I never would have imagined myself the kind of person who could fit in at a music festival. I love music with every inch of my being, but the sweaty, loud, expensive festival experience did not seem right for me.

However, California WorldFest in Grass Valley was nothing like I expected. WorldFest is a world music festival, featuring artists with Native American, Hawaiian and Ukrainian roots, meaning that there was something for everyone to enjoy.

I arrived at the campsite neighboring the festival grounds on Thursday and set up my tent. Apparently it was not only traditional to bring a tent but also to organize a complex set-up of tapestries, hammocks, RVs and picnic tables. Walking through the campsite, I noticed tie-dye fabric draped around every tree and every person.

I could already tell that the people were going to be fascinating. My friend Rose and I attended our first show that night. We laid our picnic blanket on the ground in front of the main stage, ate snow cones, and listened to the incredible music of the Portland Cello Project (six cellists, one flutist, one French horn player and a drummer performing popular music).

Even on that first simple night, I knew this place would be special.

The next day we heard some more amazing music. Saritah blended reggae, soul and pop music perfectly to create beautiful melodies with powerful and moving lyrics about unity and truth. Daniel Champagne, a singer-songwriter from Australia, had a sound reminiscent of a young Ed Sheeran. The Sam Chase and the Untraditional (my personal favorite band from the weekend) was first and foremost a folk band, with the welcome addition of a cello, a trumpet and beautiful male-female harmonies.

However, the most important parts of the day were the clinics and workshops. I, with my usual passion for ukulele, forced Rose to wake up at 8 a.m. to come with me to a jam session. (It should be made clear that, in my opinion, a jam session is the most important and exciting thing a musician can participate in.)

Following the crude map we had been given, we found our venue, a dark barn in desperate need of repair.

Despite the unattractiveness of the barn, we were met with the warm sounds of more than 20 ukuleles inside, their players learning how to do a fan stroke, a strumming technique.

I was in heaven.

Next on our schedule was a belly dancing clinic. Neither Rose nor I had any idea what we were getting into, but we spent the hour wearing skirts of coins and desperately trying to match the mellifluous movements of the instructor.

For anyone who has never tried it, belly dancing is quite the art form. There is a level of body control and movement involved that seems nearly impossible to match, and with the addition of the coin belt and finger cymbals, the entire thing sounds magnificent and ethereal.

That evening we set up camp to watch the main stage again, this time seeing bands like Las Cafeteras (a Spanish-style band with the addition of brightly colored hair and occasional tap dancing), Makana (a Hawaiian slack-key guitarist), DakhaBrakha (a Ukrainian folk quartet) and Beats Antique (a techno ethnic fusion group from Oakland).

I witnessed a lot of incredible things that night. There is something that happens when a conglomeration of elderly ex-hippie types gets together and hears techno music: the calmest, kindest, most loving mosh pit in the history of mosh pits begins.

Rose and I were tempted into the pit in front of the stage and surrounded by a sea of elderly dancers, holding hands, hugging one another and letting their arms float around their bodies to the beat.

We returned to our blanket, and I brought out my ukulele. I began to improvise a song about doughnuts and the plot of Twilight that, although I considered it ridiculous, seemed to entertain Rose.

My first visitor was a 20-something man with a beard, Birkenstocks and the unmistakable stench of patchouli oil.

“Don’t mind me,” he said. “I just want to listen to your music.”

I explained how dumb it was, but he insisted he would listen, so I launched into another crude and satirical improv piece about Jesus. It may seem silly, but what he told me was one of the most important things that I, as a musician, have ever heard.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “People don’t improvise enough anymore; they are afraid of what might come out of their mouths. Never stop playing, never stop making things up, because you are amazing and unique, and someone’s gotta do what you do.”

My second visitor was about 4 years old. She was wearing nothing but one of the aforementioned belly dancing skirts and a glow-stick necklace, and she too listened to me sing (this time a real song, “Ghost” by Halsey).

This young girl stopped to listen to Leavy play the ukelele. Later, the girl wanted to try the ukelele out herself, so Leavy taught her the only chords her small fingers could actually reach.

(Photo courtesy of Leavy)
A young girl stops to listen to Isabelle Leavy play the ukelele. Later, the girl wanted to try the ukelele out herself, so Leavy taught her the only chords her small fingers could actually reach.

I finished dramatically, and she asked for a turn, so I taught her to play a couple chords—there were only a few her small fingers could actually reach.

I adore teaching ukulele. I have minimal experience as a teacher, but there is such a joy that comes with helping another person to understand the instrument.

When Rose and I finally forced ourselves back to the tent, we fell asleep to the distant sounds of drum circles and jam sessions that continued well into the morning hours.

Due to an unfortunate scheduling conflict, the next day was going to be our last. Again we woke up early and dragged ourselves to a yoga class, where we stretched and suffered and almost fell asleep time after time.

Then we wandered between stages listening to more eccentric bands (Honey of the Heart, Joy & Madness, Sun Monk), eating miniature pies, falafel wraps and chicken teriyaki and shopping for sundresses and healing stones.

We rolled out of the campground that afternoon, and for a week I was in hippie shock and party withdrawal.

The connections I made with the musicians, the artisans and the dancers were so strong that it felt weird to all of a sudden be back at home and no longer among my people.

In Sacramento, I don’t have very many people to play music with, and it’s lonely sometimes. California WorldFest was a welcome change.

—By Isabelle Leavy

The 20th Annual California WorldFest will be held next year from July 14-17. For more details, visit http://worldfest.net/.

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