Profiles

The Fest of All Possible Worlds

This article appeared in the July 2003 issue of the Monthly.

Committed? Maybe they should be. But who other than these selfless East Bay visionaries would work day and night to bring you …

By Eve Kushner

Imagine spending months of your life (and wads of cash) on a festival for thousands and then … nobody shows up.

Thirteen years ago, Berkeley resident David Cole was plagued by this scenario in the anxious days before the first San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival. He recalls waiting nervously with co-founder Patti Breitman for the doors to open at the San Francisco Concourse Exhibition Center. The event had already met with trouble the year before, when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused several key volunteers to throw in the towel, but Cole persevered. As a longtime player in the publishing industry, he felt his professional reputation was on the line.

Credit: Jim Jardine
The stone putt at the Oakland Scottish Highland Games.

Thus in an anxious state of mind he awaited his moment of truth.

The doors opened, and after a trickle of people in the first half hour, the crowds poured in. Cole and Breitman relaxed.

“When Ken Kesey spoke, people were hanging from the rafters,” Cole recalls. “It was wall-to-wall bodies.”

Some of the best Bay Area festivals started this way—as the personal obsession of one or two people on a shoestring budget.

Arlene Blum organized Berkeley’s first Himalayan Fair 20 years ago in spite of a spooked sacred cow and a film program derailed by a broken projector. Even now when she visits Live Oak Park before the festival she frets that the site is too small. But somehow, she says, “we fit in 100 vendors and 10 food stalls and a few snake charmers and belly dancers and yogis. And 5,000 or 6,000 people have a great time. It’s like a transformation every year.”

Of course, the transformation comes only after a huge amount of work. Founders spend up to a year planning the biggest East Bay festivals, sometimes with the benefit of 100 volunteers organized into committees and subcommittees. Other founders embark on something of a solo effort.

Sometimes all the effort pays off; profitable fund-raisers like the Oakland Scottish Highland Games and the Himalayan Fair net as much as $25,000. The California International Dragon Boat Festival at Jack London Square brings in a whopping $72,000 (though expenses, unfortunately, total the same amount). Some organizers go into debt bringing off their events. For others, money woes are the least of their problems: Rain, complaints from neighbors, and a shortage of porta-potties have been enough to throw a wrench into even the best-organized festivals.

Some events are tainted by outbreaks of violence, as happened at Carijama in Oakland last spring. When thousands of strangers convene, there’s no telling what will happen. Fortunately, most of the time it’s good stuff.

Here’s a sampling of some of the East Bay’s most intriguing festivals, and the dedicated individuals who dare to dream big.

SUMMER

Plaid About You … Oakland’s 40-acre Dunsmuir Historic Estate strikes Malcolm Carden as “a Scottish glen.” Home to the 37-room Colonial Revival Dunsmuir mansion, near the Oakland Zoo, the park is host to the Oakland Scottish Highland Games. Carden has co-chaired the event—a fund-raiser for the estate—since 1999.

Scottish Caber toss
Credit: Jim Jardine
The caber toss at the Oakland Scottish Highland Games.

On July 12-13 the estate will fill with clansmen in tartans, bagpipe players, meat pie vendors, whiskey samplers, and folks who want to get their hands on “Real Men Wear Kilts” T-shirts. The games started as a small Scottish fair in 1974. Now the two-day event attracts 7,000 to 8,000 people, who love to see “all the pageantry and color and men running around in skirts,” says Carden, who earns his living as a financial planner.

The biggest attraction is the athletic competitions, many dating to Celtic times when, according to one story, warriors prepared for battle by seeing who could chuck heavy objects the farthest. Today’s competitors hurl river rocks, “hammers” (iron balls), and cabers, which resemble telephone poles and weigh 150 pounds. Even for professional caber tossers, Carden says, “it’s a very dangerous sport. You have to know what you’re doing or you can lose control and kill people.”

There are also demonstrations of swordfighting and shinty, a 2,000-year-old Scottish and Irish sport that looks like a combination of field hockey and golf, only rougher. In the old days, says Carden, the game got quite vicious, with opponents frequently clubbing one another. “There were no fields. They just hit the ball from one steeple to the next—through backyards and people’s houses.”

Though he’s only a quarter Scottish, Carden says the festival has helped him discover his roots. He’s even developed a taste for haggis—calf organs mixed with oatmeal and cooked in a sheep’s stomach. But when co-organizer Kris Anderson urged Carden to wear a kilt at the games, he resisted, calling it silly. Finally, he grudgingly donned a tartan skirt. “I get fun poked at me all the time,” he says, “an Englishman wearing a kilt.”

Getting High in Berkeley … Tom McAlister’s annual Berkeley Kite Festival is a boost for his retail business, Highline Kites, which is open four days a week at the Berkeley Marina. But, he says, “my business is not about selling kites. It’s about selling fun, selling the wind in your hand.”


Candy drop at the Berkeley Kite Festival.
Credit: John Barressi
Candy drop at the Berkeley Kite Festival.

McAlister’s July 26-27 weekend festival should draw up to 25,000 people, making it one of the three largest kite festivals in the country.

There’s the hot-tricks competition, in which two kite fliers try to one-up each other with their tricks. There are monster inflatable kites and kite-powered buggies and team-flying competitions. There’s a candy drop for children, which has evolved through trial and lots of error. “I now know that you don’t let kids stand under the kite while the candy falls,” McAlister says.

Kids get free lessons in making and flying kites. People lie on the grass, watching contests and exhibitions like the mesmerizing “kite ballet,” in which fliers manipulate their kites to music with mind-blowing precision. Ray Bethell, a festival fixture, makes three dual-line kites perform ballet simultaneously. In the Japanese rokkaku kite battle, competitors try to cut each other’s kite strings or otherwise destabilize their opponents’ kites. Shoppers mob a 1,000-square-foot tent selling kites and kite accessories. All the while, giant show kites shaped like pandas, elephants, and geckos flap in the wind.

Back in 1986 when he was “naive and stupid and young,” McAlister started his festival with no concept of the bureaucratic red tape. But it’s doubtful that the festival would have flown this long in anyone else’s hands, given McAlister’s fanaticism about kites. The even-keeled McAlister gets perturbed when people perpetuate inane ideas about Ben Franklin and his kite and has been heard rhapsodizing about the “love” that develops between flier and airborne kite. He fantasizes about creating a worldwide event in which “everyone flies a kite at the exact same time. It would show that there’s one sky, one world.”

Enter the Dragon … Shirley Gee worries about the fragmentation of our society. Americans may bond after crises like 9-11, but that bond won’t last long, says the civil rights activist, community organizer, and 2002 Oakland Citizen of the Year. “We always go back to our natural propensity to make distinctions,” she points out. “It’s idealistic to think we could sustain [that unity] every day. But I thought it was certainly possible to sustain it over a weekend.”

That’s part of the reason she devised the California International Dragon Boat Festival. The 2,000-year-old Chinese sport unites people across ethnicities, nationalities, generations, and economic strata, says this Chinese-American single mother of two boys, making “differences melt away.”

Now in its seventh year, Gee’s festival will take place August 9-10 at Jack London Square, attracting 50,000 visitors. Some enjoy the arts components—including poetry readings and musical performances—but most festival-goers show up to watch the intense 500-meter races among boats with scowling dragon heads carved on their bows and dragon tails on their sterns. Each boat holds 20 paddlers, a steerer in the stern, and a drummer in the bow to keep the paddlers in rhythm. Roughly modeled on traditional Chinese festivals, the Oakland gathering draws 1,000 paddlers from all over the country and the occasional boat from abroad. Competitors in the past have included Montezuma’s Revenge, a team of Hispanic paddlers from Oakland, and Blind Ambition from Portland, a team of partially sighted or blind people. Four-boat heats start every 15 minutes, all day, both days, says Gee, who sleeps about three hours a week in the weeks before the festival.

The beauty of dragon boating is that it rewards teamwork more than brute force. “In dragon boating, when you paddle in sync, a telepathy develops among team members,” Gee says. “The boat actually levitates and skims across the water.” Thus “when you lose,” she reasons, “you know it wasn’t about strength but about a lack of synergy. How can you be angry because another group pulled together better?”

FALL

Up a Creek … Berkeley’s Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival is just the first step in organizer Mark Baldridge’s master plan. Eventually, he’d like to see cars banned from Center Street between Oxford and Milvia. He’d also like to see Strawberry Creek unearthed from the culvert in which it’s now buried. Then the water could flow freely down those two blocks and through Martin Luther King Civic Center Park, the site of his festival on September 6.

Though the creek is currently invisible west of Oxford Street, it still plays a central role in Baldridge’s one-day festival, which begins with a two-hour walk, starting at 10 a.m., down Center Street to the park. Dancers, drummers, and folks in costume accompany the crowd of about 100 people, who stop frequently as speakers read nature poems. When the moving celebration reaches the park, organizers drop a microphone down a manhole and broadcast the creek’s burbling.

This noise is the background music to the afternoon festival, as well-known environmental poets read from their work. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joanna Macy, Diane Di Prima, Country Joe McDonald, Michael McClure, and Homero Aridjis of Mexico have all performed in the past. Lesser-known poets can sign up to read as well. Children of all ages can make bear masks and salmon heads from recycled materials or crayon rubbings from a 50-foot panel carved with poetry and nature images.

Environmental groups such as the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, Tilden Nature Center, and Shorebird Nature Center run booths at the event. Although the environment might seem unrelated to poetry, “there’s a closer tie than people would think,” says Baldridge. “Oftentimes, poetry accesses another part of our brain and inspires us to think of new things. As poet Homero Aridjis says, it gives us eyes to see otherwise.”

Poetry can be a great vehicle to deliver an environmental message, Baldridge reasons, and can even provide hope, unlike gloomy speeches about environmental degradation.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass (a regular speaker on the creek walk) co-founded the festival in 1996 as part of his laureateship. While riding BART one evening, Hass and Joyce Jenkins (editor of Berkeley’s Poetry Flash) decided to create an event, using art to inspire concern for nature. Baldridge (Jenkins’s husband and the board chair at Poetry Flash) ran the first festival in Golden Gate Park. The event moved to Berkeley in 1998.

Since relocating to Berkeley, the founders have treated the creek-daylighting idea as their “call to arms.” In Baldridge’s view, liberating creeks has symbolic importance. “It’s letting nature reemerge. It’s like grass powering its way through a crack in the sidewalk. There’s a tremendous amount of power in nature that we can all tap, spiritually as well as physically.”

Man and the Moon … In Japan, a moon-viewing festival, or otsukimi, is traditionally held in September during the harvest moon. The event originally involved offerings to the gods but it was essentially an excuse to party. The harvest was in, time to celebrate.

Tony Yokomizo knows the feeling. The founder of Oakland’s Moon Viewing Festival spent two months in a Utah internment camp during World War II, then went to work as a sharecropper on a sugar-beet farm. “When you throw that last beet on top of the truck,” he says, “it’s a heck of a great feeling. And I can understand why they would celebrate.”

Yokomizo started his Oakland festival way back in 1962. Born and raised in the United States, Yokomizo and other members of the Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association didn’t know much about Japan, so they consulted reverends at the Buddhist Church of Oakland. They decided to start an otsukimi here to educate Oaklanders about Japan, which at the time seemed a distant and exotic land to many Americans. In 1998, the emperor of Japan gave Yokomizo a medal for furthering U.S.-Japanese relations; the same year, Mayor Elihu Harris proclaimed November 28, Tony Yokomizo Day.

The celebration takes place at the Lakeside Park Garden Center on Lake Merritt under the October full moon. In a break with Japanese tradition, the association chose a month when it gets darker sooner, so the weekday event can begin and end early. From 4:30 to 6:30 in the evening, festival-goers can enjoy preordered bento dinners for $15. For the rest of the festival, you can pretty much leave your wallet at home, since there is nothing for sale. “We’ve avoided becoming commercial,” says past association president Paul Shimotake.

Before sunset there are many demonstrations, which in the past have included kendo (fencing), taiko (drumming), ikebana (flower arranging), martial arts, a tea ceremony, and origami. When the sky darkens, volunteers from the East Bay Astronomical Society focus telescopes on planets and stars, then give astronomy lectures. Of course, festival-goers also gaze at the moon. What do they see there, a man? Or, as in Japan, do they see two rabbits pounding sweet mochi rice cakes?

Black in the Saddle … George Rothman had to do his homework before he started the Black Cowboy Parade and Festival back in 1975. He isn’t black, and he’s never been a cowboy. He’s a Jewish guy from Brooklyn who claims he’s not even interested in cowboys.

But he prides himself on knowing history, and when he heard that one out of every four American cowboys was black he was so bothered by his ignorance of the topic that he co-founded a festival honoring these uncelebrated cowpokes.

When Rothman set out, he could find little written history of black cowboys. But he did discover that during the Civil War the U.S. government organized black cavalry regiments to scout and fight Native Americans. Some of these so-called buffalo soldiers drifted west, where Mexican horsemen taught them to herd cattle. Thereafter, the soldiers-turned-cowboys excelled as horsemen and cattlemen. They also did a lot of the dirty work on white-owned ranches.

To celebrate this lost chapter of American history, there is now a three-hour parade every October from Oakland’s DeFremery Park to city hall, where judges watch as various groups dance or do tricks with their horses. About half the parade participants wear full cowboy attire, including hats, vests, chaps, boots, and spurs, and many are on horseback. Hundreds march (Danny Glover, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and Oakland mayors Elihu Harris and Lionel Wilson have joined in the past) and thousands of cheering spectators line the streets. After the parade, the festival begins in the park, where children can ride horses. There is food and live gospel, jazz, and rap. The O’Jays and the Spinners have performed in the past. In midafternoon, the winners of the competitions are awarded trophies.

To Rothman’s chagrin, few whites participate, though organizers have consistently reached out to the white community. “There are blacks who detest even the sight of a white,” Rothman laments. “And I guess there are whites who detest the sight of a black. It’s a broken-up society.”

Rothman’s awareness of discrimination and segregation goes back to his experience in the Navy. During World War II he once witnessed Southern white officers breaking and permanently damaging the fingers of an “uppity” black pianist. Years later in Harlem, where he owned a hot dog stand, Rothman met Malcolm X at a black-power meeting and became the first and only white person ever to enter Malcolm X’s mosque, Rothman says. After 50 years in Brooklyn, he moved to Oakland in 1965 and still vividly recalls seeing “no blacks” on realtors’ business cards here.

Just as motivated as he was nearly 30 years ago, if less energetic, the normally irascible 86-year-old community consultant softly confesses, “I am limited in my time now. I used to run the festival on a day-to-day basis, but I don’t anymore. I’m afraid that at one point soon it might stop.”

WINTER

The Beast from the East … If you’re still in touch with your inner child, you’ll appreciate the title of Dani Eurynome’s bEASTfest: “East Bay” is pig Latin for “beast.”

The multiheaded bEASTfest arts festival takes place in up to nine different venues over three December nights. Organizer Eurynome, a 33-year-old music promoter from the Chicago area with attention-getting glasses and Raggedy Ann–red hair, works 80-hour weeks and brims with determination. Her business card bills her as someone who can “make stuff happen.” In fact, she took her surname from a mythological Assyrian figure who created the world.

Eurynome helped start the festival in 2000, as a way to promote the Oakland gallery and performance space 21 Grand. At its inception, she says, the festival reflected “what our experiences were—and what we could do in three months.” That is, it showcased only rock music and attracted a pretty homogeneous crowd.

But when Eurynome started planning the next festival, she told the other organizers it was time to expand. “The East Bay arts scene is much more eclectic than just rock bands,” she argued. In 2001, bEASTfest added jazz, roots, country, and spoken-word performances. In 2002, it added hip-hop, visual arts, film and video, comic books, zines, and a small-press expo.

That year’s all-night pass to each venue exposed festival-goers to multiple arts experiences. “People were seeing performances they never would have gone to otherwise,” says Eurynome. “They went to a punk show and they saw spoken word, too.” She says her aim is to take people “beyond their normal comfort level—in a good way.”

She chooses small venues (such as the Black Box, Blake’s, the Starry Plough, the Oakland Metro, and the Stork Club) because they’re “intimate for audiences. I want people to have a community-building experience. It would be great if some event—bEASTfest or otherwise—could bring everyone together,” she adds almost dreamily, “because I think society is pretty fragmented.”

Organizers exclusively feature performers from Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Always in the shadow of San Francisco, the East Bay has suffered the “ugly-stepsister syndrome,” says Eurynome, though she sees a stark contrast between the two scenes: East Bay artists take more risks, demonstrate more innovation, and appeal more to the working classes. While San Francisco groups preoccupy themselves with “ironic disdain,” she thinks, people here in the East Bay “are willing to dance and look uncool if they’re having fun.”

For the Birds … Myrna Hayes founded a birding festival. But she wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “I’m not a bird nerd.” In fact, says the San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival founder, “I wish I knew about birds.” She is enthusiastic, though. Once, upon spotting a bird she didn’t recognize, she got so excited she called the Audubon Society, only to learn that the bird was a common starling.

Hayes does, however, know and care about the environment, having grown up in the Sierra town of Paradise, where the natural world cast its spell over her early in life. And as a community activist, she’s particularly motivated by a desire to aid her beloved town of Vallejo. She figures that Vallejo’s future depends on the preservation and promotion of its natural resources, and she sees her festival as part of the solution, asserting that the seven-year-old event has “definitely put Mare Island on the map.”

Drawing about 6,000 people every January, the three-day festival is scheduled to coincide with the northward migration of shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors. Inside vacant Navy buildings, festival-goers learn to identify birds. They can also carve and paint duck decoys, build bird feeders, see live shows featuring raptors, and buy birding equipment, art, and photographs. Nonprofits from around the bay set up booths, as do state and federal agencies like Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service. Outside, along San Pablo Bay, visitors look for egrets, white-tailed kites, and American kestrals. The festival offers 27 outings (mostly free), including a canoe trip on the Napa River’s newly reclaimed wetland and a visit to Sonoma County’s Skaggs Island for hawk sightings. There are outings as far south as San Jose and as far west as Point Reyes.

Hayes makes a living by giving ecotours and historical tours and doing public-access planning; she recently helped plan a new walking trail on Mare Island. She knows Vallejo’s history cold and is deeply involved with community politics. She’s even considering a November run for city council. Hayes becomes most animated when proposing ways to rescue Vallejo, a “deterioriating urban core” abandoned by the military and by a massive shipyard that had employed local people since 1854.

Hayes thinks Vallejo’s citizens are overlooking their town’s greatest asset—the surrounding wetlands (primarily the Carquinez Strait and the Napa River)—associating them with smelly swamps and the raw sewage that once flowed in the shipyard. The civic buildings even face away from the water, Hayes points out.

She wants Vallejo residents to transfer their well-founded pride in their industrial accomplishments to a “tremendous pride in the protection of wildlife resources.”

“People will think that’s a goofy idea,” she admits. “But somebody like me has a better handle on this than people pining for the days of the shipyard.”

SPRING

Carried Away … Few people party like the Caribbeans. But Carijama founders Jackie Artman, who’s from Trinidad, and Margaret Haines, from Guyana, were determined to give the East Bay its own version of San Francisco’s Carnival parade and festivities. So in 1984 the two Oakland residents and professional dancers held the first Carijama (coining the name by combining “Caribbean” and “jamming”) in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Civic Center Park. They moved the celebration to Oakland the next year.

From Trinidadian roti with curry and split peas to Jamaican jerk chicken, from the sound of steel drums to dance performances by groups like Islands of Fire and Sistas with Style, Carijama breathes spice into Mosswood Park every Memorial Day. If you want pageantry and color, Carijama is the place to go. Organizers estimate that as many as 15,000 people attend the one-day festival.

In the Caribbean, Carnival begins at 2 a.m., but that wouldn’t fly with the city of Oakland. When the opening ceremony, Jouvert, gets going at 6 in the morning, paint- and mud-covered revelers gather for a day of parades, dance, music, and food from Africa, the Caribbean, and New Orleans.

Artman knows her Oakland festival will never be as big, stunning, and “euphoric” as Trinidad’s Carnival, which is the largest such event in the Caribbean, but at least in Carijama, “we can give people a taste of what Carnival is like,” she says. For her, that means “freedom of spirit, freedom of expression.” Oakland’s African-American kids need to experience this freedom, she says, as community centers close and children lose opportunities to have fun.

“Our vision is that Carijama will become a platform where they can express themselves creatively and in a positive manner,” she says.

Through Carijama, which derives from African traditions via Brazil, she also hopes to instill cultural pride in African-American kids. “Where did you think break dancing came from? Capoeira came from Africa.” After they see this and other spectacles at Carijama, she says, “they’ll never forget that as long as they live.”

Annapurna West … The Himalayan Fair celebrates the culture of the Himalayas with food, music, and crafts, with all the unpredictable fun of an authentic Himalayan festival in the shadow of Annapurna.

“Himalayan festivals are a little wild and unruly,” says founder Arlene Blum. “People wander through with snakes twirled around their arms. Fortune tellers show up. One year we had an elephant.” But every festival has its limits. This year, somebody wanted to bring a yak, but organizers decided there wasn’t space. “I thought that was too bad,” Blum says.

Arlene Blum and Nutmeg the Cow at the first Himalayan Fair.
Arlene Blum and Nutmeg the Cow at the first Himalayan Fair.

The first year, Blum arranged for a “holy cow” to come from Mendocino. But Nutmeg (the cow) got scared when people sprinkled holy water and lit flames and rang bells. That was back in 1983. Blum (famous for climbing Annapurna and writing a book that’s a mountaineering classic) had just returned from 10 months of Himalayan trekking. She sought “a way to integrate my Himalayan life and my Berkeley life,” and when she attended the Live Oak Park Crafts Fair, a vision took shape: “I saw this normal crafts fair transformed into a big Himalayan festival. I imagined prayer flags, Nepalese food, arts and crafts, dancers.”

Murphy’s Law governed the first year’s event. Blum placed essential equipment in a storage facility near the creek, then lost the key, finding it only a week after the event. Her plan to screen Indian films fell through when the movie projector didn’t work. But thousands of people enjoyed themselves, and have ever since.

Now in its 20th year, the event attracts 6,000 to 7,000 people over the weekend.

Almost since its inception, the event has doubled as a fund-raiser for Himalayan causes. Organizers raise about $25,000 each year, which goes a long way toward fixing schools and financing college educations in poor countries. Fund-raising wasn’t part of the original vision. “When we started to make a little profit, we realized how much this money could mean back in the Himalayas, where the idea and the energy of our fair came from.”

Eve Kushner is a Berkeley freelancer. Her profiles appear frequently in the San Francisco Chronicle.