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Many regard LEAF as a music festival, but founder Jennifer Pickering has always known it’s about community

Jennifer Pickering and LEAF staff
Matt Peiken | BPR News
Jennifer Pickering (center) with LEAF staffers (from left) Adama Dembele, Elsea Brown, Erinn Hartley and Ary'an Graham inside LEAF Global Arts.

After graduating college, Jennifer Pickering spent $1,400 on an around-the-world plane ticket. Over the next year, she backpacked through Africa, India and Southeast Asia. When she returned to Asheville, in the mid ‘80s, Pickering set out to give people here a taste of what she’d seen and who she met.

“I had dreamed to open up a space and a place you would walk into and be able to travel the world,” she said.

Pickering didn’t envision doing that through music. Even on the eve of the 50th LEAF Festival, she’s still reluctant to label it a music festival. Instead, she sticks to the ethos that underscored the original Lake Eden Arts Festival, in the fall of 1995.

“At the time, there weren’t festivals that were presenting all different kinds of genres, that had healing arts, that had poetry. People didn’t say I was crazy, they said it would never work,” she said. “I started to see so clearly the magic and possibilities of festivals as a way to connect people to the world through the music and arts.”

Not many festivals can expect to sell out 6,000 tickets with Angelique Kidjo of Benin and Rocky Dawuni of Ghana among the headliners. Then again, for LEAF regulars—especially those who camp—the festival is really about the community that gathers there. The music is a soundtrack to their experience.

Performances and workshops for the upcoming festival run October 20-23 at Lake Eden in Black Mountain.

“How we share the story of LEAF in a way that people get it has always been one of our biggest challenges,” Pickering said. “Once people come, they tend to be LEAFers for a really long time.”

Pickering describes herself as a child of privilege. Her father founded Camp Rockmont, and her experiences there played into her enthusiasm to develop the festival on the grounds around Lake Eden. She deflects deeper questions about her upbringing, though, and defines her family more broadly.

“I was really grateful to be raised by several women, but one who was a very strong, beautiful Black woman, and her voice and her guidance really formed a lot of how I saw the world,” she said. “ And then, living and growing up at a camp where kids came from all over the world.”

Pickering is quick to name her early collaborators on shaping and birthing the festival and the team members who curate and manage events today. Still, she defied advisers who told her the festival would never find an audience if she insisted on featuring poetry and healing arts alongside the music. To this day, these elements remain at the fabric of LEAF.

“There’s so many people doing big name, big concerts, and that’s not what we do best,” Pickering said. “We are very mission driven rather than what’s going to sell and what’s going to be popular.”

Just before the pandemic, Pickering and her team more fully realized their original mission by opening LEAF Global Arts. It’s in the former Club Del Cardo, at the entrance to The Block in downtown Asheville. Along with housing LEAF’s headquarters, it’s a cultural and education center that also hosts recording sessions and small performances. Visitors can put their hands on dozens of percussion instruments from around the world and explore music from 60 countries.

“This idea really came back to life when I was turning 50 and really thinking about the sustainability and future of LEAF, and identifying and exploring ‘What does LEAF offer to our community and is that worth continuing on?’” Pickering said. “In that exploration, it became clear we needed a home where people could experience LEAF year round.”

In 2013, LEAF became a formal name rather than an acronym. There are now smaller LEAF festivals downtown at Lake Eden and downtown in the summer, before staff gear up for their flagship event in October.

On an afternoon in mid-September, Pickering was neck-deep in the logistics of producing a festival featuring artists from around the world. This day’s challenge: Working through one performer’s visa issues.

“Festivals are not for the faint of heart,” she said with a laugh. “I’m extraordinarily grateful for the journey that LEAF has been, and I’m extraordinarily grateful we’re still here.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.