Thousands turn out for Eno River festival despite triple-digit heat

Annual event raises funds for river preservation effort

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2012 

— The Rain Room may have been the most popular booth Saturday at this year’s Festival for the Eno River. A steady stream of overheated visitors ducked in from the triple-digit furnace outside to get spritzered by a cool, foggy, man-made dew.

The misting tent has been a feature of the annual Eno River festival almost from the beginning of the event’s 33-year history. But this year, the chilly shrine was the object of beatific gratitude, with entire families waiting in line for a soaking tonic.

After taking their turn under the misting nozzles, some got right back in line for more mistification.

“Loving coldness” is how Kurt Kroothoep, a Hillsborough entrepreneur, described the experience of being laved head-to-toe by the gentle spray. He planned to return again and again during the day.

“It’s a bit reminiscent of Niagara Falls,” said Maria Stalnaker, a home-schooling mom from Durham, who has taught Polish-language classes at Duke University. “It’s also like being enveloped in moisture.”

For the most part, thousands of visitors tuned out the sweltering heat – hula-hooping, dancing, shopping, picnicking and swimming throughout the day at the Eno River park, Durham’s signature urban nature preserve, which continues Sunday. The festival is not only a showcase for the area’s green conscience but also a fundraising event for the Eno River preservation effort.

The earthy festival featured more than 100 booths, with such attractions as face painting, live owls, turtles, snakes, crafts, clogging, band stands and ethnic food. The spirit of the event came through the booth banners that adorned the park like rainbows: Unique Batik, Reinbarnation, Thistle Ridge Soap, Happy Scraps, Rising Moon Flutes, Elderberry Village, Dye Shed Shibori and Recyclique.

The stifling heat claimed one victim, a volunteer stricken by heat exhaustion who was taken away by ambulance.

In the performers’ pavilion, the benches overflowed with dancers, singers, musicians and others seeking relief, sipping iced water and mopping drippy brows.

Chuck Morton, a Carrboro Realtor, has operated the Rain Room in years past and avidly described its workings in terms of evaporative cooling and thermodynamics.

Morton raved about the system’s six-nozzle configuration of five-micron nozzles that “diffused water into very fine particles.”

He said that festivals have to buy liability insurance and can qualify for discounts because of cooling facilities like the Rain Room.

None of that probably mattered to the shirtless adults and dancing kids enjoying the machine-generated cloud inside the tent. After gulping the molten air outside, they were revived in the Rain Room’s vaulted pleasure dome.

‘Let’s check it out’

The unifying theme of the vendors here is uniqueness and craftsmanship. Some of the items sold at this festival would be hard to find anywhere else.

Jason Smith, for example, sold some of the most unusual musical instruments on Earth: handmade gourd banjos, modeled on the “banza” instruments once made by African slaves living on Southern plantations.

Smith, a professional musician and tennis coach in Mississippi, estimates he’s one of a half-dozen master banza builders in North America. He makes instruments ranging from 2 1/2 to 5 strings and producing a “sweet, piercing tone,” he said.

The bigger ones, with ornate embellishments, can take more than a week to create and sell for upward of $700.

“They’re designed to last forever – as long as a Stradivarius violin,” Smith said.

Many passers-by assumed that the exotic banzas are nonworking replicas, until Smith picked out a tune for proof.

Scott Taylor, an accordion player, found the proto-banjos enchanting.

“The first reaction is: What is that? Let’s check it out,” he said.

A native of Virginia who has lived in France for the past quarter century, Taylor inquired about the banza as a hand-rolled, filterless cigarette smoldered between his fingers.

The banza’s resonance reminded him of an ineffable quality somewhere between the modern banjo and a traditional African kora.

Lucas Childress of Durham is interning with High Strung Violins & Guitars, a music store in Durham, and knows something about traditional instruments.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “To me, this is totally new.”

Childress tried out a midsized banza, finding it flawless. Then he trailed off, as if thinking aloud: “If I had the money...”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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