At Living Traditions, musicians honor their roots, branch out
The annual Living Traditions Festival a three-day cultural event that kicks off Friday, May 17 features ethnic food, children's crafts, bocce, and music and dance performances from around the world. The event also includes four musical headliners that are steeped in cultural tradition but unafraid of pushing the boundaries of their respective genres.
One group that is flexible with tradition is Mariachi Divas, which performs Friday night.
Trumpet player Cindy Shea founded the all-female ensemble in 1999; the 13 members are a mix of cultures: Mexican, Cuban, Samoan, Argentinean, Colombian, Panamanian, Puerto Rican, Swiss, Japanese, Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Peruvian, Tongan and Anglo.
"If we were all the same, we'd be boring," said Shea, who is part Italian and part Irish, but "Latina inside."
In 2009, Mariachi Divas won the Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Album for "Canciones de Amor." It marked the first time in Grammy history that an all-female mariachi group had been a nominee and a winner.
"We're definitely not traditional," Shea responded.
Shea grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and her true colors began showing at a young age. "Why was a girl attracted to the trumpet at 8 years old, when all of her friends picked up flutes?" she asked rhetorically. "As a trumpet player, I was always the only one among boys."
When Shea graduated from high school, she earned a jazz scholarship and moved to Miami, where she studied with Cuban jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval. She "absorbed every part" of multicultural southern Florida and began to play mariachi music.
Mariachi Divas performs traditional songs, original music and tributes to musical greats such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Etta James.
When the ensemble is not touring, it performs every day at Disneyland and California Adventure Park in Anaheim.
Irish-born country artist Maura O'Connell,who performs Saturday, said she uses tradition as a "touchstone." She has lived in Nashville for 25 years, but the accents and influences of her Irish heritage are always represented.
Growing up in Ennis in County Clare, in the west of Ireland, O'Connell heard country music on the radio and detested it. "If you would have mentioned country, I would have felt ill," she said. "It was the showband version. It didn't have the same soul that I know country [today] has."
But as the 1970s arrived, it was singers such as Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt who convinced her that country could be not only "decent," but a genre she would spend the rest of her life interpreting with the traditional Irish influences that pulsed in her veins.
O'Connell considers herself "quasi-retired," only performing at events she considers significant. Her most recent album was 2009's "Naked with Friends," a breathtaking a cappella album that featured vocal turns from Dolly Parton, Mary Black, Alison Krauss, Paul Brady and Tim O'Brien. Her resonant alto tackles Elvis Costello's antiwar theme "Shipbuilding" and Joan Armatrading's "Weakness in Me," but also folk songs, such as "MaidÃn I M'BÃ©arra" and "Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida."
Performing immediately before O'Connell will be De Temps Antan, an all-male French-Canadian trio that explores the traditional music of Quebec which sounds similar to the Cajun music of southern Louisana. There's good reason for that: Cajuns descended from Acadian settlers who fled eastern Canada in the 18th century during what was called the Great Expulsion of the French and Indian War.
Andre Brunet, the fiddler in the group, said deviating from tradition while still respecting the past is a key to the band's kinetic energy. "We want to keep our tradition alive, but we never stop our ideas," he said in a phone interview. "We try to be contemporary and look everywhere around us."
Brunet was raised by a musical family and picked up the fiddle because he idolized his uncle, a respected fiddler in town. "I grew up where music was everywhere, where singing and dancing was there," he said. "[Music] is in my bones."
He is not content to regurgitate the music from centuries ago. "[Traditional music] is not always popular, but we want to make it alive," Brunet said.
Closing out the festival on Sunday will be The Relatives, a gospel group led by the Rev. Gean West, a pastor in Dallas.
The Relatives have an interesting back-story. The group was formed more than 40 years ago, but found little success because audiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s were more interested in "traditional-sounding" groups, West said. So it disbanded.
It was rediscovered recently by music fans who scoured record bins for the band's long out-of-print releases.
West said The Relatives, who reunited in 2009, were ahead of their time, weaving the new sounds of psychedelia and funk into their music, and early audiences who came in expecting traditional gospel were disappointed.
"We enjoyed all types of music, and put it into the music we had," he said. "At the time we were performing, we weren't as kindly received as we are today."
This three-day cultural festival, now in its 28th year, features ethnic food, children's crafts, bocce, and more than 40 music and dance performances.
When • Friday, May 17, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, May 18, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, May 19, noon to 7 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake City & County Building, 450 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Free admission
Features musical acts • May 17: Mariachi Divas, multicultural, all-female ensemble, 8:30 p.m.; May 18: De Temps Antan, Quebec folk, 7 p.m., and Maura O'Connell, Irish -American folk, 8:30 p.m.; May 19: The Relatives, psychedelic gospel, 5:30 p.m.
Details • livingtraditionsfestival.com