On a peculiarly hot September day, a circle of drummers dressed in intricate patterns of red, black and white dance in the middle of West Weaver St., intermingled with grooving children, teenagers and a handful of gregarious adults. A crowd encircles the celebration, sporadically cheering. If it were another day, the scene would be a source of uncommon spectacle. But today, Sept. 24, it is to be expected. The Carrboro Music Festival, in its 20th year, has taken over the streets. The festival began Saturday with a handful of performances at Town Commons, and a couple hours into Sunday’s festivities, the merriment and music are still going strong. Batalá Durham, one of more than 150 groups scheduled to play the festival, pounds on in a crescendo of movement and music, culminating in a seemingly abrupt stop. Onlookers begin to glance around, looking for the next performance to watch.
Just up the street, past throngs of festival-goers and a few protesters — apparently concerned with the safety of fluoride — Boom Unit Brass Band plays to a large crowd outside Pizzeria Mercato. Across the street, a group of children and their parents wait by a small tent giving away free popcorn, balloons and prizes. As the band launches into an arrangement of “Movin’ On Up,” the theme from The Jeffersons, two golden balloons go flying towards the sky. A long-haired sousaphone player with an expressive face lays down a commanding bass line for the group, aided by the handheld microphone taped to the bell of his horn.
Back in the opposite direction, Batalá Durham has dispersed. In the parking lot of Carrboro Family Vision, the Doug Prescott Band plays to a small group of onlookers that seems to skew older. Three or four of the band members are wearing some manner of Hawaiian shirt, and the music, which the festival guide characterizes as “Funky Americana,” is, well, vaguely funky.
Farther down the road, just off East Weaver Street, festival-goers stretch out across a patchwork of picnic blankets laid over the mulch and grass outside Weaver Street Market. Children duel with balloon swords or climb trees as their parents lounge in the shade, waiting for the next musical act to start. Fifteen minutes later, Project Mastana begins its set. The woman leading the group introduces the tune and then jumps in herself, singing in Hindi. A few people dance in front of the performers, including a broad-shouldered man in a cowboy hat.
In the middle of a closed-off street, Ed Tostanoski, a volunteer at the event, warmly greets festival-goers as they pass by, handing out guides and maps to those who need them. He describes himself as a people-watcher, the kind of person who enjoys interacting with others as they move from performance to performance. A first-time volunteer, Tostanoski’s favorite part of the festival is the variety it offers.
“The ability for people to step into a venue, enjoy it for a while, and then say ‘I really like this, but let me try something different,’ just go down the street and try something else,” Tostanoski said. “You don’t have to pay cover to go into it, you can try it, you can go into the restaurants, into the bars, any place else here.”
One such place is Tyler’s Restaurant and Taproom — only the spot to be isn’t in the actual restaurant, but behind it, in the parking lot. There, a stage is set up against a brick wall painted with an American flag, and, as musical groups set up, festival-goers wander between tables serving beer and barbecue, smoked then chopped by a large man with a cleaver.
Twilight begins to settle in over Carrboro as Funktion, the last group to play outside the Pizzeria Mercato, makes its way through its final couple songs. A few of the Boom Unit Brass Band players are in this group too, most visibly Brannon Bollinger, on alto and baritone saxophone, and Jeremy Boomhower, the sousaphone (now electric bass) player with long hair. The two musicians, along with a few of their bandmates, have been rotating through a series of varied groups, configurations and styles since 1 p.m. The festival is an ideal fit for their brand of musical variety.
“What we like about the Carrboro Music Festival is exactly what we do,” Bollinger said. “It’s a variety of music all over town, so you get to go from one place to another and just hear different kinds of music, and that’s really the best thing about Carrboro Music Festival, in general. Aside from the fact that it’s free, because there’s free shows all the time, here, there and everywhere, but you don’t get the mass-variety of music like you get at the Carrboro Music Festival.”
Boomhower, idly listening nearby, reiterates, “Free don’t hurt either. One hundred fifty bands free, yeah.”
And as Funktion begins to pack up its equipment, the sounds of music being played just down the block echo throughout the streets, drawing the remaining festival-goers in the direction of another tune, another style, for no cover charge.