Who would be cooking up some mango chicken for a mid-day meal in southern Spain as he chatted about this year’s GroundUP Music Festival? Snarky Puppy’s Michael League takes the cake..or the whole chicken, for best multi-tasker of cooking up a world-class meal and talking all aspects of one of Miami’s most cultured music events.
Coming back for its fourth year at Miami Beach, FL’s North Beach Bandshell on February 14th-16th, GroundUP will host an eclectic mix of artists from around the world, including Michael McDonald (The Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan), saxophone virtuoso Chris Potter, jazz drummer/vocalists Jamison Ross, Grammy Award-winning Mexican folk-fusion singer Lila Downs, Lettuce, jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, jazz drummer and songwriter Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, and many more. The Valentine’s Day weekend event also features global artists from Colombia, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, Switzerland, and Greece, making it a true exploration of world music.
Live For Live Music’s Mikala Lugen got the inside scoop on this year’s Snarky Puppy-curated event with League, breaking down the barriers between artists and fans, the musical diversity of GroundUP, and more.
Live For Live Music: So this year is the fourth year of GroundUP! What was the original vision of GroundUP and how has that evolved since its first year?
Michael League: I think when we started it, the whole idea was to kind of build our own little mini music festival and go in line with the whole thing from the very beginning of exposing lesser-known artists to a fan base that’s into listening and discovering serious music. Our grand plan with the festival has been to really focus on artists who are not necessarily super well known or who are already playing every festival. Eventually, my dream would be to have a festival where we don’t ever announce the artists and then people just come and have no idea what they’re going to see, but they just trust the brand and that would allow us to have an entire festival full of artists that aren’t super famous but are all incredible. My favorite thing about GroundUP is seeing people’s faces when they see bands that they’ve never heard of for the first time.
Live For Live Music: That’s a really great concept. Exposing people to some new music and cultural influences, especially with it taking place in Miami. How did you guys come up with the location of the festival?
League: Well, the festival director is Paul Lehr, and he’s a Miami native and he immediately pitched it. I was very hesitant at first because Miami is not the first place you think of when you think of American music city. But a really big part of the festival is the location, with the beautiful, warm, beachy weather in February. It’s attracted people to come and check that out.
Live For Live Music: I know that GroundUP hosts a lot of classes and workshops that get a lot of the musicians on the lineup involved, creating an immersive environment with the attendees. Do you have a favorite workshop from any of the past GroundUP festivals?
League: Yeah, we have a lot of really special ones. We do these musical interviews a lot at GroundUP, where one musician will interview another musician but there will be instruments there, so as they’re explaining something they can demonstrate it. I did that once with fellow bassist Victor Wooten (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones). We’ve had what we called “first meetings”, where we get artists who have never actually met, and we put the two of them together to talk about music and play without planning anything out. Those are always really fun. Every year, Banda Magda hosts “a cappella by the sea” where she takes a bunch of performing artists and guests from the festival and they go to the beach and she teaches them parts and songs and they sing a cappella. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on that’s not on stage.
Live For Live Music: That’s really creating a whole new level of intimacy between attendees and the musicians, and the musicians among the other musicians as well.
League: Yeah, one of the most important elements of the festival is having a situation in which the barrier between the artists and the audience is down. Because GroundUP is so small, it really allows us to do that. You can totally have this kind of situation where the artists are just walking around the public. There is a backstage area but the artists never use it because they want to check out the other artists. I’m not a huge fan of the hero-worship thing that happens in music and film. At the end of the day, people are people, whether you’re performing or you bought a ticket. We’re all here because of music and not because of stars or hype. For me, that’s the main point. I don’t care how famous the person is.
Live For Live Music: I think it’s great that Snarky Puppy chooses to help break down those barriers around the fans and musicians. How involved is the band in the booking of the music and artists of GroundUP?
League: Well as artistic director, I am 100% in charge of all of that. I hand-pick 100% of the artists every year and our festival director Paul Lehr and Eric Gerber contract the artists. Our touring crew, Rosanna Freedman and TJ Abbonizio, are essential to working the grounds at the festival as well. It’s always in the Snarky Puppy family, running things administratively and nailing down the nuts and bolts throughout the festival.
GroundUP Music Festival 2019 Recap Video
Live For Live Music: It’s a full Snarky Puppy family affair. Love it. This year, GroundUP has a wide range of acts from Lettuce and Lila Downs and Michael McDonald. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of how you select artists to play each year at GroundUP?
League: I mean it’s not just as simple as picking the artists I love because obviously there’s a lot of artists that we really love and would love to host. So the way that I think about it is more like creating a balanced meal. There’s a lot of artists that I love from West Africa, but if I had eight artists from West Africa on GroundUP, that means that I can’t have as many artists from the Latin world or from Turkey. We try to have a lot of different genres around the world represented. This year is very strong in the Latin music. We have a few artists from Mexico, a few from Portugal, one from Cuba, some from Brazil, and more. And of course a lot of jazz and funk artists as well.
There are only two stages and we alternate every second gig. We want the crowd to be stimulated every step as they walk back and forth between the stages. Most of our sets are between 45 and 70-minutes instead of 90-minutes like a normal festival. I want people to stay energized and have variety in their listening throughout the sets.
Live For Live Music: I think that sets GroundUP more apart from other festivals because it goes away from the traditional festival structure of constantly being on-the-go. Allowing yourself to get immersed in the music, take the time to appreciate everything, and have that diversity and discover new music.
League: Yes, absolutely. This festival is not a thing that I want people to go to one time and say they’re good to go. It’s the thing that I want everybody to make it a part of their schedule every year. That’s already happened with a lot of our audience where they’ve come for all three years and I want them to stay stimulated. I want them to get a very different experience every year.
Live For Live Music: Who would you say makes this year’s GroundUP different than last year’s?
League: Michael McDonald is a very interesting act for a lot of reasons, but also the thing that we’re doing with him is interesting because it’ll be very acoustic and outside of what he would normally do. He normally plays with a large band and performs big hits, but this time it’s going to be really different. It’s going to be more instruments and showcase part of his musicianship that I think we don’t see a whole lot.
I’m also really excited about Flor de Toloache, an all-female mariachi group from Mexico. And then Brian Blade, of course, is one of the most influential jazz drummers of all time and definitely of our generation that’s coming with his group The Fellowship Band, who I’ve been a fan of for 20 years. Cécile McLorin Salvant, she’s my favorite jazz singer right now, so she’s going to be bringing some great new aspects to the festival. It’s going to be really interesting.
Live For Live Music: Does Snarky Puppy take a different approach to the music they play at GroundUP?
League: Yeah, absolutely. And we actually tell all of the artists that GroundUP is an opportunity to do the things you never do. Play the music and try things out that you always wanted to but maybe you were afraid it wouldn’t go over very well. Because it’s an audience that comes to the festival, they’re there to listen. They’re really music-loving people and they’re accepting and open-minded and they’re not just wanting to see a light show and wait for the bass to drop. I love that the audience really kind of holds the artists accountable and that it’s small so that it can really be all about the music and not about just the scene.
See below for the full GroundUP 2020 artist lineup. For more information on tickets and travel packages, head to the GroundUP website.
GroundUP 2020 Artist Lineup
Snarky Puppy – All three nights
Chris Potter – Artist at Large
Michael McDonald with Chris Potter, Michael League & Jamison Ross
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band
Flor de Toloache
Krantz Carlock Lefebvre
Edmar Castaneda & Grégoire Maret
Hamilton de Holanda