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Strawberry Moon Festival celebrates cultures that connect us, earth that sustains us

It was an often deeply moving cultural mashup, structured around themes of connectivity, compassion, mutual respect and inclusivity.

On Saturday, the inaugural Strawberry Moon Festival took place at Artpark. Not just a music festival, Strawberry Moon celebrated the fact the sky does not acknowledge borders, as different cultural factions from Western New York and Canada gathered to honor the beginning of a new season and tip their collective cap to the land that sustains us all.

Through music, art, dance and conversation, members of the Native American community commingled with Canadian rockers, and fans of Newfoundland-birthed folk rock joined a parade that culminated in a massive, exuberant drum circle in front the of the outdoor amphitheater main stage, where a legendary Brazilian percussionist jammed as a master of African dance thrilled the assembled crowd.

Throughout the afternoon, the sprawling Artpark grounds were given over to celebrations of Native American ritualistic dance and song, hosted by regional Iroquois Nations representatives. After an initial welcoming ceremony, festivalgoers gathered on the lawn to witness the Smoke Dance Competition, in which both men and women combine athleticism and exuberance to voice-and-drum-led songs of varying tempos.

As the dancers began to wind down their ceremony, what organizers called the “Whirlpool Parade” commenced at the top of the natural amphitheater bowl, winding its way down through the crowd under the direction of legendary Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, Slyboots School of Music, Art & Dance head Griffin Brady and percussionist Ringo Brill, all of whom pitched in to craft an infectious Afro-Cuban-style groove.

As the parade wound its way across the grounds, with members of People, Inc. and Buffalo Public Schools adult education programs joining the marching and dancing, the excitement built, until it finally exploded into a joyous drum circle, with Native American drummers and singers joining in.

Artpark executive director Sonia Clark told me prior to the festival that what Baptista, Brady and crew were envisioning was “an epiphany kind of moment, where we bring all the different aspects of the festival together in a great moment of unity.” The parade and drum circle certainly fit that bill.

Following an eloquent speech in which an Iroquois leader urged the assembled to honor the earth that sustains us all by embracing the philosophy of sustainability – “We, all of us, need to do better,” he said, in a voice of quiet, humble authority – the second portion of Strawberry Moon commenced, with a performance by Native American blues-soul-rock combo Thunderhand Joe & the Medicine Show.

Though attendance had surprisingly been relatively light throughout the afternoon, the lower bowl of the amphitheater and surrounding lawn began to fill up as Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle hit the stage with his killer guitar-and-fiddle-led band, performing revved-up traditional and original pieces blending Newfoundland folk traditions with electric rock.

Doyle got the crowd – many of whom were by now singing along to his cultural mash-ups with gusto – fully primed, pausing repeatedly to note the beauty of the day, the majesty of the natural surroundings, and the border-transcending modus operandi of the festival itself.

The Sam Roberts Band followed with an uber-tight and highly energetic set given added drama by a truly transcendent sunset taking place behind the stage and above the Niagara Gorge. Canadian DJs, A Tribe Called Red capped the evening with a set blending EDM, hip-hop and traditional First Nations music.

Roberts acknowledged the laid-back, open-hearted vibe of the Strawberry Moon fest during his set, and went on to urge us all to make sure “this becomes a party we look forward to every year.”

Let’s hope so. This celebration of the cultures that connect us and the earth that sustains us is an idea whose time has clearly come.


Strawberry Moon Festival

With A Tribe Called Red, Sam Roberts Band, Alan Doyle and Thunderhand Joe & the Medicine Show. June 22 at Artpark.

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