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Acclaimed artist brings a sonic melting pot to this South Florida music festival

Rhythm Foundation Assignments
Osmany Torres
Rhythm Foundation Assignments
Michael League (right) is the bandleader of Snarky Puppy and the co-founder of the GroundUP Music Festival.

If there’s a band that defies labels, it’s Snarky Puppy.

Michael League founded the group almost 20 years ago when he couldn’t get into any of the music programs at his Texas college. Instead, he created a band that was rooted in jazz, but opened itself to all kinds of musicians — folks who were willing to break the mold.

"I just tried to find people who I thought would be up for that — basically trying to find people who weren't jazz snobs," he said on WLRN's Sundial.

The result is a five-time Grammy award-winning band. They won one last year for Best Contemporary instrumental album.

This weekend, Snarky Puppy will be in Miami Beach to headline the GroundUP Music Festival, which League founded in 2017 alongside Miami arts veteran Paul Lehr.

The pair had become friends after League was invited to host a master class at YoungArts in Miami in 2016. Lehr later joined GroundUP Music where he advocated for a Miami-based music festival — and the GroundUP Music Festival was born.

READ MORE: 'An antidote for stressful times': Vocalist Arooj Aftab comes to South Florida

They have aimed to curate an eclectic combination of sounds performed by a roster of artists coming from places like Cuba and Mali.

You can hear that affinity for various genres in Snarky Puppy's sound. The band cut a record with David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and its members have played from Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake to Erykah Badu.

League draws from a wealth of influences, but none have influenced him as much as Black American music. He recalled the Stevie Wonder and James Brown vinyls his dad used to play. Or the times his friends in Dallas, TX., introduced him to D'Angelo and Kirk Franklin.

It's all around us, he said. He emphasized the importance of recognizing the role Black history and culture played in giving birth to jazz and the blues.

"Thing is that it doesn't matter what color you are," League said "if you grow up in the United States, you listen to Black music, right? It's everywhere because it's the dominant musical art form in this country."

Playing at churches — and hip hop clubs

Moving from Virginia to North Texas for college, League broke through the scene by playing gigs at local gospel churches — as well as R&B and hip hop clubs. All of which helped him shape the music he makes today.

League said they spent a lot of time on road, packing up a Chevy white passenger van with instruments hitched to the back as they drove across the state for gigs in any bar, church or venue that would take them.

"What we were doing was kind of like some 1970s stuff — get in the van and drive around and play until somebody discovers you," League said.

When the nomadic lifestyle of being a struggling artist became untenable, he knew it was time to get serious about his music career.

"Then I think the thing that sustained me was just stubbornness," he said. "I've already invested so much time and energy and like I'm not going to let it die — I'm not gonna let it fail.”

Snarky Puppy 2018 Press Photo
Stella K.
Snarky Puppy 2018 Press Photo

Six years later, and the band got one of the most prestigious awards in the music industry, but League said life went on as normal — they still had to work hard and make sacrifices.

"It's not like you win a Grammy and then the next day, you know, Rolling Stone is calling you for an interview," he said. "I think we came out on the other side and now we can sell tickets and we can survive doing what we do and that's no small feat."

Driven by the sheer love of making music, League made sure to stoke — not stifle — any creativity,

"I want them to feel loose and relaxed," League said. "I want them to feel that they can really go wherever they want to go musically and that the band will support that."

That motto manifested into "family dinners" — that's what he called the 1 a.m. jam sessions with his fellow bandmates in New York. Every Friday, they would gather after their respective gigs and just play.

On their record Family Dinner Volume 2, he collaborated with various generations of artists: British jazz/soul vocalist Jacob Collier, British Soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, guitarist Charlie Hunter and folk rock legend David Crosby.

Snarky Puppy playing at GroundUP Music Festival 2018 in Miami, FL.
Stella K.
Snarky Puppy playing at GroundUP Music Festival 2018 in Miami, FL.

He hopes to continue doing that on a much larger scale with the GroundUP Music Festival.

A pair of legendary Cuban bands Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Afrocuba de Matanzas are slated to play together for the first time internationally. And they feature music from an album League helped produce in Cuba. He remembers the verve they had as they held a recording session in an old movie theater.

"It's like they wake up in the morning and it's music until they go to bed every day of their lives," he said.

Getting international bands has not come without some roadblocks.

The U.S. government has yet to let the two Cuban bands enter the country despite having all of their papers organized. League said they have their fingers crossed that they'll hear good news soon.

It's not the first time he's experienced this issue with other artists, and remains hopeful. So long as there's music to be shared, League is ready to bring new music to willing listeners,

"We know that music is like — I mean, it's sung poetry in the sense [that] we're telling truths, so [the artists] are gonna be telling truths about their experience," League said. "That's the fundamental purpose of art, I believe — to create empathy."

Listen to the full Sundial conversation above.

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
Elisa Baena is a former associate producer for Sundial.
Carlos Frías is a bilingual writer, a journalist of more than 25 years and the author of an award-winning memoir published by Simon & Schuster.
Alyssa Ramos is the multimedia producer for Morning Edition for WLRN. She produces regional stories for newscasts and manages digital content on WLRN.
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