LEAF to celebrate 50th festival

Karrigan Monk
Black Mountain News

For Jennifer Pickering, Lake Eden is a "sacred place."

She grew up on the property and when she moved back to the area, she, along with a small team, created LEAF in 1995 and now hosts two festivals a year.

LEAF will be celebrating a milestone during their upcoming event on Oct. 20-23.

Otto Vazquez (left), Jennifer Pickering (middle) and Elsea Brown (right), all said they are looking forward to LEAF's 50th festival Oct. 20-23.

"This is our long-awaited 50th festival," Pickering said. "It was originally going to happen May 2020, so over the past three years we've been pivoting and doing smaller retreats and doing what has been right for the time, keeping safety and health and happiness as a priority."

Pickering, the executive director of LEAF, works alongside a team to continue to create LEAF festivities.

One of these team members is Otto Vazquez, artistic curator. He said part of the 50th festival celebration will include bringing back LEAF-favorite artists, some of whom are coming back together just for this event. Other favorites like contra dancing will be making a comeback after being canceled because of COVID-19 related concerns.

"I especially love the talent that we're bringing out, from Angelique Kidjo to Rocky Dawuni," Vazquez said. "It's going to be one of those events that I think people are going to be talking about. The level of talent, plus all the awesome things people have been experiencing for the last 27 years are now being able to come back and enjoy a full festival."

Office manager Elsea Brown said she also thinks people are looking forward to the event.

"I really think just the fact that we're finally getting to have it," Brown said. "All the folks that I've spoken with over the phone and all of the attendees, it's been something that folks have been anticipating for three years now. They're just so excited that we're actually getting ready to do it and that it's going to be full capacity."

Angelique Kidjo will be one of the headliners at LEAF's 50th festival.

Pickering said she created LEAF because of her passion for world cultures and to create a place where families could come and create "magical gatherings," as well as a place that combined world music, culture, arts and the outdoors.

"A lot of people, LEAF is their place, not only for family traditions, but also where they fell in love," Pickering said. "I met my husband at LEAF. He came from New York as a sponsor. There's a lot of people who LEAF has been part of their story and they are part of our story. It's a pretty extraordinary gathering."

One of the main themes of the festival this year is "Legends of Africa." Attendees can expect to experience culture from more than 60 countries around the globe.

Ranging from musical performances to art and beyond, LEAF creates a community around art, the organizers said. A poetry slam featuring LEAF's original slam master and 13 poets from around the world will also be featured.

Vazquez said several artists arrive before the festival to do residencies and workshops in the community, including teaching local children numbers to be performed onstage.

"That's one thing that I feel that LEAF does very well in is not only teaching the community, but incorporating the community into the actual festivities," Vazquez said. "Kids get not only to perform with their teacher, which is pretty awesome, but they also get performance experience.

Rocky Dawuni will be one of the headliners at LEAF's 50th festival.

Another way for young people to get involved with the festival is through Ethno, a program Pickering said is a highlight for her. The program aims to highlight young musicians from around the world, specializing in folk, world or traditional music, according to the program's website.

This program is only part of the world music featured at the festival. Pickering said LEAF is one of the best in the world.

"That's one thing I don't think a lot of people understand," Pickering said. "In your own backyard you've got one of the best family world music festivals in the world right here to your access."

Vazquez said tickets for the festival are going fast, but work exchange is offered, which is how Brown got her start with LEAF.

"If tickets are not an accessible thing, definitely look into doing work exchange," Brown said. "That's how I first was able to attend LEAF and got totally sucked into LEAF world. Exchanging just a little bit of time in order to be able to attend the festival was really awesome and was a great way to really embed myself into the community."

A scene from the 2021 fall LEAF Festival at Lake Eden.

Pickering said LEAF would not be possible without its partners like Lake Eden, Camp Rockmont, Grove Stone Quarry and Owen Middle School.

She said LEAF is different things to different people, but, at it’s core, it is a “beautiful way to live life.”  

“Hopefully when people leave LEAF 50th, they feel revived, renewed, reconnected to, as we say, the best of themselves, each other and the world,” Pickering said. “We go forth in creating just lots and lot of goodness and helping create platforms for cultures, youth, voices often unheard to be able to share and really feel seen and feel honored and feel alive.”