you know, strum the same rhythm guitar and make a 11:03U.S flavored folk song, but I saw very easily how you can get over seventy people involved with 11:07Afro-Cuban Drumming.

Brian Pertl: That’s what we love about so many world music traditions is since a lot of them are oral tradition, that form of teaching and that form of call and response education is something at the core of who we are as humans. We all know how to do that and we all know how to respond, it is almost in our DNA everywhere in the world, and to see large groups of people, some are even terrified, you know, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, oh my gosh I’m doing it”, and it’s a moment that for us is so exhilarating to see that sixty-five year old grandfather dancing with their grandchildren or kids or whole families. And we feel world music is such a way to expand your awareness of all the different glorious musics that are out there, but to actually participate in it gives you another depth beyond “Oh, I heard a 12:27Mariachi band, I sang in a Mariachi band. And the band, by the way, is high-school students who are from our high-school here.

John Gardner: That’s beautiful.

Brian Pertl: You know, led by a member of our music ed team, who is a Lawrence graduate, who’s teaching Mariachi in the Chicago public schools. And it is beautiful.

John Gardner: You mentioned specifically about wanting to break down the myth about, “oh, I’m not musical”. I wonder, have you run into other myths, I know I have in my line of work, about the perception of other kinds of music. You getter a deeper sense of understanding once you actually participate in the music, or you play it. Do you feel that there are misunderstandings when either you see students approach, or the public approach this music for the first time?

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: You know, I have to say that the Appleton community that we’ve worked with in this setting, the Mile of Music and education events, they may not have enough information for sure. But, they’ve been very open and very respectful. But coming from, you know I’m classically trained violinist and harpist. That whole world is where I see misunderstandings about the complexity of, say, Ghanian drumming and dance on this culture that has representation here on the mile. You know, notions of, well you’re just drumming. Or it’s somewhat primitive, they’re dancing with their shirts off, surely the 14:12European Orchestra is the pinnacle of musical complexity.

Right. And what I’m saying is that our students who are going through, excellent training here in the conservatory. More and more they are getting immediately involved when they walk through the door at Lawrence and in our world music traditions. The type of training they are getting in the drumming classes or Balinese Gamelan classes, you know, it build a respect for these cultures and music, but it actually re-shapes how they listen in the orchestra. Not to say that that’s the goal. But coming from classical training myself, I think that we are not trained to listen outwardly and find the meaning, the piece we’re playing, the notes we’re playing, the groove we’re playing, only finds its meaning within the collaborative sounds of another. We get there, but these things seem to be very well-nurtured from the beginning on so much deeper and complex levels.

Brian Pertl: That has been sort of a central theme of misunderstanding of that culture of music and really for decades and even centuries of white colonial rule that that notion of the primitive nature of the music world is that it isn’t even music, it’s just noise that’s central to that world. And so, a lot of what I do, I talk and we give workshops, is to try and bring people in to understand in a real visceral way by actually playing how incredibly complex a one-note instrument can be. There are layers and layers of complexity and once you start diving into that and start to get that deep understanding and that there could be a life-time of exploration in one note, it changes the way you think about being a musician, and it changes the way you listen to the world and interact. In some ways, it might seem oh hey, there is a (?) workshop and it looks like fun, and hopefully it is fun. But, there is also an underlying how can you use that as an educational tool to help people realize the beautiful music and cultural complexity of people that they just might not be aware of.

John Gardner: And this is not for the podcast, just to you as musicians. We bring cultural music into the schools. We bring artists from India, we’ve been doing a lot from India. And we present it as we can teach you improvisation, rhythms, all this stuff. We don’t mention the cultural or social impact at all, but we do surveys before and after, and the belief embedded in all the questions are “I believe the music of other cultures is primitive. The U.S has the most advanced music in the world. The US and Europe.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: That’s a joke.

John Gardner: It’s shocking how many students say “Oh yeah, primitive”, and then just one exposure to a live musician playing, you know he’s playing seven and three-quarter time. And then it shoots down, “Ok, music of other cultures is not primitive”. So it’s amazing the impact you can make. I don’t know if you’ve ever studied the social impact we’re getting but I’m positive you’re all getting the same results. It really means something, it does stick with people.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: In my K-6 program at Appleton public, Samba drumming is one of the things that my kids do from the time they are really young to the time they leave the school. Gamboot dancing, Irish dancing, Israeli dancing are four of the main staples of that curriculum all six years. And what I love about that is that since I don’t teach in two week units, because I think that can do more harm than good. Like, you’re always “othering” “Oh, those people, look at their music. Oh, let’s do their dance”. To get, since I’ve had experience with these art forms, I thought okay, we are just going to do this for a very long time, the whole time they are there. And what I’m finding is that these kids, because they are letting these dances and the drumming patterns, the songs that come along with them sort of vibrate in their bodies and it’s part of their development as humans in their elementary school years, that they start developing a little more nuanced complex language even at that age about an understanding of the people who created these complex art forms. So, it’s not them and they and the, but “I feel this way when I dance this dance. I’m with you playing this rhythm and how are we feeling when we’re doing this. And so, I feel like those are emotional through lines that help us become more understanding people.

Brian Pertl: And to me, one of the greatest pleasures, musical pleasures, is seeing you know, third graders just rock a Samba groove with their older students and to the point that it’s so embedded culturally into that school that the older students are actually leading the Samba. And then all of a sudden, it’s a cultural learning experience that older students are mentoring the younger students, the younger students are looking up to the fifth graders and saying, “Oh, I want to do that” and the ones who are in pre-school who aren’t even doing it yet are already exposed to the culture of it and can’t wait to do it. And what she’s created and that vision of cultural immersion instead of toe-dipping, I just think it should be the model for all elementary music education.

John Gardner: Well that’s an interesting topic. Because you talk about here in Appleton, Wisconsin. I’m sure, primarily caucasian and yet, at least in your school, there is a distinct culture. Whether it’s Samba or whatever you’re integrating into the school, you are creating the culture there. It sounds like there were so many cultural practitioners or torch-bearers from different cultural music right here in Appleton already. So I wonder, do you have any sense of how it ended up that way? Was it the university that brought them into Appleton, or did it just happen? You scratched the surface and realized, wait we have Gamelan, How did you find so many different cultures here in Appleton?

Brian Pertl: Probably originally in the nineteen-eighties in Lawrence. It started with a percussion professor named Gabe Richardson, who’s one of the great world percussionists and just a fabulous 28:00classical percussionist as well. And he came in at a time when this was a very conservative education. And from the very beginning in nineteen-eighty five, he had started Brazilian Samba. He had been in Brazil, he had studied Samba there and immediately brought that with him. And as he kept growing musically he went to Ghana and started working with those traditions and was passionate about that. So since the eighties, Lawrence has had this underlying current of world music and it’s become so culturally embedded that it’s become a part of who we are. But then, because it’s culturally embedded, the greater Appleton community has been hearing Samba and these other traditions coming from Lawrence since the Eighties. So, it’s actually been a culture that has emanated from Lawrence but has certainly seeped much more broadly into the community.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: Yeah, and Appleton itself is actually growing very rapidly in diversity thankfully. Part of, especially on the music education team, that was really important was getting to know the people who are coming in to our community through musical means. That’s been an incredible relationship to forge literally through music. We’ve got a group called the (?) that’ve literally been here since the seventies. And we’ve got people from various African countries.

Brian Pertl: There has more recently been an influx of new residents from Africa, Congo and other places. Big influx of primarily Mexican heritage, newcomers to Appleton. And part of this mission that Leila has envisioned for the music education committee is to uplift and celebrate these traditions that are here. So to have Mariachi, and in past years dance as part of this, or last year a 30:40Congolese musician led a song at the great singalong to say “these are our neighbors”. This is not somewhere far away, this is here. This is here now and it’s so beautiful that this is our community.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: And I think the combination of being introduced to your fellow fox valley residents this way, new musics that you are not used to hearing, but that now you are going to participate in actively in creating this musical event. I think that combination is the thing. You are not watching, you’re not watching a lecture, you’re not listening to a lecture, you’re not watching a film on this music. Not that those things are bad, those are also a part of becoming familiar with another musical culture and learning about it. But, once you’re actually in there making the music on a cellular level, then we have respect and questions, you know?

Brian Pertl: There is this beautiful example, nine years ago, our director of Gamelan came to Lawrence and his wife was our musicology professor. And so, it became a new cultural representation in Lawrence. And it was great, the students were exposed to something that they had never really heard before. It was thriving at Lawrence and the most beautiful thing happened. After a couple of years, they started a community in Gamelan. And now, so all of the sudden you had the student Gamelan and then you had the community Gamelan. In he beginning, the student Gamelan was sort of the hot-shot Gamelan and they can do all these amazing things and the community Gamelan was “Hey, we’re just starting”. But the interesting thing that happened is that the community Gamelan stayed together and year after year after year they get better. And now they’re the ones doing the amazing stuff. And then, a children’s Gamelan.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: And it’s part of their musical life. Instead of “I’m learning something else”.

John Gardner: They’re learning their community music in Appleton, which happens to include Gamelon.

Brian Pertl: And at a concert, they’ll start with the little kids and most of the time the parents are in there with them and this is just a beautiful celebration of young children creating, and then there is the Lawrence student Gamelon, and then the community Gamelon, the oldest member of the Gamelon I think she is Eighty-Eight. So, the entire range of human experience.

John Gardner: Ok, so we just completed the Gamelan workshop and we’re going to talk to my gamelan partner, Val.

Val: Sounds good, my name is Val Neff. I currently live in Appleton, Wisconsin, but I’m from the North-West suburbs of Chicago. The Arlington Heights area.

John Gardner: When did you get your first exposure to Gamelan? You looked like you knew what you were doing there.

Val: My first exposure to Gamelan was that every year, Lawrence would have the 34:40Kaleidoscope concert. It’s actually every two or three years. And they highlight every single ensemble they play in the performing arts center and every ensemble in spotlighted in some way, and I was there as part of the wind ensemble, I played clarinet my sophomore year of college and all of the sudden I heard this music and it was the most interesting, I could not pin it at all, It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever heard before and I was in a trance listening to it, I couldn’t believe it. And I knew in that moment, I had to seek it out, but it took me a while to get my courage up, because Gamelan is mostly percussion music, I’m not normally a percussionist, so my friend and I at the end of sophomore year, we pinky-promised each other that we would try it next year in our junior year after going to the concert. So, we did and I’ve been hooked ever since.

John Gardner: That’s awesome, that’s great. So, have you graduated university?

Val: I have. I actually graduated from Lawrence five years ago.

John Gardner: And you stayed in town?

Val: Yep, I stayed in town and I’ve been joined the Gamelan community group, so I’ve been playing with it ever since.

John Gardner: So, you started as a student, got hooked on it, said you’d go out there and give it a try. And you’ve been staying with it all the way through the community group. How is it different playing now, just as a member of the community coming in versus when you were a student? Any different?

Val: So, When I was playing as a student, by the end of my time as a student I was playing Gamelan around four or five times a week. So, I was spending hours and hours and hours on it. I was so into it, I went to Bali for three weeks to study Gamelan. It was an amazing experience and really gave a lot of cultural context for it as well. But, so now I am in the adult world, if you will. So now I have a job ad I can’t study Gamelan as much as I used to be able to, but I still get in about two hours every week.

John Gardner: So from learning this music, how is it influencing, or how has it influenced your thoughts about the culture of Bali, the people of Bali, does it spill over into that or that just stays in the musical world?

Val: Well, I’m not going to stand here and pretend to be some expert on Balinese culture or anything like that, but I think it’s really hard to go into Gamelan music with a good understanding of it without understanding Balinese culture and just the ins and outs of it. What a cooperative culture it is. Gamelan is a very cooperative style of playing. Very different from western music. In that way, there are not really soloists, groups of instruments are working in pairs. It’s all meant to support the foundation, which is meant to support the dancer. So, it’s very communal, it’s not competitive at all and the group just has fun together. And when I was in Baui, my observations as somebody who is an outsider, is that it is just a very warm welcoming culture in a way that I think can be kind of different sometimes from western culture. And there are so many spiritual aspects. Baui practices Hindu and anamist types of religion and so that permeates a lot kind of into the traditions of the instruments. There are 37:53 Gong Gods and that type of thing and you give out sacrifices to them, which I guess is basically fruit and flowers and stuff, to have a good performance so it all permeates.

John Gardner: Well warm welcoming, that’s definitely how you made me feel sitting there next to you, I had no idea what I was doing. So, thank you for getting me through that, it was a lot of fun.

Val: Ya , it was a blast.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: Well, what’s neat is that this community Gamelan now will come out to the mile of music experience with Gamelan. And there are also leaders in helping our community who has never experienced it before. I think it’s really important, an element of this is building leaders with this experience. Leaders of all levels, but I tell you that builds the most beautiful fabric.

Brian Pertl: The beauty of that and what we see is then we can also tell those people who come to a Gamelan event at Mile that if they want to continue, all they have to do is go to the Lawrence academy of music and sign up for the community Gamelan to be a part of who they are musically. And that happens every year, where they do it, and then it’s “How do I keep doing it?” And so, part of our mission at Mile is that it’s not a one-time experience, but a gate-way into a life-time of music

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: And we’ve seen this strength grow over seven years, you know, people will come back to us and tell us the stories of the year after they attended on of the workshops. They decided to go into the community Gamelan that year and now they’ve had this whole growing experience with this music. Somebody who has decided to write songs. We had a sixty-two year old woman who chanced upon one of our workshops, I think in the second year. And it was this singer-songwriter workshop. And she was listening in the back for a while because she came for a band, but she was quite early, and then she got a little closer and a little closer and she sat down and started participating in the workshop. And she in the subsequent nine months, wrote like six to eight of her own original tunes and recorded them and they are really quite good. Sixty-two year old woman. She said “I needed this and now I will keep writing music”.

John Gardner: She’s better for it, the community is better for it. Everything. So that’s fantastic. The music education, that’s a smaller subset for the larger Mile of Music. Could you explain about the Mile of Music festival?

Brian Pertl: The Mile of Music is celebration of what they call Hand-Crafted Music Making, so it’s all original songs by a wide variety of artists and this year there will be two hundred bands and in four days there will be nine hundred performances and the way that happens-

John Gardner: Let’s let that sink in; nine-hundred performances. Four days in Appleton, Wisconsin. In an area of, I’m sure it’s more than one mile.

Brian Pertl: Not much, it’s all within walking distance and the way this happens and I think it’s important that it happens this way, because again it shows that this is embedded into the fabric of the community. Performances occur in every coffee shop, every bar, mini restaurant, performance venues like Lawrence memorial chapel, outside stages. There are over seventy-seven venues and they’re all going all day with multiple artists and that’s how you get nine-hundred performances in those days. But then, on top of that embedded into, and it’s foundational, is music education and the music education team hands-on events.

Leila Ramagopal Pertl: In 2013, they had a meeting with Brian to talk about the original Lawrence connection. And then they mentioned that they wanted music education to be supported somewhere down the line perhaps financially with maybe grants sent to the school. And Brian said, well why don’t you talk to Leila about music education, and I said you know what I think would be more impactful is having hands-on interactive events which would reignite the inner musician within every community member. I think that is going to have a greater impact, It’ll have a longer evolution. But, it will have a much deeper impact on the community and in music education because you’re building advocates that way. So, people reigniting that birthright and then also reigniting it through exposure to world music cultures is something that I think is a real amazing recipe for building understanding and community and neighbors that can talk with one another

Brian Pertl: And I would just follow that up with acknowledging that Cory Chisel and Dave Williams, the two masterminds behind the glorious vision of this festival have always been wildly supportive of these efforts and have always done everything to put music education at the center of what they do. I am personally grateful for that because it would be so easy with a festival of this magnitude, to marginalize music education, marginalize the musical component and they have always been deeply supportive.

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