GrassRoots: 2009

During my second semester of my junior year (around February 2010) I submitted a non-fiction essay about GrassRoots to The Blue Guitar Magazine. The issue’s just been published online. Check out my essay and the other wonderful writing here. My essay’s on pages 50-51.

My essay’s about my GrassRoots experience in 2009. I just got out of a serious relationship, and I was in a really broken place. Going to GrassRoots and being surrounded by so much love helped heal me in so many ways.

In case you don’t venture over to the website, here’s the essay:

Healed by the Beat of the Drum

“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.

This is power, it is glory on Earth and it is yours for the taking.”

— Agnes De Mille

Waking up in the same pajamas I’ve been wearing the past five days, I have no desire to leave my bed even as the afternoon sun beats down outside my window. My whole world had come to a crashing halt when my boyfriend confessed he’d fallen out of love with me. Even my bedroom in the house I grew up in — surrounded by pictures of friends, bands and art — couldn’t offer any comfort.

I needed to escape the prison of loneliness, so I fled to my favorite music festival: GrassRoots. Held in upstate New York, GrassRoots is a four-day spectacle of partying, camping and listening to bands from all over the world. The eclectic mix of music ranges from Native American folk and Peruvian electronica to rock, bluegrass, soul, reggae and rockabilly. Because the camping is in tight quarters, festival-goers share food, alcohol, blankets and all other belongings. By the end of the festival, neighbors become family, and strangers become lifetime friends.

Noises in the night

Lying in my tent, I can’t fall asleep, even after an exhausting day of dancing and drinking at the festival. Shrieks, screams, howls, drumbeats and laughter erupt from the woods. The noises call to the wind, to the world, to the wild. A rush of electricity buzzes in my brain. One more “I yi yiiiii!” stabs into my ears, and I leap up. I need to join the people creating the noise.

It’s the first night of the festival, and everyone’s welcoming the darkness with music. As I walk barefoot into the woods, a couple greet me: “Hi friend! Happy GrassRoots!” They share the shine of their flashlight as we drift from campsite to campsite.

People I’ve never met smile and hug me when I walk by. They’re eager to share their belongings. “Hey friend, great to see you! Have a glow stick.” “Hi beautiful, would you like any food?” Their kindness is overwhelming.

As we approach the drum circle, I understand why everyone is still awake. A painted naked woman holds a tambourine with one hand and claps her fingers to her mouth with the other. Her knotty hair sways as she sits cross-legged on the dirt. Next to her, a man attacks the bongo drum with his fingers.

Glancing at the crowd, I realize these people are no different than me. They too have work on Monday. The guy dancing naked hollering in the drum circle will be in a suit waiting for the Metro on Monday morning.  They too have jobs in cubicles, work the monotonous 9-5, cook meals and wash laundry. They too could be suffering broken hearts.

But at this instant, none of that matters. For these stolen moments they have a chance to really just be.

The power of music

In the morning the sun pierces my tent. Crawling out, I stretch and change into my rainbow-hued bathing suit top and wrap a blue sarong with bright sunflowers around my waist. I place my favorite hat from when I was 7 on my head: a pink-and-red beaded veil with long white lace that falls down my back. I head to the festival to prepare for the Happiness Day Parade.

At the festival grounds I look for Ryan, the artist who’d painted my body the year before. He’s in the same spot, next to a maple tree outside the Happiness Day Parade headquarters, a barn filled with medieval costumes and capes for anyone to borrow.

Smiling as he sees me, Ryan says, “Come here, you goddess! Let me paint you.”

With a brush, Ryan splashes lines of blue and green across my shoulders and down my arms. He presses a small dish drainer around my forehead and airbrushes pink against the holes. In the middle of my forehead he sticks a silver-colored gem. With an assortment of other kitchen instruments and metal scraps he airbrushes the rest of my upper body and draws a lime green heart under my collar bones.

“Now that you look beautiful, you better get out there and dance like crazy,” Ryan says.

“Oh, I will,” I reply. Thinking, you have no idea.

After the parade I meet up with friends from home, and we’re instantly pulled to the sound of loud bongo drumming. We run right up to the main stage and see four African-American men shining in long, bright blue dresses. It’s the band Samite of Uganda. The frontman Samite wails tribal African songs as the percussion section bloomswith conga drums, bongos and native African madinas and kalimbas.

My body starts to move in ways I can’t even comprehend. My arms propel up and down, left and right. I bend close to the ground, spin on my toes and plunge into the air, all the while swinging and stomping to the beat of the drum. Sweat slides across my face, in between my knees. Paint drips down my forehead. My heart thumps louder and wilder with every beat. The music rattles my senses.

People around us join our circle. We just look at each other—laughing, smiling, twirling into a perpetual state of bliss. The 6-foot-tall man in front of me dances in his huge black top hat and long, sparkly wizard cape. The girl next to him, feathers and flowers in her hair, spins in her bright purple, orange, yellow and blue dress.

On the stage I see Ryan dancing and laughing with his friends. Our eyes meet. He jumps off the stage, shimmies over to me, eyes fiery with excitement, and shouts, “You’re doing it! You’re doing it! You’re getting crazy!” He grabs my hand and pulls me on stage.

As we dance next to the band, euphoria rushes through me. My body no longer belongs to me—some other force takes over.

Nothing matters except that moment. I am infinite.

My wizard friend dances on the other side of the stage. He pulls off his hat, shakes his head and dreadlocks tumble out down to his knees. The crowd roars.

As the music stops, I can’t even breathe. Floating in a trance, I walk off stage and bump into the wizard.

“I saw you dancing up there, getting down!” he says.

“Yeah, I saw you shaking out all your dreads.”

He looks at me, snaps his fingers side to side and starts singing, “Life just keeps getting better. Life just keeps getting better.”

A smile sprouts in my heart and conquers my whole face. All the loneliness from the break-up with my boyfriend disintegrates. Laughing wildly, I join in: “Life just keeps getter better. Life just keeps getting better.”

And even if for a moment, I knew it would.

GrassRoots: The Music

The music at GrassRoots ranges from reggae to zydeco to rock to folk to sitting-on-your-front-porch-drinking-a-beer-bluegrass. For the most part it’s all feel-good, get off your butt and dance kind of music for all ages. There are two main stages, a dance tent and a cabaret stage in a building that’s similar to a barn.

Here’s a playlist with some of my favorite performances from this year. The options on the search engine were pretty limited, but press play to gain an idea of the sounds of GrassRoots.


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Read about my favorite performances while you listen:

-Donna the Buffalo:

A five-piece band infused with old-time music, mountain music, blues, rock, reggae, Cajun, folk and bluegrass. After every song, the female vocalist changes instruments: scrubboard, accordion, fiddle, guitar. I’ve never seen someone get as lost in the music as Jeb, the frontman, does. His eyes close, his mouth opens, and he’s in another world.

To quote from the GrassRoots program, “Like the herd’s trail across the prairie, Donna the Buffalo will make her mark in your heart.”

Favorite songs they played:

“Positive Friction” lyrics:

“Positive friction, under the upper crust/What does all this Hollywood really have to do with us/True grit, timeless love/There’s no reason to pretend/Lets get together and become natural once again/Natural once again…./There is a certain vibe, circulating in the air/Cast from all the energy that emanates from everywhere”

“Locket and Key” lyrics:

“There must be something in the moon and stars keeping it together when we’re falling apart.” <there must be 🙂

Check out their website here.

-Arrested Development

We were hip-hoping all over the place to their positive tunes. Most of our camp was together to watch them so it was even better.

Favorite songs:

“Ease my mind” –I need some time to ease my mind, I need some time.

“Tennessee” lyrics: “Take me to another place, take me to another land, Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan.”

Dear Arrested Development, watching your set, I forgot all that hurts me, and I was most definitely in another land. After their set, we shook hands with the whole band as they reached into the audience.

-Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad

“GPGDS combine the hypnotic sounds of Jamaican music with their own conscious vibrations and eternal truths. Live in the moment, let it happen…you’ll be healed and uplifted, and that’s a guarantee.”

Check out their music here.

-The Makepeace Brothers

Very sing-along, feel-good, grooving tunes. They interact with the crowd and make sure everyone’s having fun. At one point they called contestants on stage to have a twist contest. Most of our camp was together while watching them so it made their performance much more fun.

This performance isn’t from GrassRoots, but this was their last song. Just imagine me and all my friends pointing to each other and thanking each other with every line.

-Kevin Kinsella

Another favorite reggae performance. The reggae really won me over this weekend.

Kevin’s son was at his side for the whole set. He kept singing, dancing and breaking it down. It was the most precious thing. Kevin kept singing to him and playing with him, too.

-Sim Redmond Band

One of my favorite bands. They sing pretty little simple songs that can pull anyone’s heart strings. Their songs can bring you back to a certain moment, can make you yearn for that true love, can dig their way into your heart. We watched from the second row and then moved to the back half-way through.

Favorite songs:

“Arms Around the Sun” lyrics:

“I feel strange and I feel cold/and I’m afraid of growing old/and I’m afraid if I look back/I might find a crack/or a hole in my soul…./I’ll wrap my arms around the sun.”

Their songs provide me with some deep satisfying feeling of understanding. The connection hits my heart everytime.

-Oliver Mtukudzi and Black Spirits

As this band was starting on the Grand Stand Stage, everyone in our camp found each other in the dance tent. Once we saw the light pouring from the Grand Stand Stage, we ran to them. It was so incredibly beautiful. Oliver is a best-selling artist in his home country of Zimbabwe and it’s clear to see why. Listen to them here.

-Samite

Last year while watching this band I had an out of body experience. His hypnotizing music brings me to paradise. When looking around at the audience, it’s amazing to see all the joy Samite brings to everyone. To his spiritual, compassionate music, everyone twirls, spins and smiles. During his last song it started to rain and everyone went wild. When dancing to Samite’s music I turn into a wild animal. He brings out something inside of me I’ve never felt before. Check out a video of his last song in my previous post.

-Chiwoniso

Another beautiful band from Africa. More and more I’m beginning to realize that I need to go to Africa. The drums and chants call to me like nothing else.

After their performance I saw my friend Ryan and he asked if I’d see them. When I told him I caught some of their set, he said, “I woke up crying to their song. It was so triumphant.”

Couldn’t have said it better.