Music to Our Ears: Global Music Abounds in Asheville
By Emily Glaser
The Asheville music scene is often associated with a series of quintessential sounds of the mountains: the twanging strum of a banjo, the thump of a tub bass, even the metallic knock of spoons. But as our little city grows and new residents flow in faster than floodwaters off the mountain, the sounds of our music scene are evolving. We still have a soft spot for the bluegrass that got its start in our Blue Ridges, but we’ve also opened our hearts to all sorts of sounds. From the pulse of Colombian tunes to the clip-clap of music from Mali, Asheville fosters and harbors all sorts of global tunes and their makers.
For years now, musicians of all stripes have called Asheville home, whether for a night or a lifetime. They wander in, weary from worldly treks and late-night gigs, and set their stage in the nurturing and close-knit curves of our mountains.
But how do these global musicians find the little artist’s enclave that is Asheville? For many of them, the answer is local nonprofit organization LEAF Community Arts (LEAF). For more than 20 years, LEAF has served as a catalyst for Asheville’s music scene, infusing our city with global flair through performances at the twice annual (May and October) LEAF Festival and year-round partnerships in LEAF International. LEAF Festival takes place on the former campus of the historic Black Mountain College, creating the perfect backdrop for the 12,000 intergenerational and diverse music lovers who gather here. The hollowed hills of the Blue Ridge resound with the sounds of music from around the world, as the lineup inevitably includes a bevy of global acts. Often, more than 50 countries are represented in the lineup. The Fall LEAF Festival, taking place October 20–23, will include Balkan Beat Box with members who hail from Brooklyn and Tel Aviv; Beats Antique, whose front woman Zoë Jakes belly dances through the jingles of gypsy jazz; a local salute to ’20s and ’30s jazz by Squirrel Nut Zippers; and one of the most abiding reggae groups of all time, Jamaica’s Third World.
The overarching and deep-reaching mission of LEAF Community Arts has always been to foster cultural awareness and celebration for the arts in Asheville (and elsewhere in the world). It’s been successful since the outset. “LEAF embodies the universal language of music and transcends the significance that music and the arts are fundamental cornerstones in every community around the world,” says Sarah Nie, LEAF board emeritus. “My love for music and dance is shared in common with the entire LEAF community…” All in all, through the twice annual LEAF Festival in Black Mountain; LEAF Downtown in the heart of Asheville; cultural arts education programs LEAF International and LEAF Schools & Streets; and the launch of a new capital program called LEAF Love Campaign, LEAF continues to dig deep, global roots in the heart of Asheville’s music tableau.
These incredible international artists aren’t just making Asheville a simple tour stop or fleeting sojourn; many of them are setting their own roots in our fertile soils. Artists of all backgrounds and styles from all corners of the world call Asheville home. That means you don’t have to wait for a nomadic tour at a big venue; there are plenty of transplanted or internationally inspired acts performing at restaurants, bars, and music halls across the region.
You can catch those striking, global sounds any night of the week in any corner of town: the ringing ding of Les Amis’ steel drums that twinkle like the bistro lights above Bhramari Brewhouse’s patio; the jolly thrum of Irish strings before the velvet curtain Isis’ stage; ragtime jazz that spills onto the street from Crow & Quill. Wander the streets and alleys, hills and slopes in the dusky afterlight of sunset and your ears will pick up the hums, trills, and throaty thumps of music from around the world.
So the question remains: Why Asheville? This town is one that breeds inspiration and champions the arts, but even more than that, it’s a musical city, and it has been since the first migrant’s strum of a banjo. “Audiences in the Southeast are very enthusiastic about music. They grew up with great music,” points out Jens Kruger, of The Kruger Brothers, who originally hails from Switzerland. “Some of the finest players in the business are from the region, so the people are among the most educated audiences in the country. They appreciate good music here the way, for instance, jazz audiences appreciate New York. We travel all over the world and Asheville stands out among the most innovative cities for live music, with audiences that are passionate about music and music discovery.”
Whether you grew up in our local mountains or you’re a transplant yourself, you know Asheville is a special kind of place. And with the soundtrack of global music whistling through our streets and mountainsides, our little town becomes even more extraordinary.