Through her fledgling festival called Connect Beyond, Asheville music maven Jessica Tomasin wants to stimulate conversations and forge connections between creators using art to make the world a better place and their audiences.
“We are using music, film and more to share stories about issues facing our world today, and what people are doing to address those things,” Tomasin says. “We’re curating resources that help people create the world they want to live in.”
That’s a tall order. In its second year, Connect Beyond is still finding its footing. But Tomasin is passionate about using musical performances, film screenings, panel discussions and workshops to pull people together and empower and inspire them.
Tomasin has curated a stellar line-up of talent to that end. Bob Boilen, the founder of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, will hold a “fireside chat” with Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Description Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, better known as Fantastic Negrito. Musical performances include shows featuring violinist and pop musicians Kishi Bashi; power pop and pub rocker Nick Lowe’s Quality Rock & Roll Revue starring Los Straitjackets; and Victor Wooten, a Grammy Award-winning bass player who has been the bassist with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones since that band’s beginning.
Panel discussions include a discussion of “fake news” featuring Joseph Hudak, a senior editor at Rolling Stone, filmmaker Mikki Willis and Scott Goodstein, who has created political campaigns that blend art and music (he worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign); and a panel discussion devoted to gender equity and elevating women.
Film screenings include work curated by Cat Fly, an Asheville-based nonprofit film festival that supports up-and-coming indie film artists from around the Southeast. There’s a documentary about how the Millennial generation can make change, a show examining the indigenous roots of Southern food, an an indy film called Leto that was nominated for the Palme D’Or at the 2018 Cannes film festival. The film tells the story of a group of people who changed the destiny of rock and roll in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The event has similar DNA to the ever-popular South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. There’s also past precedent for such an event in Asheville, events that Tomasin has experience with as a participant and attendee.
Beginning in 2009, HATCHfest Asheville ran for a handful of years as an event aimed at bringing together creative people is various realms, such as music, film, fashion and journalism. Moogfest, an electronic music festival focused on the intersection of music, art and technology, was sponsored by Asheville-based Moog Music Inc. and curated by music promoter Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment. It ran from 2010 to 2014. (A separate festival launched by Capps called Mountain Oasis lasted for a couple of years at the end of the Moogfest run.)
Those events, while generating excitement among creatives and music lovers, found tepid support from local sponsors and city government. The events also held concerts, panels discussions and mixers in venues across Asheville, just as Connect Beyond is planning.
Tomasin knows that success is possible. Capps, a mentor of Tomasin’s and the founder of the massively popular Bonnaroo music festival, hit upon just the right mix with his Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. That event highlights artist-musician cross-over and features an avant garde musical mix. It started in 2009.
“It has to happen in a grassroots way, and it won’t happen overnight,” Tomasin says, “so we’re just going to continue sharing stories.”
Tomasin has managed the well-respected Echo Mountain recording studio since it opened about 13 years ago. She co-founded a networking group for musicians called Asheville Music Professionals. And she’s an experienced event producer with her own production company. All that is to say that Tomasin herself is a professional connector.
“We all have gifts to share. Finding ways to show up and do that is the whole point of this,” Tomasin says, “and we can use art as that bridge.”
Whatever the issues of the time, a festival like Connect Beyond can hold space for people to come together, learn from one another and be inspired, Tomasin adds. “Seeing what seeds get planted and what collaborations happen from here” is also part of the celebration, she says.
In the end, the festival is “for anybody that’s looking to have a more immersive experience with art, cultural and the community,” Tomasin says.