Just follow the fingers.
So says the man wearing sunglasses. He points ahead as we pull into Virginia Key Beach Park in Key Biscayne, Florida for the 4th Annual GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance. It is Saturday afternoon, day 3 of this four-day festival.
We follow the fingers, each one like the last one, magic wands ushering us towards the parking lot to settle among the cars, trucks, vans, jeeps, and campers. We are six today: me, my wife, my two sons, my friend, his daughter.
We get our tickets at the entrance and that’s it, there is no more finger-pointing. There is no more direction from others. We are on our own.
As we walk down the main trail towards the festival, our eager shadows lurch forward on the dust ahead of our feet. A breeze slips past the mangroves and onto our faces. We are, after all, on a beach, and we are open to wind, and sun and sand and sea.
The trail is lined by tents on either side. There is disorder in the frames and colors and shapes of the tents and yet there is symmetry; They are here and now.
There are people on blankets.
There are people on camping chairs.
There are people drumming.
The first festival music I hear is traditional Cuban music by Los Consortes at the first stage called the Zen Village. It is nostalgic and comforting to me and a reminder that we are a flare shot’s distance from Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
We don’t linger here. We are hungry.
We find pizza. We find beer.
As roadies begin to set up at the main stage, the guy next to me explains bluegrass music to his wife.
A man with sunflowers dangling from his straw hat spins an umbrella over his head.
Another man wearing a Viking helmet conquers a little spot near the stage.
When Donna the Buffalo is finally introduced, there are roars of elation from the crowd.
The woman sitting next to me takes repeated photos of the band. She tells me she is the cousin of singer Tara Nevins. Tara also plays the classic fiddle, the accordion, guitar, the electric fiddle, while, song after song, guitarist Jeb Puryear keeps an element of zydeco strumming.
There is dancing.
The sun begins its long descent behind the crowd and the trees.
I slip out the back of the stage to find a restroom and I’m immediately drawn to a steady beat-thumping taking place at the aptly named Dance Tent. San Francisco-based MC Yogi is leading a prayer-like electronica ritual, a balancing act that combines Hare Krishna and Ultra Music Fest.
MC Yogi makes women sweat, men bare their chest.
There are smiles and laughter.
There is euphoria.
We are dry. We are salty.
We find Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Sweet Cream and Cookies ice cream at a Ben & Jerry’s cart. The kids get ice cream on their shirts and fudge on their cheeks.
Across lonely picnic tables, the Zen Village is hosting Miami singer Sindy Rush, an attractive blonde vocalist that looks like 80s metal queen Lita Ford. A guy behind me yells “Sindy, you’re hot” during a break and she says thank you in a very casual and courteous way like she’s heard this before.
Sindy is hot. And there is smoke. And lights. And when there is apparent confusion before her next song, more smoke and lights drape Ms. Rush and her band and now they are all silhouettes, and they launch into an appetizing cover of The Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again.
We are curious.
One of the delightful things about music festivals is the traveling retailers and Grassroots has no shortage of hand-crafted items for sale. What sticks out here is the prevalence of Native American art and crafts. We hear tall tales from a Pascua Yaqui tribesman from Tucson.
We buy a buffalo whistle and a pipe flute and incense that is used by indigenous people during cleansings.
By now the sun and the clouds are gone.
We are fading. We find hammocks.
When one of the festival announcers says, “we have a surprise for you,” and introduces local gospel and soul queen Maryel Epps, I rally our crew to get a closer look. Lo and behold, we are surprised.
She belts a few Motown tunes but it is her rendition of Sly & the Family Stone’s Dance to the Music that moves mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, husbands and wives. Ms. Epps glows in a long flow of pink (she is by far the best dressed person in all the festival.)
After the show we chat with Ms. Epps backstage and take photos with her. Then leave her to savor her moment.
We wander off to wait for the next act.
A bit later, Cuban singer Danay Suarez strolls onto the main stage and in a thick-like-froth accent delivers a greeting to the crowd.
And then the band kicks into a slow, steady, reggae rhythm and Danay drops a Nina Simone-like vocal over the beat, beckoning the crowd concealed in the dark towards her. Her singing comes through with an echoing effect, like waves.
We stay for awhile, transfixed, until it is time to go (the kids are ready).
The path back to our car is unlit and unmarked but we follow fingers and voices and direction again.
As we drive away, sand becomes asphalt, trees become condos, moonlight become traffic lights.
Back to the city.
We are fulfilled,
But soon we will long for more peace, love and GrassRoots.
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