PICTURED: Adaawe performs at the Ventura Music Festival. Photo-by-Taso-Papadakis

by Mike Nelson

Regardless of how many seats you obtain for the Ventura Music Festival, don’t expect to use them … much.

Not, at least, if you plan to see Adaawe (July 27), We Banjo 3 (July 29) or Veronica Swift (Aug. 6), all of whom are perfectly fine with audiences who get up and move — as in dance, gyrate or simply flail about — to their music.

And that’s probably true with all performers set to appear at the 27th festival, running July 27-31 and August 5-7. Most take place at the Ventura College Performing Arts Center, save for Adaawe, the global soul fusion ensemble of women percussionists and singers who present a festival-opening free concert July 27 at Mission Park.

“Audiences should expect to bring their dancing shoes — and smile,” says Joselyn Wilkinson, founder of Adaawe, which has performed worldwide in its 20-year history.

Her fellow VMF performers offer similar advice.

We Banjo. Photo by Acacia Evans

“We are a band that enjoys movement,” says We Banjo 3’s David Howley, lead singer and guitarist for the Irish folk-bluegrass-Americana quartet that has performed for, among others, President Barack Obama. “Irish music at its core is dance music, and we love it when people are out there dancing like nobody’s watching.”

And Veronica Swift, the young jazz singing star who embraces multiple genres in her repertoire, has a simple message for her audience: “Get ready to be rocked.”

 Adaawe: “The universality of rhythm and joy in song”

Adaawe is “extra excited” to perform, says Joselyn Wilkinson, given that its 2020 festival appearance was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We’ve done a lot of videos and some livestream over the past two years,” says Wilkinson, “but our sweet spot and passion is connecting with live audiences and bringing them into our circle through our music.”

That music is rooted in traditional women’s African folk songs that Wilkinson discovered while studying at the University of Ghana and UCLA’s school of World Arts and Cultures. 

“The idea of women coming together as they work to lift each other up through singing, to inspire the community, really moved me,” she says. “They have traditional songs they sing in the moonlight, and they often improvise the lyrics to keep them fresh. Music from the Black and African diaspora reflects a joy and creativity that is incredibly powerful.”

Wilkinson was thus inspired to launch Adaawe, “international women of the drum and voice,” with “the goal of forming that kind of collective, taking our cue from those strong women in the villages. We call it global soul, to embrace the universality of rhythm and joy in song.” 

Having studied African drum and song, Adaawe’s members — hailing from four countries on three continents — play, compose and arrange music embracing a variety of traditions including gospel, folk, reggae and American funk to produce their own joyful genre in which audiences worldwide have delighted (including those viewing Adaawe’s collaboration with LeAnn Rimes in the 2022 Tournament of Roses Parade’s opening number).

“We fully embrace and honor many forms of traditional music with which we’ve been blessed,” says Wilkinson. “And we don’t shy away from truth, but we also strive to uplift and bring people together.”

Django Festival Allstars perform at the Ventura Music Festival. Photo submitted

Adaawe’s members, all now based in the greater Los Angeles area, are each involved in independent projects as jazz singers, actors, modern dance choreographers and more, a range of diverse artistic gifts that benefit the ensemble.

“We see ourselves as family,” says Wilkinson, who lives in Westchester where she also plays and performs folk, jazz and soul with her husband Don Barrozo. “And people really respond, which is very gratifying.

“In today’s world people have become more polarized and separate, and we want to show them that there is more that brings us together than keeps us apart, if we take the time to look for it. Music can illustrate that because, like love, it is a universal language.” 

We Banjo 3: “A constant adventure”

Diversity is also what audiences can expect from We Banjo 3, a quartet of two pairs of brothers from County Kerry who may speak with a brogue but whose repertoire embraces everything from traditional Irish folk to American rock and soul.

“We have ties to many different sounds, but it’s all roots of the same tree,” says David Howley, who played in an Irish rock band before joining WB3 and sometimes plays his electric guitar at 3 a.m. at home in County Kerry. “I myself like to travel between Irish and American folk, and mix it up with other influences — you know, let yourself flow musically, take it all in, let it become part of your personality.”

That thinking influences all members of the decade-old ensemble, including David’s brother Martin and brothers Enda and Fergal Scahill, all top-notch banjoists who incorporate mandolin, viola, guitar and percussion into their music. 

“The beauty of what we do musically is [that] there is an ever-changing feel,” says Howley. “The group started as three banjo players, then pulled more toward bluegrass and Americana, as well to traditional Irish music. Now our show is a diverse range, from old blues to new things we wrote ourselves.”

WB3’s forthcoming album, much of it prepared during the pandemic, reflects that diversity. “One day we said, ‘Why don’t we do what we want to do?’ And it was like a lightning bolt,” smiles Howley, a native of Galway who lived in Nashville for several years before returning to Ireland. “As an Irish artist, it’s fun to wonder about what doing American music our way would sound like.”

Part of that creativity can be traced to the pandemic, “which has pushed musicians to think in new ways,” says Howley. “You can’t hold on to anything too tightly because everything changes, so make the best of whatever you can. In our case, we started early on doing high-production livestream concerts to bring the live concert feel into people’s homes. That kept us in touch with our audience, which is important because we are used to looking at people when we play.

“And we feel lucky our audiences are so supportive and communicative and really excited for us, which helps us to be excited and maintain our enthusiasm. So it’s a constant adventure, with no opportunity to be bored.”

Indeed, no one should be bored, or sitting still, when WB3 perform July 29. 

“When do you get the opportunity to dance around like no one’s watching?” grins Howley, “You should take it. At weddings, I’m a nightmare on the dance floor — but I have a great time.”

Veronica Swift. Photo submitted

 Veronica Swift: “Trans-genre” music

While many musicians performed via livestream during the pandemic, Veronica Swift took a different approach, choosing to step back and reflect on her musical life and direction that started in childhood.

“Virtual performing is not the arena for me,” says the 28-year-old singer-musician-composer. “I need the live audience. So I looked back on my 20 years of singing and performing jazz to make sure I told the story I wanted to tell, so I could give my full self to my audience. Because since my dad’s passing [in 2016], my relationship with jazz has changed. Now I want to play all kinds of music for all kinds of people.”

The Moanin’ Frogs are performing at the Ventura Music Festival. Photo submitted

That change is evident in Swift’s newest collection, This Bitter Earth, in which she addresses social ills (including racism and sexism) in a unique interpretation of tunes like “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (from South Pacific), “How Lovely to Be a Woman” (from Bye Bye Birdie) and “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss” (a 1960s Crystals hit).

By combining her influences and covering jazz, musicals, R&B, contemporary rock and more, Swift — dubbed by the Wall Street Journal as “perhaps the best scat singer since Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Tormé” — is forging what she calls “trans-genre” music.

“I love all music, from Baroque opera to bebop to classic rock,” she smiles. “And as I’ve developed musically, I’ve always asked myself, who are my idols and why? There was a time I was more into the Great American Songbook; now it’s Nina Simone, Queen, Blood, Sweat & Tears, artists who define their own genre. And that’s very appealing to me.”

An artist’s job, she continues, “is to stay true to him or herself; it’s up to you to decide how to tell a story. The result is [that] your music may be jazz to one person and theater to another. But if it’s good music, it’s good music.”

She is grateful for the lessons learned from her parents, pianist Hod O’Brien and singer Stephanie Nakasian. “They were the most humble people,” she says softly. “They did it for the music, not for fame, and they were great influences on me, teaching me about performing, programming shows, things you can’t learn in school.”

A native of Charlottesville, Va., Swift recently relocated to Los Angeles, and last month played before 17,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival, an experience that gives her new excitement for her Aug. 6 Ventura Music Festival concert.

“It’s a trans-genre journey, a journey through time,” she says. “I wanted to document and present my musical evolution so I could let the audience be in on who I am as a person; it’s my way of sharing.”

Smiling again, she adds, “I feel like I’ve been put on this earth to do one thing and that’s music. So it’s great to share that with others, to break down these genre barriers and fully immerse the audience in what to me is just simply … music.”

 Ventura Music Festival 2022

The 27th Ventura Music Festival begins Wednesday, July 27, 5:30 p.m., with Adaawe performing a free concert in Mission Park, 185 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura (across from the San Buenaventura Mission). 

Subsequent performances are at the Ventura College Performing Arts Center, 4700 Loma Vista Road, Ventura, as follows: 

—Friday, July 29, 7:30 p.m.: We Banjo 3. 

—Saturday, July 30, 7:30 p.m.: Django Festival Allstars.

—Sunday, July 31, 3 p.m.: Sean Chen. 

—Friday, Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m.: The Moanin’ Frogs. 

—Saturday, Aug. 6, 7:30 p.m.: Veronica Swift. 

—Sunday, Aug. 7, 3 p.m.: The Crossing. 

For tickets and information, call 805-648-3146 or visit http://venturamusicfestival.org.