The late British writer W. Somerset Maugham said it best:
“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
The headliners of the 28th annual Living Traditions Festival represent not just the skeletons of traditional music but also the flesh and muscle of 21st century rhythms and melodies.
That peculiar yet delicious dichotomy illustrates that traditions live and thrive in 2013 in a state where white people make up 86 percent of the population.
Presented by Salt Lake City Arts Council, the festival — which is known for having the best food booths in the Intermountain West — will feature four musical headliners who are steeped in tradition but are unafraid of pushing the boundaries of their respective genres.
A perfect example of tradition’s flexibility is Cindy Shea, the leader of the 13-member Mariachi Divas, headlining Friday night’s entertainment. Her parents have given her Italian and Irish ancestry, and not an ounce of Mexican blood runs through her veins, though mariachi can be strictly defined as the major-key folk music of male peasant farmers of Veracruz and other spots in Mexico.
However, Shea, in a phone interview, said that she is a “Latina inside.”
The seeming incongruity doesn’t stop there. Since founded by trumpet player Cindy Shea in 1999, the Mariachi Divas have garnered four Grammy nominations (and won one) with an all-female ensemble, represented by women of not just Mexican descent but also Cuban, Samoan, Argentinean, Colombian, Panamanian, Puerto Rican, Swiss, Japanese, Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadorian, Peruvian, Tongan and Anglo descents. “If we were all the same, we’d be boring,” Shea reasoned.
In 2009, Mariachi Divas won the Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Album of the year (for “Canciones De Amor”), and 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 eight 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 music scholarship and moved to Miami, where she studied with Cuban jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval. It was there that she “absorbed every part of the culture” of multi-cultural southern Florida, and began to love learning and playing mariachi music. But she has always played it with a twist; the band performs traditional songs as well as original music and even tributes to dearly departed influences, including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Etta James.
When the ensemble is not touring, its performs every day of the week at the Disney Resorts in Anaheim, both at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park.
On Saturday night, Irish-born country artist Maura O’Connell will close out the night. In a phone interview, O’Connell said that she uses tradition as a “touchstone,” so that even though she has lived in Nashville for the last quarter-century, the accents and influences of her Irishness are always represented.
When she was 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 not only could country be “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 Celtic songs, such as “Maidín I M’Béarra” and “Hay Una Mujer Desapercida.”
Performing immediately before O’Connell at the Festival will be the trio De Temps Antan, a group of three French-Canadian men who explore the traditional music of Quebec. Audiences new to music from Quebec might be surprised to hear that much of the music sounds like Cajun music of southern Louisana, and there is good reason for that — Cajuns are descended from Acadian settlers who fled eastern Canada during what was called the Great Expulsion from their homeland during the French and Indian War in the 18th century.
Andre Brunet, the fiddler in the group, said in a phone interview that deviating from tradition while still respecting the past is a key to the band’s kinetic energy onstage. “We want to keep our tradition alive, but we never stop our ideas,” he said. “We try to be contemporary and look everywhere around us.” To paraphrase Brunet, he said he used memories to create memories.
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.”
But 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, appropriately enough considering it is the Christian Sabbath, will be The Relatives, a gospel group led by Rev. Gean West, a pastor in Dallas.
The Relatives have one of the most interesting back-stories in music today. The group had disbanded and was dormant for about four decades until rediscovered by music fans scouring record bins for long out-of-print records — much like how Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez was recently rediscovered after quitting music for more than 30 years, as chronicled in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.”
The Relatives, who reunited in 2009, didn’t find any success when they first toured 40 years ago, because audiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s were more interested in “traditional-sounding” groups, West said. But The Relatives 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,” West said. “At the time we were performing, we weren’t as kindly received as we are today.”
Now, The Relatives are booked around the country in a nation where songs from the genre “psychedelic gospel” are housed in the same iPods that carry “political hip-hop,” “avant-garde metal” and “Mongolian throat singing.” All genres are blending into new genres, and that is one tradition that will survive well into the future.
2013 Living Traditions Festival
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, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 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, multi-cultural, 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.; and May 19: The Relatives, psychedelic gospel, 5:30 p.m.
Details • livingtraditionsfestival.com