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K-Taos Solar Music Festival; The Greater World; June 21-22

By Julie Birnbaum

July 21, 1997:  On the longest day of the year, in a hot, dry gravel pit in the middle of nothing but sagebrush-covered desert hills and distant snow-topped mountains, a beautiful gathering took place. The first ever Solar Music Festival, sponsored by KTAO-FM, the world's strongest solar-powered radio station, was a festival in the true sense of the word. Unlike many music festivals I've attended, where I look around and see a homogenous group of young people without much positive energy, Solar Fest-goers were a group that seemed to span class, age and race. Elders from Taos Pueblo, sunblock-slathered babies, dreadlocked teenagers and dogs were among the crowd that danced, talked with grassroots activists, ate, learned about alternative energy and building and celebrated the ancient holiday of the solstice.

Headliners of the two-day event were Spearhead and the BoDeans, but they were by no means the only musical attraction. The breadth and depth of musical talent present was amazing, including Boxing Gandhis, Reggae Cowboys, Hamell on Trial, Eliza Gilkyson, Ottmar Liebert, Rattlecats and Robert Mirabal. The Solar Fair went on simultaneously, where everything from ovens to water pumps powered by the sun were demonstrated and information about the New Mexico Solar Energy Association was distributed. The festival was a benefit for the Magic Bus, an alternatively fueled educational vehicle, which will visit schools, youth groups and community centers across the state, teaching about clean energy and environmentalism.

I have to admit, as a new transplant to New Mexico, my East Coast outdoor concert-going experiences did not prepare me for the demands of partying in the desert. I arrived at The Greater World, a community of environmentally-friendly houses called Earthships, on Saturday afternoon. I drove by several of the futuristic-looking, glass, recycled tire and concrete houses, parked my car between the sagebrush and walked up a dusty hill toward the music. At the top of the hill, I looked down into a barren, rocky expanse, framed on either side with stages and dotted by people on blankets. Not an inch of shade in sight, except for the tents and umbrellas that better-equipped people, leaning against their beer-filled coolers, had erected. I eyed them enviously, settled down and immediately forgot my problems in the happy beat of the Reggae Cowboys.

You'd never guess that the Reggae Cowboys were Toronto-based; their sound is pure sunny summer day, somewhere between Jamaica and the wild West, as their name suggests. On their debut album, Tell the Truth, they sing about outlaws and black cowboys in a tribute to their unsung contribution to cowboy culture. Their unique brand of spaghetti-western reggae has a fun groove, which the dancing crowd appreciated.

Between performers, I wandered into an incredible, open drum circle, complete with flamenco and belly dancers. For a minute, it felt like the age-old solstice celebration hadn't changed much since the beginning of time. Also, I didn't have to wait long before friendly people offered me shade beneath their tarps, sunscreen and cold beers. Generosity continued all weekend:--I was offered everything from massages to psychedelic drugs over the course of the festival.

After Ottmar Liebert played his new age style of flamenco guitar on the smaller, solar-powered stage, where he was accompanied by several young flamenco student dancers and their teacher, the Boxing Gandhis took the larger stage. Their energy was high, and their lyrics and sound positive, which fit well with the general feeling of optimism at the festival and made them one of its highlights. Soulful harmonies and roots-based funk carry songs about unity and justice without coming across as preachy--a difficult feat.

Robert Mirabal, born and raised on Taos Pueblo, is another artist who blends musical traditions--in his case, the dramatically distinct sounds of traditional Native American instruments with metal rock. Wooden flutes and shakers along with electric guitar make for an interesting, old-meets-new sound.

--Julie Birnbaum

Stay tuned next week for part two of the K-Taos Solar Music Festival.

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