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AN OLD FOLK SINGER FINALLY COMES OF AGE
Joel Rafael is playing his first-ever gig in Broward County this weekend, and he happens to have an old song in his repertoire called One Vote, One Name.
Would that be piling on? The California singer-guitarist watched Florida's ballot-box follies with great interest. He's just not sure that trotting out a tune about democratic fairness would be the most politic gesture, given the recent local history.
"Although," Rafael adds with a chuckle, "there's certainly room for thought about it."
Rafael has given a lifetime of thought to the arguments about American society and has put many of his views to music. He has been playing and recording music since the 1970s. But few people outside the world of socially conscious folk were aware of Rafael. It's only in the past decade, a period of popular renewal for folk music generally, that his long-held concerns are finding a wider audience.
His progress tracks pretty neatly the growth of the South Florida Folk Festival, founded 10 years ago. Headliners at this year's two-day lineup at Easterlin Park in Oakland Park include Woodstock alumnus Melanie and self-styled "junkadelic" musician Billy Jonas. They are joined by contestants from afar in the National Songwriter Competition and a host of South Florida-based artists including Rod MacDonald, Marie Nofsinger and spoken-word artist Chris Chandler.
Rafael finds all this activity encouraging, given that interest in folk "was all but lost after about the mid-'70s for those of us that continued to play acoustic music," he says.
Rafael laid down his guitar for years at one stretch to concentrate on day work and family.
Since 1994, however, the Joel Rafael Band has released three albums of new music in a traditional vein. In 1995, he won the emerging songwriter award at the annual Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, one of the genre's best-known and longest-running national forums. He's been emerging ever since: Last year, the Rafael quartet signed with Inside Recordings, an independent label founded by folk-rocker Jackson Browne.
Songs on the Rafael band's first Inside release, Hopper, lace acoustic folk with exotic percussion and lush but rootsy strings -- the latter arranged by Rafael's daughter and bandmate, Jamaica Rafael. The elder Rafael sings old-fashioned protests as well as traveling songs in the mold of two Guthries, Woody and Arlo. But his low-key, evocative singing style is equally at ease with more personal subjects. For every social critique, there is a bittersweet memoir about family and friends.
Rafael says the experiences he had outside music -- "raising a family, caring about other people" -- helped him grow as a songwriter. The relative quiet of his career until now was also a product of his political leanings. Rafael is a classic child of the '60s. Like many young men of his generation, he was eligible for military service during the bloodiest years of the Vietnam War. Like some young men, he objected and dodged the draft.
"I was certainly motivated inside to not want to participate," he says. "It wasn't necessarily because I was playing music -- which I was at that time, I already had started playing a guitar and was writing songs. But I didn't really know what I wanted to do ... I got caught up in a certain element of the whole counterculture of that time ... and I ended up moving up north in, I guess it was '69, with a group of folks that were all going to try and make a go of it up there and get some land, like a lot of people did."
He experimented with communal living in the Pacific Northwest. But he found few opportunities there to pursue music as a livelihood and eventually made his way back to Southern California.
Two albums on his own label, Reluctant Angel, and his summer 2000 debut on Inside Recordings mark what is arguably his most prolific decade ever.
"Those are my discography in a certain sense," says Rafael, adding, "There is some documentation of my (earlier) work and a lot of it's in private archives."
Rafael is less focused on his past work, however, than on a promising future that includes a trip to Chad Country.
"Broward County, from all accounts -- even the ones we saw in the last several weeks -- seems like a really great place to be," he says, "and we're just totally excited to be there."
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