College of Education faculty member performs Pa. folk at international rock fest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— Kai A. Schafft, associate professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies, performed June 20 with indie rock band Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy at Azkena Rock Festival outside of Bilbao, Spain. The band played in front of more than 14,000 people at Azkena, one of the largest European rock music festivals, alongside legendary bands such as Scorpions, Blondie, Violent Femmes and Wolfmother.

Mountain Minstrelsy’s show was hailed in the Spanish version of Rolling Stone magazine as one of the festival’s triumphs. The band followed Azkena with a second show in a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, hosted in part by an anarchist artists’ collective, konventpuntzero.

While Schafft has played music semiprofessionally for 15 years, the singer/guitarist/tenor guitarist/banjo player found his big break when a manager at Elk Creek Café + Aleworks in Millheim, Pa., introduced Schafft to Marah’s David Bielanko and Christine Smith about six years ago.

It may seem odd that a college professor would pursue a side career in music, but Schafft, trained as a rural sociologist, says that everything he does has to do with rural and folk culture. He has been interested in the subject ever since he attended a small state school in Maryland, the surrounding rural town of which was transformed with the construction of a naval base. His observations of the change in traditional life sparked his strong sociological curiosity about rural and folk culture.

“Folk culture is the connection of people to place, place to people and people to people, both intergenerationally and in the moment,” Schafft said.

According to Schafft’s definition, Mountain Minstrelsy music project was created in true folk fashion. Band members David Bielanko and Christine Smith were inspired by the folklorist and “song catcher” Henry Shoemaker’s book “Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania,” a collection of song lyrics gathered in the mountains of Pennsylvania more than a century ago.

The band formed with old and new members, including 10-year-old fiddle player Gus Tritsch, to write new music and resurrect the old lyrics. The album itself was recorded live into a single microphone in an old local church in Millheim that the band had converted into an analog studio.

Schafft said the transformation of the church could have been profoundly alienating for the eclectic band since local churches used to be the key community institutions in rural Pennsylvania towns like Millheim. Many congregations lost their following over the decades, and local churches were subsequently closed and replaced by “mega churches,” which have now phased out most small churches.

“We have a profound respect and cognition of what we’re doing with this (music project) and how we are involved in some way with this space and the local people,” said Schafft.

It became clear to the band that bringing in elements from the community was the best way to make the album. Mountain Minstrelsy renewed the old church as a community center by leaving the church doors open during recording sessions, allowing neighbors, fans, and additional talent to enter and even participate in recording sessions.

“We got these little tap dancers, a tuba player, a chorus,” Schafft said. “There was no real recruiting involved.”

The band recorded and produced the album for about a year before releasing their vinyl album Feb. 25. The band used no digital interface.

When asked about the performance, Schafft said, “I’ve played in front of a lot of people before, but never in front of so many (people),” he said. “I’ve never played internationally. I’ve never had a rider,” referencing a document outlining the artist’s preferences for backstage and dressing rooms.

All of that has now changed. Mountain Minstrelsy will play at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August and the Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tenn., in September. They are planning a second brief tour of Spain in the fall.

Schafft will travel overseas again in February when he goes to Hungary on his Fulbright fellowship at the Central European University Institute for Advanced Study. He will be revisiting his initial 1991 study of local development and political mobilization of Roma-Gypsy minority self-governments in post-socialist Hungary.

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Last Updated July 09, 2014