Brooklyn-based instrumental supergroup Snarky Puppy hosted its 4th annual GroundUP Music Festival in Miami Beach last weekend, which treated fans in attendance to a myriad of exceptionally-talented musical acts from around the world, as well as a selection of artists from their own record label, GroundUP Music.

Featuring four sets from Snarky Puppy (including an exclusive, intimate acoustic set that allowed each of the 20+ rotating members of the band to sit in) and performances from artists including Lettuce, Lila Downs, Michael McDonald, Hamilton de Holanda, Brian BladeFellowship Band, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Banda Magda, Flor de Toloache, Maro, and many more, this year’s GroundUP Music Festival was one for the books.

With hundreds of serious musicians in attendance, the festival felt like as much of a music-industry networking event as NAMM or SXSW. At any moment, one might find themself standing in the crowd next to a world-renowned musician, producer, engineer, or label executive. Such intimacy is one of the factors which really sets GroundUP Music Festival apart from other, larger festival events.

As a lifelong musician myself, I was thrilled to return to the North Beach Bandshell in North Miami Beach and see what Michael and the GroundUP Music team had in store for this year.

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On Valentines Day afternoon, after a pre-festival cocktail hour with performances by Lila Downs and Flor de Toloache, the official festivities kicked off with a workshop hosted by members of the Snarky Puppy horns. Festivalgoers gathered around as the musicians offered their advice on everything from breathing techniques to communicating with each other on-stage, and emphasized the value of transcribing music by ear without relying on instruments.

After a short break, veteran singer-songwriter Michael McDonald (Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers) appeared for an interview with Becca Stevens and Snarky Puppy keyboard player Shaun Martin. McDonald opened up about the challenges of balancing life on the road with raising his children, and explained how songwriting “Is a muscle that needs to be exercised constantly.”

The first performer to take the stage at the North Beach Bandshell was Portuguese vocalist Sophia Ribiero, who captivated the crowd with a selection of songs adapted from Portuguese poetry. Ribiero translated some of the lyrics to the crowd – “I am a foreigner in motion / I don’t know exactly where I’m going / but I keep singing and find my way…”

Cuban drummer/composer Yissy Garcia then took to the Park Stage to showcase her blend of Afro-Cuban, jazz, and hip-hop grooves

Snarky Puppy later performed their first of three sets on the Bandshell Stage early Friday evening, selflessly leaving the primetime headlining slots of night one to their friends and labelmates. Highlights included “Bigly Strictness” from 2019’s Immigrance, “Gemini”, and fan-favorite “What About Me?” from 2014’s We Like it Here to close out the set.

Greek-born singer Magda Giannikou put on quite a show next on the Park Stage. Dancing barefoot while playing accordion and singing in multiple languages with her group, Banda Magda, the ensemble was also joined by Miami-based samba percussion studio Miamibloco, who appeared in the crowd carrying a variety of drums and hand percussion instruments.

Closing out the Park Stage on Night One was NYC-based, all-female Mariachi quartet, Flor de Toloache, who encaptivated the crowd with their lush vocal harmonies and impressive musicianship. They also slipped a few crowd-pleasing covers into the set, including No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”, Nirvana’s “Come as You Are”, and a tease of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” before transitioning into “All of My Love”.

Most of the people I spoke with at GroundUP Music Festival hadn’t previously heard of Brazilian bandolim virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda, but following his headlining set on Friday night, he was a superstar of the festival. The music seemed to flow from his fingertips so naturally, it was as though he wasn’t even thinking about what notes to play but simply playing by feeling. His bandmates were all top-notch musicians too, each getting a chance to showcase their skills with elaborate solos and features.  Holanda would return to the stage more than once over the course of the next few days, including a special feature on one of Snarky Puppy’s most popular tunes.

As ominous clouds rolled in over Miami Beach to start day two, “Getting Weird with Keyboards” was the first official event on the schedule, and attendees huddled under the cover of the North Shore Community Center to avoid the rain and to nerd out about the most desirable vintage components to power the sound engines in their instruments.

The downpour intensified as Russian-born singer and composer Alina Engibaryan stepped up onto the Park Stage with an all-star cast of musicians, including Michael League on bass and artist-in-residence, Chris Potter, on sax. She appeared optimistic as she dried off the keyboard of her rented Yamaha grand piano with a towel in between songs. Unfortunately, the set was eventually cut short due to the inclement weather.

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The masses crowded into the Community Center, where Chris Potter sat for an interview with the Snarky Puppy sax players. Potter shared tips and tricks for fellow woodwind players and all musicians alike, emphasizing the importance of hard work and having fun in saying, “The only reason I’ve worked this hard and all this time I’ve spent, is because I really enjoy it. Connect with that – go for what you really enjoy doing. Approach it like a kid playing with blocks. Always push yourself a little harder, but not hard enough that you stop enjoying the process.”

Despite the unpleasant weather, the music went on all afternoon without much of a hitch. Finally, as if on cue, the skies started to clear just as Michael League and Snarky Puppy appeared on the bandshell stage for their second performance of the weekend. Raincoats came off, umbrellas came down, and fans lost themselves in the opening notes of “Even Us”. The Snarky Puppy horn section shined on “Semente”, a fan favorite from their Grammy-winning 2016 album, Culcha Vulcha. To close out the set, League invited Friday night headliner Hamilton de Holanda to the stage to take the solo on “Lingus”.

The climax of Day 2 came as trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah took the Bandshell stage with his band, ushering in what he called “the second century of creative improvised music – a.k.a. ‘jazz’”. Jazz music was first popularized in the early 1920’s, so GroundUP Music Festival 2020 really does seem like a fitting way to celebrate the genre’s centennial.

Sunday morning on Miami Beach came with temps in the 80’s and promisingly clear blue skies. Before the gates of the festival officially opened, the Snarky Puppy crew hosted a separately-ticked VIP brunch with the band, followed by their first acoustic performance together in years. The room was packed, with standing room only as Michael League walked up to the microphone.

“We played one acoustic gig a few years back in the Netherlands,” League explained to the audience. “But we  didn’t really prepare anything for today, so we’re just gonna jump off a cliff here and have some fun.”

With the room filled to the brim with their biggest fans, Snarky Puppy continued to amaze with world-class musicianship across the board.

After the brunch and acoustic set concluded, the crew of Snarky drummers and percussionists carried their gear downstairs for the annual Percussion Summit. Members of just about every band at the festival that day were present to discuss different techniques and share their ideas.

The first official performance of the day came from Grammy Award-winning trumpeter John Daversa, backed up by a “who’s-who” of the local Miami jazz scene–Tal Cohen on keys, Zach Larmer on guitar, Koa Ho on bass, Daniel Chiverton on drums, and Melvin Butler on sax. As Desiree Bannister, lead singer for the Miami-based band SHENZI, described it, “They’re like the freaking Avengers up there!”  

The group went on to demonstrate a level of musicianship and communication on stage that can only be achieved by years and years of playing with each other in dozens of different bands.

The afternoon went on in similar fashion, with inspiring performances by Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Portuguese singer/songwriter Maro, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (Wayne Krantz, guitar/vocals; Keith Carlock, drums; Tim Lefebvre, bass) and the annual “Acapella by the Sea” hosted by Banda Magda, which coincided with a gorgeous pink and purple sunset over the ocean.

As the sunset faded into the blue hour, crowds gathered at the Bandshell to witness one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend, where Lettuce kicked things off with “Krewe” and had the crowd singing along with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, both from their Grammy-nominated 2019 album, Elevate.

GroundUP Music artist Becca Stevens closed out the Park Stage for the weekend with a dynamic performance that featured members of Breastfist and Snarky Puppy guitarist Bob Lanzetti. With her pink hair, guitar, and matching pink sequined jacket, Stevens commanded the stage with such confidence and conviction that it was impossible to look away.

Finally, Snarky Puppy returned to the Bandshell stage for their last performance of the weekend. Michael League and keyboardist Shaun Martin guided the audience through the polyrhythmic clapping pattern on “Xavi”, which the musically inclined crowd picked up with ease. In a fitting end to the weekend, artist-in-residence Chris Potter joined the band for the end of the set, taking a virtuosic solo on “Chonks” from their 2019 Immigrance album.

Before counting off the closing number, Michael League took a moment to express his gratitude for all the people who had helped make the weekend possible, including GroundUP Music CEO Paul Lehr, The Rhythm Foundation (who manages the North Beach Bandshell), and all the fans who came out to support the music.  He also made a surprise announcement: GroundUP Music Festival 2021 has been officially confirmed for the same time and same venue next year!  Fans screamed and cheered as the opening notes of “Shofukan” filled the Bandshell, and Chris Potter stepped up again to take the main solo.  The whole crowd threw their hands in the air and sang along at the top of their lungs to the undeniably catchy outro horn line.

The fifth annual GroundUP Music Festival will take place early next year on February 12th-14th at the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach. The 2021 iteration of the growing event will feature three nights of Snarky Puppy, along with Isaiah Sharkey, Kurt Rosenwinkel Caipi Band, Bassekou Kouyate + Fatoumata Diawara + Weedie Braimah, The Nth Power, Edmar Castenada & Grégoire Maret, and many more to be announced in the coming months.

Scroll down for a full gallery from this year’s event, courtesy of photographer Colin McKinley.