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In Miami Beach, Bela Fleck finds 'a dream'

When the GroundUP Music Festival debuted last year at the North Beach Bandshell, it created a scene that defied easy description, a synchronicity of sound by a vanguard of intrepid jazz and world-music experimenters and an intimate oceanfront setting of memorable beauty.

Organized by young Grammy-winning jazzniks Snarky Puppy, the three-day, all-ages event drew from a broad demographic of South Florida culture, united by an appreciation for musical risk-taking. The festival created a buzz not only among local fans and performers but across the jazz and indie-music communities at large.

Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, a globetrotting, 15-time Grammy winner and one of the headliners at GroundUp 2018, has long been a fan of Snarky Puppy’s music and was impressed by what he heard last year about the festival.

“What they’re trying to accomplish with this festival is kind of a dream,” Fleck says. “Getting interesting and open-minded musicians together to do something special, it’s a dreamy idea.”

Beginning Friday, Feb. 9, the GroundUP Music Festival will again bring an eclectic lineup of dozens of acts to the North Beach Bandshell, highlighted by Snarky Puppy (playing all three days), the Flecktones Trio (Friday), the Wood Brothers, saxophonist Joshua Redman, Grammy-winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper, singer-guitarist and artist-at-large Lionel Loueke, Swiss EDM percussionist JoJo Mayer and Nerve, indie-electronica duo Knower and guitarist Eliades Ochoa of “Buena Vista Social Club” fame.

Other performers at the festival, co-produced by the Rhythm Foundation, will include Miami jazz singer Buika, local guitarist Roosevelt Collier, Beat Music drummer Mark Guiliana, percussion-heavy electro duo Paris Monster, global jazz group Under One Sun, djembe drummer Weedie Braimah and the Hands of Time, Venezuela’s C4 Trio, the Harold López-Nussa Trio, Charlie Hunter and Silvana Estrada, Banda Magda, Becca Stevens, FORQ, Breastfist, Sirintip and Alina Engibaryan.

GroundUP tickets start at $85 per day, $225 for a three-day pass. The festival again will be accompanied by nightly, collaborative afterparties, this year moving to the Miami Beach Resort and Spa, with many of the main-stage acts finding their way over to perform until 4 a.m. For a nightly schedule of these shows, go to GroundUpMusicFestival.com.

Fleck’s GroundUP performance will offer an increasingly rare opportunity for South Florida audiences to see him in a jazz setting. About five years ago, with the birth of his son, Juno, Fleck took a hiatus from touring with the Flecktones, who routinely did 200 shows a year.

“It was partly because of what I’ve seen with so many of my friends who travel in bands and have a tough time having a good relationship with their family. They’re not home enough, and it’s tough on raising kids. It’s a hard thing for a kid to understand,” Fleck says by phone from his home in Nashville. “I didn’t want to do it that way. … I want to be there.”

In another bid to stay closer to family, Fleck and wife Abigail Washburn, also an acclaimed banjo player and singer, began collaborating on folk and bluegrass music — he from the three-finger school of Earl Scruggs, she in the claw-hammer style that echoes with the instrument’s African traditions. The partnership yielded a self-titled debut album that won the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and, in October, an excellent followup release, “Echo in the Valley,” a showcase for “skill that can border on otherworldly” (NPR).

The couple did some limited touring of the bluegrass circuit by bus, Juno in tow, with Fleck taking a quick trip every so often to play with Chick Corea or the Flecktones. GroundUP is part of a four-day run of Fleck performances on a schedule that is about to get more limited with Washburn due to have another baby in June.

Fleck says he’s anxious to reintroduce himself to the innovative style of music he’s best known for and to the Flecktones Trio. The bandleader and Flecktones Victor Wooten and Futureman haven’t performed as a trio in more than 20 years.

“The scene has marched on a bit,” Fleck says. “I’m gonna come back and see what’s going on, see what I’ve been missing, see where the music has moved while I’ve been in other worlds.”

Fleck says that he found a home in reimagined Appalachian storytelling heard on “Echo in the Valley.”

“It fits us when we’re together,” he says. “It might not always be my form of expression, but it works with her. I can find a lot of ways to paint within that structure.”

Some of the music on the album harbors not-so-subtle reflections of the times in which they were written, including “Come All You Coal Miners,” “Over the Divide,” with its allusions to refugees, and the provocative mantra in “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.”

That last song includes a chorus, written by Fleck and Washburn, that describes a disorienting environment of “sunlit shadows and moonlit days” where “Decency's lost while fortune gained / Rich and weak fools may rule the game.”

“I came up with the central idea of it, which was based on how depressed a lot of my close friends were after the election,” Fleck says. “Just getting up in the morning was tough, for months, after that election. And I was like, ‘OK, are we just going to lay down?’ ”

“Over the Divide” was written after Washburn heard a story about a Jewish-Austrian shepherd, Hans Breuer, whose family had escaped the Holocaust. Hearing about the treatment of Syrian refugees massed at the Hungarian border, Breuer used his minivan and knowledge of the unmarked roads he traveled with his sheep to bring many of them across the border.

“And he also happened to sing and yodel, so there’s a nice opportunity to yodel in the middle of the song,” Fleck says with a laugh.

Fleck says the song’s central lyric — “Isn’t it a shame, dear / Wish it wasn’t true / Wishing there was something that we all could do” — provided the pivot on which the story turned into a call for bystanders to get to work.

“Here’s a guy who went out and did something, what he could do, in his space, in his area, that was helpful and positive,” Fleck says. “Instead of talking the talk, he walked the walk, and we thought that was badass.”

The GroundUP Music Festival will take place 1-11 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Feb. 9-11, at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., in Miami Beach. General-admission tickets cost $85 per day, $225 for a three-day pass. VIP tickets cost $170 per day, $450 for a three-day pass. Fees are not included in these prices. The festival’s late-night shows will be held at Miami Beach Resort and Spa, 4833 Collins Ave. Tickets cost $30, $10 for GroundUp ticketholders. Go to GroundUpMusicFestival.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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