The Ventura Music Festival has had great success with name-dropping. But not in the way you might think.
The festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has hosted some impressive names since its beginnings in 1995: Itzhak Perlman, Branford Marsalis, Chris Botti.
But until 2004, the annual event was known as the Ventura Chamber Music Festival. Ten years after it was founded, the festival dropped “Chamber” from the name, along with its connotations of elite classical music played by small groups in tiny spaces.
Nuvi Mehta, who in 2004 became the festival’s artistic director (replacing Burns Taft), said he wanted to “expand to present all different size groups and kinds of music. We’re always aiming to get the highest-profile artists. We also wanted to have orchestras, opera, jazz — more than just what fits into the title of chamber music.”
Thus, headliners have included Herb Alpert, Judy Collins, Herbie Hancock, Arturo Sandoval, Pink Martini, the Count Basie Jazz Orchestra and Malashock Dance, along with traditional classical chamber groups like the Emerson String Quartet and pianist (and Ventura County native) Sean Chen.
What makes the VMF stand out, Mehta said, is “variety. We’re in a post-classical era. It combines classical schooling and tradition that goes back to Beethoven with hip-hop rhythms and pop sensibilities. We used to call it ‘classical light.’ But those distinctions are gone, and music is on a continuum.”
This year’s festival, taking place July 11-14 and 18-21, stays true to Mehta’s post-classical vision.
The lineup features The Summit, a collaboration between Grammy-winning vocal groups The Manhattan Transfer and Take 6 (July 12); guitarist Christopher Parkening and baritone Jubilant Sykes (July 13); the Calidore
String Quartet (July 14); Latin guitar ensemble Incendio (July 18, performing a free concert); youth jazz pianist Joey Alexander (July 19); Gullah quintet Ranky Tanky (July 20); and the Rastrelli Cello Quartet (July 21). “Tea & Trumpets” featuring the Festival Brass Quintet opens the festival on July 11.
And this fall, as part of the festival’s events taking place throughout the year, another big-name artist will perform, said Executive Director Susan Scott: violinist Joshua Bell, Nov. 3 at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center.
“We seek artists who are not only brilliant musically, but have something special in terms of communication with the audience,” Scott said.
One of the ensembles performing this year has a particularly strong rapport with listeners.
Ranky Tanky might be the runaway hit of the festival. The group’s new album, released July 12, is called Good Time, and that’s what you’ll have listening to them. “Ranky tanky” is a Gullah term that means “work it” or “get funky with it,” said trumpeter-vocalist Charlton Singleton.
Singleton described Gullah music as “a little bit of jazz, gospel, spirituals, folk, blues. The Gullah community has been around for a long time, well before you get into R&B.”
The Gullah are a community of African Americans who live along the coast and small islands of North Carolina down through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Their descendants are West African slaves, and they’ve kept many of their ancestors’ traditions related to art, food, music, worship and language.
Ranky Tanky, Singleton said, “interprets Gullah songs, kids’ games and poems, giving them new harmonic flavor.” Much of Gullah music, he said, didn’t have instrumentation. The instruments were people’s “voices, hand claps and stomping on the ground.” One of the most well-known Gullah songs, he said, is “Kumbaya.”
Ranky Tanky, a Gullah tune as well as the group’s name, is a hand-clapping game similar to patty-cake.
“Imagine two kids playing that, clapping and singing these lyrics,” Singleton said as he began to chant in a lilting rhyme: “Old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. The rooster died, the old lady cried. Now she don’t eat eggs like she used to.”
The clapping ends and kids then begin to shake different parts of their bodies: “Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky.”
“When you add a drum set, electric guitar, acoustic bass and trumpet the way we do, that changes it up,” Singleton said. “It has a specific rhythm that finds its way into all our music, and we add our own musical personalities.”
Ranky Tanky also includes drummer-percussionist Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, vocalist Quiana Parler and guitarist-vocalist Clay Ross. The band has been featured on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and on NBC’s The Today Show.
Half the tunes on the new album, Good Time, Singleton said, are Gullah standards, while the rest are songs written and composed by Ranky Tanky, “but with the Gullah spirit in mind.” Just right for the post-classical, non-chamber spirit of the Ventura Music Festival.
The Ventura Music Festival takes place July 11-14 and 18-21. For full schedule, tickets and more information, call 805-648-3146 or visit www.venturamusicfestival.org.