Global sounds and tastes converge in downtown Greensboro

by Ryan Snyder

The Mosaic Festival in downtown Greensboro celebrated the multiculturalism of the city in music, art and cuisine. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Kind of like you never know what goes into the sausage until you see it being made, the same holds true for hosting outdoor festivals. You plan for every conceivable eventuality, negotiate with hard-hearted bureaucrats, beg for logistical scraps, obsessively check weather forecasts and pray your heart out that it doesn’t rain. But then when it all comes together, mostly as planned, the feeling is almost magical. That was what organizers for the 2 nd annual Mosaic Festival dealt with this past Saturday, as the free international food and music festival more than tripled its first-year attendance to more than 3,500 attendees.

This is probably as good of a time as any to note that the festival’s primary is my significant other, and that I at least played a small role in the planning of the event. But for an afternoon that brought together several communities within Greensboro that might not otherwise ever have a shared experience, I feel a little justified in saying that its cultural significance should not be understated.

The idea of the event is to not only raise awareness of Greensboro’s refugee community — which includes Iraqi and Montagnard veterans who fought on the side of the US — but to essentially be two festivals in one. There was Congolese, Caribbean, Indian, Iraqi, Bhutanese, Nigerian and Burmese in the food vendor area, while whatever diversity found in the cuisine was rivaled onstage in the form of music and dance. Amidst all of the exotic eats, there were gospel singers from the Democratic Repiblic of the Congo, Laotian and Bhutanese folk dance, matronly African women strutting in traditional garb, an Eritrean gentleman is a sharp suit playing trance-y music to a programmed beat, and ridiculously cute kids acting out a spaghetti Western. They’re all amateurs, for sure, but also engaging in their art as the trio of professional acts that pulled the crowd away from the bulgogi for the time they were on stage.

Latin rockers Braco took the stage at the hottest part of the day with guests Evan Frierson and Daniel Yount of festival closers the Brand New Life on percussion and drums respectively. The duo were filling in for Ezra Kelly and Jose Sanchez and after only one practice with Braco, played like old hats. The groove in selections from their album Amplio Espacio and a pair of Santana covers was furious, but it’s still easy to forget to dance while watching bassist and bandleader Cesar Oviedo take his group through the myriad of progressions with only eye contact.

The spirit of collaboration carried over into a set by Burundian singer Ndabarushimana Christopher, as Kairaba! guitarist John Westmoreland joined in for a set of folk hymns and Afro-pop jams. It was also the Greensboro debut of Diali Cissohko’s five-piece Senegalese griot-rock fusion group. Their story is told as much through the 21-string kora as it is the electric guitar, and their West Africa-meets-Piedmont vibe sounds as ageless as it does progressive. As their set ran long due to some technical problems in their sound check — but also buoyed by a group of dancing stage crashers — the quote of the day came from a member of the on-deck African Women’s Fashion Show, imploring the sound to be cut to their set: “African men, never doing anything you tell them.”

The PA problems that persisted unfortunately cut some sets short and others completely, but Toronto transplant Kwesi Immanuel still made the most of the five minutes he had onstage with his stirring acoustic number “Battles Won” as the sun began to set.

There was no coincidence that the name of the festival’s closer also represented what a lot of refugees who come to this country dream of. The Brand New Life’s music is a melting pot of numerous world musical traditions, from Brazil to Africa to New Orleans to Jamaica, but they speak the universal language of funk. Those who stayed until the very end were rewarded with their patience, as they saw one of the finest local bands evolving toward even better things. Talking drummer Mamadou Mbengue has embraced his role as a griot within the eight-piece unit and channeled his duties into being a charismatic frontman, backed by a band that’s somewhere between Return to Forever and Africa ’70.