Banding Together; The unifying behind the cross-cultural Mid-Atlantic Music & arts Festival make no apologies for their positive spirit. Judging by the musical lineup, there's good cause for it.


Marcia Selko has turned the polite, outdoor conversation into a monologue as she reels off the good things she hopes will happen during the two-day arts festival her family is organizing for mid-June.

People are going to have a great time listening to gospel, jazz, blues, she says. They'll get to stop by a wellness center. There will be arts and crafts, strolling performers, a sculpture exhibit, a stage for acts aimed at children. The Mid-Atlantic Music & Arts Festival is going to be a party with a purpose.

"We're not just trying to have another party," she says, emphatic as she walks back and forth across the large, shaded porch of her Monkton home.

She is a diminutive, unstoppable force of nature. Her son and husband, who had been having a quiet discussion, look on, helpless. No one can get a word in. Marcia is in the thrall of her enthusiasm, extolling the benefits, the virtues, the absolute goodness of this event. Then a visiting cynic stops her, asking if she wants the festival to end with everybody holding hands and singing "We Are the World."

"And what would be wrong with that?" she asks, wheeling around and staring down the questioner. "Do you think it's too hokey? Supposing we did hold hands. Oy," she says, putting a hand to her forehead. "Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

It is hard to argue against that vision. Every interdenominational, interracial and cross-cultural group wants the same thing. Rodney King pleaded for us all to get along. Quasi-governmental groups talk about ending the suburb-vs.-city animosity. Now the Selkos want to give everybody a chance at togetherness.

They are unlikely concert promoters. Brad Selko, 49, retired from Monumental Paper and never figured he'd spend hours burning up the telephone lines, trying to line up musicians; his wife, Marcia, 47, is a visual artist; their son, Gabriel, 23, graduated from Syracuse University two years ago with a degree in English and economics. But in one sense, this event builds on a long love affair with music.

A second-floor room in their restored farmhouse feels like a musician's playhouse. Electric and acoustic guitars rest on holders, a drum set sits in the corner, an electronic keyboard waits by the banisters. Downstairs there's an old upright. They could be their own band.

Since 1993, the Hot August Blues festival has been held on the Selkos' 30-acre farm. The annual, daylong concert benefits the Baltimore Blues Society and other local groups. Three years ago, the Selkos helped revive the career of Larry Johnson, a bluesman and close friend of the late, great Rev. Gary Davis. In between they have gone to countless festivals, always noting the behind-the-scenes work of staging a successful show.

They have booked 47 acts and added programs to cut across every imaginable fault line -- racial, economic, generational, political. One find, the Cold Mountain Rhythm Band, is driving in from Missoula, Mont. Teen-age blues shouter Shemekia Copeland will be there, along with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. If the Selkos have their way, the Maryland State Fairgrounds will become a cultural discovery zone.

"There are things I know that music does. Music unites people," Brad Selko says during the calm before his wife takes center stage on the porch. "I don't know what happens when they go home."

The real world sets in. That's what happens. Festivals are breaks from the everyday world. Where you're from, what you do for a living, even your beliefs do not matter when Buddy Guy, Los Lobos or Vickie Winans is on stage and the spirit is moving through the crowd. The Selkos hope some of that spirit lives on after the music ends.

They had been thinking about doing the festival for two, maybe three years before deciding to make it a reality. First they had to find the right place. Oregon Ridge was nice, but not what they needed. They knew success depended on adhering to the old real estate axiom: location, location, location. They kept coming back to the State Fairgrounds. It was big enough, had the name recognition and a Light Rail stop. Last summer, they signed on for June 19 and 20 , which just happened to be Father's Day weekend. The Selkos' daughter, Sare, the family's holistic conscience, pointed out that the festival also falls just before the summer solstice.

"Once we got locked in on the fairgrounds, that was it," says Brad Selko. "We knew the train was running."

Gabriel suggested the Selkos name the production company "Higher Ground," after a Stevie Wonder song. It fit their philosophy. For suggestions and advice they turned to Walt Michael, another local promoter. Five years ago, Michael started "Common Ground on the Hill," a weeklong series of concerts and classes built on the same themes the Selkos wanted for their event. This year's "Common Ground on the Hill" will be the week of July 4 at Western Maryland College in Westminster.

"We're children of the '60s and we take that pretty seriously," says Michael, 52. "Back then the music was part and parcel of the culture. There were all kinds of amazing things going on. The Civil Rights Movement was peaking. Music was central to all that. All kinds of music was being listened to and now we've got this age of specialization, 'Are you into this? Are you into that?' Racism is rampant. All the things that we thought would go away haven't."

Michael supports the idea of being upfront about the festival's intent. No need to be shy about wanting to do a bit of good for the community. The Selkos, who are handing out 1,000 free tickets, say they will spread some of the proceeds around to local non-profit groups. They already have given out $65,000 through the Hot August Blues festival. One of their models, the New Orleans Jazz Fest, gives some of its proceeds to 27 organizations in and around the Crescent City.

"There's just no end to what you can put back into the community," says Marcia. "I mean, it's like a musical United Way."

So far, the Selkos have lined up corporate sponsors, hired sound and lighting technicians, worried over thousands of details. The bill could come in at about $200,000, says Gabriel Selko. Before throwing himself into this project, he sold insurance and often helped friends with businesses at Pimlico or Camden Yards. The arts festival tapped his true interest. At Syracuse, he helped put together Earth Day celebrations. Organizing festivals, it seems, is in the blood.

"Everything. All my drive. All my passion just sent me back in this direction," he says. If at times the work seemed overwhelming, son, mother and father just smiled and pressed on, he says. "We said we just want to put together the most incredible show that anybody in the area has seen and that kept us going."

They sampled CDs, tapes, records as they tried to get the right mix of musicians.

Gabriel brought a cross-generational balance to his parents' deep knowledge of blues.

"One day I came up here and put on some Third World, Toots and the Maytals," he says. "And then he'll turn me on to somebody like T-Bone Walker, somebody I never heard of, and it'll be great."

In Marcia's words, "the whole thing kind of unfolded like the leaves of a lotus petal." Brad says he looks at the lineup and shakes his head. All the ingredients are there, from international acts to local performers like the Choir Boyz, a contemporary gospel group.

"We're excited about it and we can't wait to minister to the people," says Randy Roberts, the group's leader. "We're looking forward to another opportunity to share God's word through song."

Now, the Selkos just hope for decent weather and good crowds. Michael, the "Common Ground" promoter, knows what they're feeling during these final days.

"It's an art in and of itself to bring all these people together," says Michael, a hammer dulcimer player whose string and percussion ensemble is scheduled to play at the festival. "It's a little different than booking the Stones at Camden Yards."

The return, however, can be priceless. Already, the Selkos are thinking about next year.

"Why we're not sitting by our swimming pool sipping Pina Coladas, I don't know," says Marcia. "We're just not that kind of people."

Festival info

What: Mid-Atlantic Music & Arts Festival

When: noon to 8 p.m. June 19-20

Where: Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium

Tickets: Advance tickets are $20 per day, $40 for both days, by calling 410-481-SEAT, or 202-432-SEAT; tickets are $25 per day at the gate, $45 for both days; children under 12 free with an adult.

Information: 410-771-4862 Pub Date: 6/08/99

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