Diversity now

By Tracy Key

Mosaic festival offers multi-cultural mash-up

Scales rub against skin as a 6-foot-long boa constrictor slithers down the curves of a woman’s body. The woman twists and undulates on stage in front of hundreds of staring eyes. Suddenly you realize you forgot to put on your pants. Just kidding about the pants — this isn’t really a nightmare (well, maybe for some people). But the snake is real, and his name is Amon Ra.

“You could get bitten, you could get strangled — just your usual snake dangers,” said Garnett Kepler, artistic director, dancer and instructor for the Habibi Dancers. The performance group is one of 14 multi-cultural acts that will entertain and enlighten guests this weekend at the third annual Michigan Mosaic Music Festival at Riverfromt Park.

But Kepler — who has the stage name Yasmina Amal — isn’t worried about flirting with an apex predator that could swallow her if it caught its fancy. In fact, she loves spending time on stage with Amon Ra, and she says he enjoys it too.

“He seems to really like dancing,” she said. “He’s just my favorite little star. I imagine he just thinks of me like a great big warm tree on stage.” The Habibi Dancers seek to educate and entertain the public about Middle Eastern and Northern African culture and customs through their unique traditional dance performances.

“There are a lot of people who have just one image or stigma about the Middle East because of all the crises we’ve had, and it’s nice to be able to show them that there is beauty that comes out of the Middle East and Africa, and how their cultures and customs have evolved,” Kepler said.

“I think people will find that we have much more in common than they originally thought.” And that kind of mentality is one of the driving forces behind the Mosaic Festival. “For the ethnic performances, we were looking for high quality artists, ones that represented the diverse people of the mid-Michigan area,” said Mike Skory, communications director for the Michigan Institute of Contemporary Art. Skory handpicked each of the performers.

“I was born and raised here, but my family came from Lebanon, and I think this idea of an ethic heritage is really a part of the Michigan culture,” Skory said. “When people see the exceptional the lineup this year, everyone is going to love it.” Aside from belly dancers and snakes, guests will also be serenaded with music from Latin America, India, Africa and — new for this year — American country music.

“The addition of some great country bands will distinguish this year from the past festivals,” said Terry Terry, president of MICA, organizers of JazzFest and BluesFest in Old Town. “There hasn’t really been a festival showcasing that sort of music before.” Whether you’re into a true blue hillbilly beat, Garth Brooks-style country rock or something a bit more rough-and-tumble, you’ll get your fix of dueling banjos and gritty guitar riffs at Mosaic.

“It seems like some festivals have a lot of jazz or a lot of blues, but the Mosaic lineup has something for everyone,” said Delilah DeWylde, lead singer and bassist of music group Delilah DeWylde and the Lost Boys. “Last year I had a chance to see other styles of music that I normally don’t see or listen to. Other festivals don’t seem to have as much diversity as Mosaic.” DeWylde describes their style as edgy, upbeat rockabilly rhythms with a “hillbilly country music-meets-blues vibe.”

“We were very well received last year,” she said. “It was a good diverse crowd. This year we’ll be playing songs from (our new album) along with our old ones. It’s always fun to play to a new crowd.”

Mosaic will also offer a diverse selection of food.

“There will be a selection of different ethnic cuisine, including healthy choices,” Skory said. Exotic eats will include Mexican, Asian and soul food selections. Another layer of entertainment will be added by the second annual Capitol City Dragon Boat Race (see story on p. 12) held concurrently.

“In the past, not much went on in Lansing on Labor Day weekend, and a lot of people went out of town to have a good time,” Terry said. “But we’re bringing people back into Lansing to have a great time this year. We’re hoping this will be one of the biggest entertainment weekends in the city.”