By John Hacker
In 2020, the North Heights Porchfest had just wrapped up its busiest year in its short three-year history in 2019, welcoming 25 groups and dozens of food trucks and artisans to the neighborhood north of downtown Joplin and west of Main Street.
The pandemic forced last year’s Porchfest into the virtual world and may have stunted its growth, but organizers said the event, which took place on Saturday, recovered well with large crowds wandering the streets between Wall Avenue and Jackson Avenue to the east and west, and C Street and Glenview Place to the south and north.
“I was a little worried that we were going to have less attendance,” said Stephen Grindle, president of North Heights Neighborhood and organizer of the fifth annual North Heights Porchfest.
“We’re not as big as in 2019, we have 20 bands and we had 25 in 2019,” Grindle said. “So I think we’re on a comeback, it’s a comeback year, and I’m very happy with the number of people walking around. I’ve been in several groups, you can look down and we have probably 50 people in each room, and that’s a good sign that you have good energy.
Grindle guessed that between 1,500 and 2,000 people wandered the narrow, quaint streets of this older part of Joplin between the end of the showers which fell around noon set-in time and the end of the event at 7 p.m.
Carolyn Smith and Rhonda Cotner, from the St. Louis area, came to Joplin to see Grand Falls and stayed an extra day in Joplin to attend Porchfest.
Smith said she was looking for things to see in Missouri and came across an article about Grand Falls, then while looking for other things to do in Joplin, Cotner found a calendar of events and noticed the North Heights Porchfest.
“It’s just fun to walk around the different streets and listen to the different music,” Cotner said. “And really, everyone has been so friendly. There are also some very beautiful houses here.
“It’s a beautiful day and you have a variety of music, food, snacks,” Smith added. “You have to try this. You have to go out and see what it’s all about because it’s really a lot of fun. and they have to get the word out. I think if they spread the word more people would know and come. It is a very relaxing event.
While many bands at the event played traditional rock, jazz and other types of music, there was a selection of bands that featured unique sounds.
The Kufara Marimba Band performed outside the North Heights Neighborhood Life House, featuring traditional African percussion instruments.
Maria Bailey, the band’s manager, grew up in Zimbabwe and her father made some of the instruments the band played.
“It’s a marimba or a xylophone, which means you have a key or a wooden note, which is suspended above a resonator,” Bailey said. “So the key itself is tuned to a certain pitch, just like a piano keyboard, and then the resonators, which are traditionally made from calabashes, they’re aluminum, they help amplify the sound. In the resonator there is a small buzzer which makes the sound even louder and a bit buzzing. There are four different sizes of instruments, bass, baritone, viola and soprano, and we play the African way, we learn by listening to ourselves.
Seven band members performed on Saturday. They played a selection of music from Africa and around the world.
Rodney Lewis, Joplin, who have been with the band for 10 years, said the band loves performing in and around Joplin and introducing people to an instrument they may never have heard before.
“Porchfest is really fun,” Lewis said. “We played both indoors and outdoors and in the grass. Seeing people come closer and look at the surprise on their faces because they have never seen or heard anything like it in this area is a joy to see. They are enthusiastic about music, if they are little they end up dancing and jumping all over the place because they are excited by the rhythms. That’s wonderful.”
Linda Teeter, owner of an art gallery in Joplin and organizer of the First Thursday ArtWalk, spoke about the importance of events like Porchfest in Joplin while listening to Kufara’s play.
“This entire month is National Arts and Humanities Month, it has been going on since 1993,” Teeter said. “We’re officially launching on October 7 at Spiva Park ahead of the last ArtWalk of 2021. Porchfest is what it’s all about. These are the humanities, these are the arts. This stuff happens because it brings the neighborhood together. It’s very intimate, it’s unusual settings and you can hear the local talents, one after the other for seven hours. It’s fantastic.”
Christy Mitchell has lived in the North Heights neighborhood for nine years and loves what Porchfest has done for the neighborhood.
“I think Porchfest is awesome,” Mitchell said. “I think everyone should have Porchfest festivals. It’s like a bazaar, you can listen to music, you can meet new people, you can buy art, you can buy food, you can find whatever you need. I know several people who commented on our neighborhood Facebook page and said they moved here precisely because we have Porchfest, so it actually brought neighbors to our neighborhood. ”