Larking in the Woods With Musical Sprites From Around the Globe

Paul Kotapish on July 17, 2018
Pete Grant leads a Dobro workshop at Lark Camp

Ever wanted to play in an Afro-Cuban percussion ensemble? Curious about French hurdy-gurdy music? Fascinated by the Bulgarian kaval? Dying to learn nyckelharpa? Wondering just what the hell a cümbüş is? Simply want to pick up some new Irish tunes on your fiddle, flute, or uillean pipes?

If so, then Lark in the Morning, a nine-day, total-immersion music-and-dance camp, is the place for you. From July 27 to August 4, hundreds of the world’s most accomplished traditional musicians gather at the Mendocino Woodland State Park to share their abundance of cultural wealth in workshops, around campfires, at dances, and even waiting in line for chow.

Hank Bradley on the bouzouki and Laurie Andres on the accordion outside the dining hall at Lark Camp

Founded by musical polymath and former world-instrument purveyor Mickie Zekley in 1980 “to provide a venue to allow traditional musicians and dancers to get together and share their music and dance ... without being in a rigid school structure.” He brought together some of the region’s finest practitioners of various folk idioms to provide workshop-style instruction, play for dances, and to host informal jams.

The camp has grown over the years and now occupies three separate but adjacent camp facilities within Woodlands. Camp One focuses primarily on music from Ireland, the British Isles, Greece, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. Camp Two offers a wide variety of idioms from Latin and North America, Spain, France, as well as more mainstream styles such as early country, jazz, and swing. Camp Three is steeped in a range of music and dance from the Middle East, Greece, Africa, and several different drumming traditions. Everything is open to everyone. It’s possible to hoof it between camp centers, but many campers opt for bicycles or the regular shuttle bus to navigate between points of interest in the sprawling, 700-acre site.

Middle Eastern music reigns in Camp Three | Credit: Lee Varis

Workshops range from the specific (Spanish Galician bagpipes or Anglo-system concertina) to the general (ukulele song swap or songwriting), and there are activities for all experience levels. Also in the mix are instrument-making classes, various kids activities, and spontaneous hijinks. Don’t miss the confluence of the Balkan brass ensemble with the Galician gaita group or the improbably mix of Irish jigs with Brazilian sambas.

While the musical experience is always sublime, the accommodations are decidedly rustic — camping not glamping. The cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, are charming, but many are rough timber and lack electricity. And like many park facilities, the water is limited and the shared bathroom and shower facilities can require some patience. There are also options for tent and vehicle camping. More information on the lodging page.

But you won’t be spending much time in your digs, anyway. Between the endless varieties of music to explore, spontaneous jam sessions to participate in, woodland trails to discover, and interesting people to meet, sleep will be the last thing on your mind.

The video below tracks camper Cedar Dobson's experience of the camp.

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