Mile of Music Festival

World Music Foundation Podcast | Season 1, Episode 10

“Everybody can feel music….”

About this Episode

Last week, we spoke with Brian & Leila Pertl, and members of the Music Education Team, who have helped design the Mile of Music Festival, especially the cultural education components. This week, we’re speaking with the teaching-musicians themselves to learn about Afro-Cuban Drumming, Mariachi, Ghanaian Drumming, and Native American Flute. We attended a few sessions ourselves during the festival and spoke with these artists afterwards.

John Gardner: Hello, hello, and welcome again to the World Music Foundation Podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today is part two of our interviews and coverage of the Mile of Music Festival. The World Music Foundation podcast is produced by the World Music Foundation, and our nonprofit mission is, pretty simple, to open minds through music. Today will get a closer look at some of the cultural music offerings that are opening minds through music at the Mile of Music Festival. Last week we spoke with Brian and Leila Pertl, and members of the music education team who have helped design the festival, and especially the culturally education components. They have tons of fantastic insights into the importance, and the philosophy behind including new music that originate from different parts of the globe. Yet are studied and taught right there within their Appleton, Wisconsin community. 

Now this week were speaking with the teaching musicians themselves to learn about Afro-Cuban drumming, Mariachi, Ghanaian drumming, Native American flute. We attended a few sessions ourselves during the festival and conducted a ton of interviews afterwards. Actually there was just loads and loads of musical and cultural golden nuggets of information at every turn, so much in fact that we gathered more than we could even fit into these two episodes. So big appreciation to everyone who shared their time and stories with us even if we couldn’t use it all. Believe me there were some lively conversations in the editing rooms these last few weeks. So we hope that you enjoy these select interviews and clips from the Mile of Music Festival. 

First up Afro-Cuban drumming and singing. With roots in the complex rhythm of West Africa and melodic influences coming from Spain, Afro-Cuban traditions are exciting, vibrant, and will make you want to sing and dance. The term Afro-Cuban refers to Cubans who mostly have West-African ancestry, and historical and cultural elements in Cuba thought to eminent from this community.

We attended a workshop and an outdoor plaza which had people of all ages involved in call and response percussion and vocals, and even a little bit of foot work.After the session the instructors, Nolan and Eli Edelman, spoke with us about this amazing music. 

John Gardner:Alright, check one, check two. I’m being recorded, so that means you all will be. Alright, let’s start with first names- What’s your name, where are you from, and what do you play, what is your instrument?

Nolan Ehlers: I am Noah Ehlers, I am actually from here, Appleton, Wisconsin. I’m a percussionist. I’m actually going into my senior year at Lawrence University. 

Eli Edelman:   My name is Eli Edelman. I am from the east coast, I live in Brooklyn, New York now. I also graduated from Lawrence. I play percussion. 

John Gardner: How would you describe to a non-musician what is Afro-Cuban Music?

Nolan Ehlers: Hm. There’s a lot going on there, but at it’s basis, it’s really just a community form of drumming and singing and the whole idea of the music is to bring together a community for a common purpose.

John Gardner: From what little I understand, a fundamental- a big component of the basics is the (4:30)clave. Could- Whichever wants to jump in on that, how would you describe clave?

Eli Edelman: Clave is- the direct translation is “key”. It is the key to the rhythm, it is the key to the song, it’s the key to how it all fits together. To understanding it. And it really- if you have listened to the music a lot, if you’ve been around it, even if you don’t know what clave is, the way that you feel- the way that the rhythm pulls you either to move your feet or to clap or to sing along, the way that it draws you to certain parts of the phrase of the beat, That is what Clave is, it guides you through the music and it’s repetitive. And so, that’s why it can be so inviting and so accessible to anyone because you know- you think “I’m not a musician, it’s a complex concept, it’s all these things going on it’s syncopation, it’s interlocking rhythms, whatever. But really, at the root of it, it’s just- it’s rhythmic melody. It’s the way that the rhythms flows, the way it lands together but also in conversation with itself, um- and so- yeah you know, you could come up with all these rules and, “Oh- the clave is only five notes and four beats long and this and that and the other”. But really, it’s just how you feel it.

John Gardner:Right on. So, the clave is part of the cuban culture, the Bembe Rhythm is something certain people in Cuba might grow up with. What’s the cultural music of Appleton?

Nolan Ehlers: Well, I think in Appleton we have a pretty great singer-songwriter scene. We have a lot of people will- be playing their acoustic music and a lot of the bars down on college avenue have great venues to perform. Also, Appleton’s local music is really also about community because we have a lot of resources for everyone to come out and join together. We have- Thursday nights during the summer there’s always music happening down in our main Houdini Plaza- Different bands from the area. From Appleton, or Neenah, Oshkosh, all around the five cities and um yeah-we have a lot of concert series that happen during the year. We have great resources from PAC that happen right here in downtown Appleton, and that brings in a lot of music so as far as our own cultural identity here we have a strong Americana- fair amount of blues happening, but we’re exposed to a lot of different things here.

John Gardner:Probably my last question- I’ll give you all a chance in case you want to say anything else about Afro-Cuban, anything we might include in the podcast, but how would you describe world music?

Nolan Ehlers: Really, any music is world music at it’s core, uh- If you think about classical music and you don’t call that world music, in a way then you’re kind of putting it on a different tier than these other cultures who also have really rich uh- musical histories. Um- So, I think there’s positives and negatives to the term world music, but yeah, at it’s core, everybody can feel music, whether you have a spiritual connection to it or whether you like digging into the headier things that are going on in music from other cultures, yeah- All music is accessible to some degree.

John Gardner:Well, you guys might be interested to know, we’re the World Music Foundation, our podcast is World Music Foundation Podcast, our very first episode was Saxophone. ‘Cause that’s world music. And he’s never been asked to explain his saxophone, whereas a 9:09 Kora player nonstop gets asked to explain their Kora, so he was like “Well, it’s like making a fist, or-” We got to really put him outside of his box. Great player, Dave Pietro. And also we interviewed one of the gentlemen who was in the room that invented the term world music, so you can check that out on the podcast. Anything else that you all would want me to ask you or want me to tell the audience about Afro-Cuban musical tradition? Or do you think we covered it pretty good?

Eli Edelman: I think we covered a lot, um- there’s like, there’re so many different types of music in Cuba that I’ve been there five times and I’ve devoted my musical energies to studying and learning as much as I can and playing as much as I can. And I’ve just scratched the surface. I think the coolest thing about music- especially in Cuba, but about music in general, is that it can be a life-long passion, endeavor, hobby, path of study, and you’re never done. It’s just, you always have room to grow, you always have people to admire, to study from and also to share with.

 John Gardner:Let’s start with what’s your name? What’s your instrument? What’s your name, where are you from, what’s your style of music?

Jando Valdez: So, my name is Jando Valdez Valdez, I am from Appleton, Wisconsin. My parents are from Colombia and Guatemala, and I primarily play the upright bass. 

Nestor Dominguez Jr.: My name is Nestor Dominguez Jr. Dominguez Jr. I was originally born in (?), which is in Southwest Mexico, about five hours southwest of Mexico city. It’s a little town in the mountains near Iguala. My parents immigrated to Chicago when I was about six months old. Quincalla is my first home and Chicago is my second home.

John Gardner: There you go. Right on. If it’s a small town in the mountains, then Chicago is quite a bit different.

Nestor Dominguez Jr.: Oh, yeah. Very different.

John Gardner: So, what workshop were you all involved with at the Mile of Music here?

Nestor Dominguez Jr.: So, we’ve been teaching Mariachi, I believe this is the second year, or third year rather.

Jando Valdez:Last year, we were without Nestor Dominguez Jr., he had a knee surgery and I taught the Mariachi workshop and we have been just trying to teach people about mariachi at first. And now we’ve kind of evolved to showing people that there is more than just the 11:38 Mexican Hat Dance as they call it. That there are lots of other genres just like every other type of music in the world. 

John Gardner: Now, I know that a lot of these other workshops, they talk about it but they also get people involved, is there an aspect where you get the audience involved at all? Any workshops?

Nestor Dominguez Jr.: Well, we tried on Thursday, I had this idea and I consulted with Jando Valdez as well because his group, Mariachi (?), their instrumental is playing. So, I had the idea just like you said, there is more to Mariachi music than just the Mexican Hat Dance, or even things that you hear, sometimes making fun of Mariachi music. There’s more genres than just mariachi. I say that Mariachi is like the primary genre and then there are sub-genres, and that’s where world music comes into play because we have everything from (?) to (?). The Son Jalisciense, you know, musically it switches off between 6-8 time and 3-4 time every measure. But I think that (?) is the anthem to Mariachi music. You know, we hear it, we have influences from Africa, with Cumbia. We have influences from native Mexico, like native mexican people, indigineous Mexican people. So, I guess the goal this year is just to expose them to different sub-genres and identify some of the easy characteristics in those genres so that next time, you know they hear a Bolero, and they can think “Oh, yeah they taught us that, it sounds like a heartbeat and the guitar just continuously strums down.

John Gardner: Right on. So, how did you both first get involved with Mariachi music?

Jando Valdez: Well I, my first introduction to Mariachi was my parents. Just a side note, the word Mariachi is kind of a blanket statement and it really encompasses so many types of music and genres I guess, that’s what our event is all about, but aside from that. Yeah, my parents used to always just play it when I was in the house and when I would wake up on the weekends, and then I knew it was time to clean. Then later on, I joined the Latino club at Appleton North High School and I got really involved with that and I thought how about I just combine my two loves for music and then just culture, and I decided to find some other musicians and we started a Mariachi band. And we looked up the music online and tried to play it.

John Gardner:That’s awesome, and what year, how long ago was that?

Jando Valdez:That was in 2016 when I got the idea for that. We played our first show, it was actually for a global awareness week presentation in early 2017 and we’ve been playing ever since then.

John Gardner:How many people are in the group?

Jando Valdez:Right now we have six people in the group. Uh, it’s really evolved from time to time because of people graduating that were in the initial group and now all of us are graduating so this is gonna be kind of our last official performance together at Mile of Music.

John Gardner:Farewell tour.

Nestor Dominguez Jr.:Yeah, definitely and so similar to Jando Valdez, I grew up with the music, hearing Mariachi music, I’ve seen Mariachi evolve from very traditional songs that were used in Mexican black and white film, to now more pop Mariachi tunes- which is really cool. So now I teach at Joseph E. Gary elementary. And the little village neighborhood, and we’re the only school in the area with a Mariachi music education program.

John Gardner: Man, that’s great. And this is the little village in Chicago. That is awesome, I did not know that was going on in chicago. Really great. So, you sort of touched upon the misconceptions people have about this music, first of all that Mariachi is anything that sounds “Mariachi-ish”. But then, the Mexican Hat Dance and this… After your presentations here, have you ever gotten feedback or do you get a feeling of- that people see things differently or just kind of continues? Do you think it’s always an uphill battle, have you seen it change over the couple of years that you’ve done it?

Nestor Dominguez Jr.: I think we can definitely see it in the numbers of people attending. I mean, I was here for Mile 5 and had a  great audience, you know, and I think at our workshop on Thursday, they recorded that the peak audience was about one-hundred and seventy people. So I think that speaks for itself, and just seeing people, you know, move around or clap to the beat or even, I didn’t direct this but I just saw people on the side just dancing, I think that also speaks to itself.

Jando Valdez: Yeah, and what I think is going on now is that Mariachi is kind of being introduced. Um, with our previous workshops, I think we kind of opened a door to the people of Appleton who have maybe never even heard any of that type of music, and really what we’re looking for is just people to look at it and say this is different from what I listen to every day on the Radio and that’s exactly what’s been really happening, I’ve been getting so many people who are friends of mine who are like, “oh, when is your Mariachi band gonna be playing?” or “I can’t believe- like how did you make that?” And I think right now, we’re in the early stages of showing this genre breakdown and showing people different types. But right now people are starting to just get a taste of what Mariachi offers and how it feels and how it’s more than just obnoxious like sound which- I mean not many people think that, but I’ve heard it from places.

John Gardner:And- you said you were from Appleton? So, this music that you’re representing here. We can say that it’s a certain part of the culture from a certain place. In Appleton, what would you say is the cultural music of Appleton? 

Jando Valdez:Well, the cultural music of Appleton is definitely- it’s been really supportive of the up and coming Americana acts- lots of Acoustic stuff, which is really good. I think it has also been fostering world music, which has been incredible- like the people here at Larence have been so supportive of every single music act, no matter if it’s something that I guess is generally American, or if it’s something from around the world. And all music is appreciated and loved here which is really nice. But, I guess kind of like America, how there is no official real language. I think in Appleton, there is really no music genre that rules over every single one. I think they are all part of a whole. 

John Gardner:Right on. Thank you so much, I would’ve loved to talk longer, really a pleasure.

John Gardner: Luke, could you tell us your name, where you are from, and what kind of music you’re into?

Luke Rivard: Sure, my name is Luke Rivard. I grew up in New Berlin, Wisconsin, which is a suburb of Milwaukee. And I went to Lawrence University in Appleton, and I now live in 21:40Minneapolis. I am a drummer and percussionist in the cities, I’m a professional musician and I play in the bands “Porky’s Groove Machine” and “Black Market Brass”, which are both Minneapolis-based bands. And I love groove music, I love music that has heavy rhythms and anything that will make me or will make other people dance. I’m very into that.

John Gardner: Right on, and- What is the workshop that you’re leading here in the Mile of Music?

Luke Rivard:Yeah, so the workshop I lead, it’s titled “Ghanaian Drumming and Dancing”. And really what it is, is diving into a style of traditional Ewe music called Gahu. Gahu is a social dance, it’s in 4-4, it’s not a 12-8 or a rhythm, but it’s fairly accessible. Just like all Ewe music, it’s very complex and has a lot of rhythms going on at the same time, but what’s great about doing a quick one-hour session on it is teaching people to listen and respond to the lead drum, which is called the Boba Drum. And that alone is sort of enough to pique people’s interest. Because, so often people receive direction from visual cues or from the voice, and not so often from a big drum, so it’s pretty cool.

John Gardner: How would you describe the Boba Drum?

Luke Rivard: Yeah, so the Boba Drum is a barrel-shaped drum, essentially the size of a big barrel. And it has, as with all the other kinds of Ewe Drums, it has an antelope or a goatskin 23:52drumhead and that skin is laced on with a single hoop, and rope that’s threaded through the skin and secured on the drum with wooden pegs. And so, to tune the drum you hammer in the pegs that are in the side of the drum, that increases the tension and raises the pitch of the drum. And to loosen it, you would loosen those pegs.

John Gardner: So, you’re a percussionist, you play obviously different styles of music. From your study in Ghanaian Drumming, has that influenced your world view in any way?

Luke Rivard:Yeah, absolutely. In a lot of different ways. I think that the deepest influence has been understanding the potential that music can have in somebody’s life. When I was studying in (?) which is a village in Ghana that I’ve been to a couple times to learn this music and to learn from my teachers there. It was clear that a lot of the children, by the time that they can walk, from one and a half to who knows, they were born and raised to these rhythms. So, I would be sitting in my corner of the courtyard trying to work on some of the master drum phrases and there’d be these children who would come up to me and really wanted to start playing with me, and would be playing the phrases that I’m working on. Just play them perfectly, because it’s just like speaking to them. So the fact that music can play such a normalized role in somebody’s life really has changed my perspective on not only music in general but specifically music education. I haven’t seen Ewe or Gahu music being taught at elementary age, just because the music is pretty complex, or at least it seems complex to westerners. But I think what I learned from my experience is that if you just embrace it and take it as normal and take some of these polyrhythms and complicated rhythms as being easy, the children- when you’re teaching children they don’t view it as difficult, they just jump right in and so, you can actually do a lot with this music in elementary schools and middle schools. And so, for the past few  years, I’ve been really intentional about introducing that age group to this music. And so far, so good. I’m always very surprised and impressed at how much kids can do, it’s pretty incredible.

John Gardner: If you put it in front of them to do it. We don’t give them the opportunity to do so many things, so I’m glad you are.

Luke Rivard: Yeah absolutely, and I think Ewe music is sort of an interesting area of academic study in the world of ethnomusicology and percussion music because of it’s complexity and because of it’s incredible polyrhythms that are in so many styles. From an education standpoint, it is often limited to college students or people studying ethnomusicology. And it’s been really exciting to get people outside of those two fields of study in on this music because there is so much to share and so much to enjoy with it and it just opens people’s perspectives and minds to a totally different way of using music to engage with each other.

John Gardner: And you- You said that we don’t get a lot of exposure at a younger age, but even at the college level, it sounds like most of the exposure to this kind of music is through the ethnomusicology track. Which some people say “EthNOmusicology”. Do you have experience from learning it? Have you been able to apply these rhythms- maybe not exactly- but has learning this music influenced your playing at all or does it stay in the realm of academia for you?

Luke Rivard: Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t be interested in this music if I wouldn’t be able to apply it to the music that I play and create. It’s had an extremely profound impact on the way that I approach music as a percussionist and a drummer. And I think that the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from studying this music is to open my ears. Because, when you’re in the moment and you’re surrounded by a group of drummers all playing different rhythms that are extremely intricate and loud and so tight, but also so loose and relaxed at the same time it’s so easy to get lost in it, so you really need to open your ears to what other people are doing to understand how your part fits in with the whole fabric that’s happening. But also the repetition. To do it over and over and over again. Then your mind starts to wander, or your ear starts to hear a composite rhythm or something that’s going on across the room. And then you get lost in your own rhythm. So, that sort of concentration game, I think the best thing I can compare it to is like meditation. Being one-hundred percent in the present where you are taking things in but you are also so conscious of what you’re doing yourself. And just sitting in that space is so fulfilling and therapeutic in a lot of ways and so I try and enter that space any time I play music.

John Gardner:That’s big. That’s a huge thing. You’ve been there, you’ve experienced the culture in Ghana and how this music is intertwined in it. What would you say is the musical culture of Appleton?

Luke Rivard:That’s a good question. Well, I’ll sort of speak to the midwest in general, because I grew up just outside Milwaukee. I went to school in Appleton and was here for four years. But even while I was in school, I wasn’t living in downtown appleton. But, I think that the midwest has this culture of music being a thing that gets put on a stage. And so, when I was a young musician growing up, the thing to look towards was our eighth grade talent show. Which would you know- I put together a band with my friends at the time and we did a few covers and we wrote a song ourselves and we went up on the stage and we did it. It was great, everyone clapped and I think the culture that we live in in the midwest, is just different iterations of that sort of moment. Whether it’s a band playing a show at a bar, or performing at the PAC, or going to see an orchestra. It’s always, the musicians are on a stage performing for people that are there to take it in and to listen. So there’s the performer and audience division. Which is quite a bit different than some of the traditional music that I experienced in Ghana where it was one-hundred percent participatory. And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely performance audience moments in Ghana as well. There are plenty of groups that are professional musicians and do their thing. But as far as being embedded into the daily lives of the people that are living in that region, there’s always some sort of divide whether it’s you’re in the car listening to the radio, or it’s going to a show and there’s a stage.

John Gardner:That’s a great point. The midwest culture of music is one that the audience and performer as opposed to communal, it’s a great thought.

Luke Rivard:I think that’s like the majority of it and like I said, there’s a time and place for all of those things, but how cool would it be if everybody just believed that in addition to being a human being they are also a musician. When the majority of the musical experience in a culture is that audience and performer, then it’s so easy to grow up believing that you’re not a performer. Or believe that you’re not a musician. And what we try to do as the music education team at Mile of Music is to erase that line that has been drawn and to demonstrate and prove to people that they are musicians just like they are human.

John Gardner:You were fortunate enough to be in an academic setting that they directly exposed you to it. That’s a big thing. If that hadn’t been the case, you may never have come across this style of music and realized how involved it was and how it spoke to you.

Luke Rivard:Absolutely. I’m extremely grateful for that opportunity. And not to be exposed to it, but to be able to sit down face to face with a master drummer/dancer that is kind enough to offer to teach me, so how cool is that? And so, I try and make the most of that relationship and try to be as responsible as anybody can and study- especially in teaching music from a culture that’s not my own or that I did not grow up in. There is a lot of room for error and so it’s very important to present it in a way that communicates that. I’m not the master, I’m not the master drummer. I’m a student and I will always be a student and here’s what I know and how I’ve been taught. And if this does speak to you the way it spoke to me when I was your age, here is where you need to go to dig in. I recognize that not everybody is able to go to Ghana and study this music firsthand.

John Gardner:It’s a great thing going on, and next year at the session, you’re going to see a new face, I’ll be waiting for those fifty one weeks- Great speaking with you.

Luke Rivard:Nice to meet you and thanks for speaking. This has been great.

Quinn Fernandez: I’m Quintin Fernandez. My dad is Wade Fernandez. I play drums mostly. A little bit of piano. 

Wade Fernandez: (?) My name is Wade Fernandez. My (?) name, my Menominee name is (?) and it kind of translates to Walks With the Black Wolf. Were from Menominee nation in Wisconsin and I’m a musician. I perform on vocals, guitar, Native American flute, and those are my main instruments but when I record I use other instruments depending on how the song was written or if I don’t have anybody locally that I can grab to jump in on the recording

John Gardner: Right on. And your session, I was very fortunate we were able to attend earlier today. So we saw that you were involving the audience and taking them from the very basics on how to play these, these flutes. How did you first get involved in flute playing? Wade Fernandez: Well, I was given a flute as a gift early on, not early on actually, but around 2000 or something. And I tried to play something through it  had no idea what to do and it didn’t sound very good at all, but a year later I was performing at a huge festival called the Indian summer festival, and it’s at the Milwaukee summer fest grounds on the lakefront. I was playing throughout the weekend I think maybe three or four performances. I came down after one performance and I saw a number of native flutes on a table and my friend

For The Extra Curious


Musical Mentions