The Eighth Annual Blues and Funk Festival gets off to a high-power start tonight at MCLA with        a headline performance by hip-hop artist Maya Azucena.
The Eighth Annual Blues and Funk Festival gets off to a high-power start tonight at MCLA with a headline performance by hip-hop artist Maya Azucena. (Photo courtesy MCLA)

NORTH ADAMS

New York stalwart and New Orleans spice will headline this year's Blues and Funk Festival.

If Brooklyn native Maya Azucena were tasked with defending her city, her "super power" wouldn't be flying, brute strength, or melting things with her eyes. In fact, by comparison, her power might be considered ordinary. The singer-songwriters' power would be "message."

"Music is a mission as much as a career. There is a reason I call it my superpower -- my gift is to help others," Azucena said during a telephone interview. "As a songwriter and artist I feel constantly compelled to use music as a way to motivate and inspire other people."

The message that New Orleans-based musician Khris Royal sends about his sound is culinary in nature. True to his roots, Royal says it's "musical gumbo."

"It's definitely jazz lines on the top with a heavy foundation of funk at the base," he said. But in the middle there is a lot of rock mixed in with gospel. You also can't forget about those New Orleans flavors."

Azucena and Royal will separately headline the eighth annual Blues and Funk Festival at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Venable Gym tonight and Saturday.

Hip-hop and soul artist Azucena headlines night one along with NEXXUS, MCLA's step team.

Khris Royal and Dark Matter bring the spice Saturday with local blues group, The Arthur Holmes Blues Band opening.


Advertisement

Both concerts begin at 7:30.

This will be Azucena's second performance at MCLA and Jonathan Secor, the college's director of special programs said her return is highly anticipated.

"Everyone in the audience fell in love, from (college president) Mary Grant, to our students, to my daughters, to me," said Secor. "She has this great presence which, when you add original powerful lyrics, a rocking band and a voice that seems to have no limits, it makes for an experience you will not forget."

Secor first sampled Royal's aforementioned tastiness at last year's New Orleans Jazz festival.

"(Royal) is part of a new breed of young jazz artists coming out of New Orleans: talented, professionally trained musicians that borrow heavily from funk, R&B and hip hop," said Secor.

As a teenager, Royal attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts -- whose alumni include Wynton Marsalis, and Branford Marsalis -- and the Berklee School of Music.

But Royal, while grateful for his professional foundation, doesn't shy away from the word "funk."

"When I was in high school, funk was something of a bad word. Some jazz musicians think jazz is the only legit music around and everything else is beneath them. That's the problem right there, regular people don't care about all of that. For me, funk is a way to bring a new, young generation of listeners back into the jazz scene," the 25-year-old Royal, who is recovering from the flu, explained via email.

And while Royal is working to reach a younger audience, Azucena is focused on using music as a cultural ambassador. In 2007, she was tapped for the American Music Abroad program by the U.S. State Department. For that tour she performed, in English, internationally in Burma, China, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In so doing, she learned that music transcends language.

"I have found that if you are clear about the intention of the message you are trying to deliver through the song that people respond in the same places as if they were hearing it in their native language," she said.

Azucena's newest release is "Dance Revolution," a song she wrote for the One Billion Rising campaign, which is aimed at bringing an end to domestic violence.

"We must evolve, ‘til this gets solved; we won't stand down, no we stand tall," sings Azucena powerfully and with conviction in the Dance Revolution video posted online.

According to Royal, Dark Matter, with its debut album by the same name, has a mantra: "make them dance."

Success.

On a bitterly cold and depressing day in Massachusetts, Royal's spirited saxophone riffs, caught on YouTube, prompted instant chair-dancing and served as sunshine on a screen, warm and smile-inducing.

Between Azucena and Royal, the festival will likely prove to be both hot and spicy.

Carrie Saldo can be reached via her website -- www.carriesaldo.com

In concert

What: Eighth Annual Blues and Funk Festival

When: Tonight, Sat. 7:30

Who: Tonight -- Maya Azucena, NEXXUS; Saturday -- Khris Royal and Dark Matter, The Arthur Holmes Blues Band

Where: Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), Venable Gym, 375 Church St., North Adams

Tickets: $10 (general admission); $15 (Pass for both nights); $8 (MCLA alumni); $5 (MCLA faculty and staff and non-MCLA students); free (MCLA students)

How: (413) 662-5204; mcla.edu/presents