Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Moab Music Festival

“The arts matter because they're central to our humanity. They help define the best parts of who we are as human beings.”

Little did two New York-based musicians Michael Barrett and Leslie Tomkins know that while on a rare trip to the red rocks of Moab, Utah, they would be inspired to start a music festival. The husband-and-wife team launched the first Moab Music Festival in September 1993. Now in its 23rd year, NEA grantee Moab Music Festival continues to bring diverse programming to enrich the Moab region with music education and cultural arts. The annual festival—presenting jazz, Latin, traditional, and classical music—invites attendees from near and far to enjoy a unique experience of "music in concert with the landscape." With the NEA’s help, in their 2017 schedule, the festival will present a composition by emerging Navajo composer Juantio Becenti which will shed light and perspective on Navajo life and culture. We spoke with festival co-founder Michael Barrett to learn more about the festival, their upcoming project with Becenti, and what role the festival plays in bringing together the community.

NEA: Could you talk about how the festival has evolved since its first year in 1993?

MICHAEL BARRETT: As the town [of Moab] has grown, we've been growing too. We're now 20 concerts instead of five. We've professionalized our operations. We have a year-round office. We have an executive director. We have six, seven employees—two of them are full-time—and many of us work on the festival all year round. We've gone from only hiring a few friends that we know to being much more internationally known.

We've always had an eclectic mix of music. At the core it's always been classical music. I've always had a big fondness for jazz and also for Latin music, so every season we have some jazz and some Latin music. I also work a lot with opera singers. We've done opera, occasionally. We've gone from maybe 15 musicians to 45 musicians coming every year, so there's a big mix. We're able to bring in some superstars. Last year we had Chick Corea with Béla Fleck. Paquito D'Rivera comes almost every year and he's a great, great musician, so people like that.

NEA:  What would you say are some of the challenges and opportunities for putting on a festival like this?

BARRETT: Because of where we are and because of how we've embraced the beauty of the landscape [in Moab], I would say it's really made us a unique music festival. Most music festivals you're [situated] in a church or in a little concert hall listening to music, or if it's a big rock event, you're in some huge tent and there are a million people there or you're out in the field or something. That's all predictable. Our concerts are not like that at all. We do have a tent, but we do 20 concerts in 12 different places. Some of them are extraordinary. They're on the river, down the Colorado River. You have to actually take a boat to get to the concert. We do music hikes. You actually have to hike into a special place to get to the concert. We're really outdoors a lot. We're in the landscape. Our tagline is, "music in concert with the landscape." It's so extraordinarily beautiful that we really make a point of doing that and bringing people into the landscape itself, and into the world. We find that the beauty of that Red Rock desert and incredible music is an amazing match. People have really wonderful experiences there. I don't know of another music festival where you go, "Oh, I have to get on a boat for an hour on some magical grotto!"

Festival goers sitting on top of the red rocks watching a performance.

2015 Moab Music Festival in Moab, Utah. Photo source: Richard Bowditch.

The challenges are that we're in a very remote place. This is a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City and it's a two-hour drive from Grand Junction, Colorado which is the nearest real town. You're not going to a music festival to be in a big city, let's face it. You're going there to be around the national parks and the river. Most people have some kind of outdoor, beautiful experience.

NEA: What's your favorite part of hosting the festival?

BARRETT: Oh boy, that's tough. We work so hard all year-round to make it happen. I have so many discussions with so many musicians and I have to be creative about putting together a festival that has a nice balance and a lot of interesting personalities and musicians and points of view. The pay-off is when we actually get to the festival and the concerts are happening and that they're successful and people … have actually bought a ticket to come. That's pretty exciting and that never seems to get old. It's been really fun also just to watch it all grow. The town has grown, the music festival has grown. It's really nice to be a part of a success.

In so many places, especially in music, all the arts are struggling so much right now because everybody has to cut back, they're shrinking. They're kind of hunkered down into a survival mentality. We don't have that. I think we still feel like we're flourishing and growing and that's a really important feeling. I think that the positivity of all of that really comes out to the audiences too. There's a lot of ownership and a lot of pride in a town about the music festival.

A woman standing on the edge of a red rock canyon overlooking the festival.

2015 Moab Music Festival in Moab, Utah. Photo source: Richard Bowditch.

NEA: Could you talk about how important the arts are to the Moab community and what role the arts play?

BARRETT: We are the only professional arts organization in southeastern Utah. This is an area the entire size of New England, so we are it. There's not much going on. There's no dance companies, there's no theater company, and there's just one little music festival, and that's us. We feel like we're representing the arts for a huge amount of area and a very diverse population—economically diverse, ethnically diverse.

We've always made it a point to go into the public schools at least once a year, sometimes much more than that, and work with the kids and give them some exposure to live music. We've had a great variety of people going in there that maybe [the kids] would never see or be exposed to. They get to actually learn instruments because there's not much of a program in the public schools, in music, so the after-school program is really becoming key and that's growing and growing and we've been investing in that. There's really nobody else to give them much, so it's on us.

NEA: How do you invite community members who may not be exposed to the arts to attend an experience like this?

BARRETT: We do that mostly through the schools. We offer very, very cheap tickets for kids. We do four or five free events every year. The whole community is underserved because we don't have anything there. There's one movie theater, so that's what there is in terms of the arts. We also do a lot on the local radio. We have a radio show that we do every two weeks now. We do it however we can.  

NEA: What’s the reason behind presenting Juantio Becenti’s "Blessingway" as part of the festival’s lineup in 2017?  

BARRETT: It's a big project of ours and one that I've been working on for three or four years. Juantio Becenti is an extraordinary young man. He's a self-taught composer and he grew up on the Navajo reservation in Aneth, Utah. He's very sensitive, he's very smart, and he’s very gifted.

He had this dream to take the “Blessingway,” which is the traditional sacred Navajo text, and to put it into a kind of mass, like a Catholic mass, only this would be more like a Navajo thing and it would express some of his viewpoints on the failings of Navajo society as well as its virtues. One of the problems with Navajo society is that the language is disappearing. A lot of families are Christian, they're Evangelical Christians, and they won't allow their children to speak Navajo. They think it's an evil language. So, there's a lot of weird things going on the reservation, and I just thought, "Oh, this would be a fantastic project to try and bring to life." We still have a long way to go. He's just beginning to write it now.

NEA: What do you hope the audience takes away from the “Blessingway” performance?  

BARRETT: We’re doing it because it's an eye into Navajo culture, Navajo life, and some ancient Navajo beliefs, which we're not really in touch with. We don't really know much about their culture. You have to dig for it, so I'm hoping it can shed a little bit of light and generate a little bit of interest from non-Navajo people about this Native-American culture that was here long before any of us got here. I’m hoping to raise some consciousness and sensitivity about Navajo culture. I'm sure I'm going to learn a lot about it.

We did one concert a few years ago called The Wisdom of the Earth and it was a concert of all Native-American composers and that was very interesting…. It was really a beautiful program and it gave me a sense that we ought to continue this kind of thing. We do it with Latin music, we do it with African music, we do it with all kinds of stuff, but we've never really done it with the most obvious one, which is in our own backyard and that is Native-American culture.

NEA: Complete this thought: The arts matter because…

BARRETT: The arts matter because they're central to our humanity. They help define the best parts of who we are as human beings.

Did you know Moab Festival performers Chick Corea and Paquito D’Rivera are NEA Jazz Masters? Learn more about them and about the 2017 class of NEA Jazz Masters here.

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