Dallas — For those who may doubt the cultural authority of Dallas as an artistically relevant city, the Dallas Symphony’s Soluna: International Music and Arts Festival is a solid testament to the burgeoning of North Texas as a hotspot for visual and performing arts.
Soluna, which spans the larger part of May (6 through 28), consists of a plethora of events, from music, visual arts, dance, and theater to educational community lectures. These events bring together international artists with some of Dallas’ most recognizable arts organizations in order to foster a rich diversity of expression, incorporating effective blends of contemporary and performing arts.
The spirt of this festival was artfully captured last weekend at The Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum with the Array: Music Collaborations concert. This show featured half a day of engaging art installations and musical performances ranging in genre from electronica to folk-rock. World-renowned musical acts joined forces with various Dallas-based arts groups to form active and entertaining sets, while next door at Canton Hall, curator and creative specialist Erica Felicella brought together the works of 10 local artists, showcasing interactive art installations that were thought-provoking, engaging, and educational. Attendees were free to travel between the two venues throughout the night.
The show opened with two brief sets from local artists DJ Zhora and soul-infused hip-hop outfit Cure for Paranoia. These Dallas treasures set an provocatively upbeat tone for the evening as the mostly standing-room-only venue began to fill up in anticipation for the show’s first guest act.
Jacob Banks, the Nigerian-born, London-based contemporary R&B artist entered the stage in unassuming garb—black skinny jeans and a plain white tee, addressing an energetic, albeit sparse floor of attendees. However, as the first few notes of his gritty, soulful vocals filled the venue, heads turned from their independent conversations and bodies began to fill the standing room. Opening with a moving rendition of “Wade in the Water,” Banks’ voice sits remarkably between a serenade and a holler, almost desperate, with a stark realness that seems to suggest a lifetime of struggle and introspection. Despite his massive tone and impressive range, the 26-year-old’s stage presence remains largely humbled and fixed in the center. His style ranges from rock to reggae, offering new and exciting takes on themes like romance and heartbreak with tracks like “Part Time Love” and “Be Good To Me.”
In a match made in Heaven, Banks closed out his 50-minute set with a collaboration with Dallas’ own Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Gospel Choir. Providing backing vocals for the final two songs, the single “Unknown (To You),”, and “Chainsmoking” from his latest studio album The Boy Who Cried Freedom. The young artists added great shimmer and depth to Banks’ rawness in a fitting blend of gospel and soul.
An abrupt, though exciting, change in direction followed with the Icelandic indie-rock group Kaleo. Their opening numbers featured a distinctive resonator on front-man JJ Julius Son’s guitar solo, conjuring up lingering ethereal tones with a psychedelic-rock vibe. This intro served as the perfect backdrop before which the Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet performed sweeping, emotive choreography. Drenched in deep blue light against a dark stage, the troupe’s eerie Black Swan aesthetic fit beautifully with Kaleo’s warm reverb.
With heavy influences from folk, country-rock, and delta blues, the rest of the hour-long set was marked by a tone that was so appropriately Texan—big, rebellious, and unapologetic—garnering ebullient receptions from the now densely-packed crowd. Son’s voice on numbers like “No Good” and “Broken Bones,” from the A/B album, is melodic and tight, with just enough gravel and twang to keep listeners guessing where he’d take them next. In a single breath, he’d skim the lowest depths of his range and soar up to the screeching tips of his uninhabited falsetto. It was quite an exciting performance—one that had audience members roaring with applause, ready for the night’s headliner to follow.
The applause was thunderous, whistling, and wild as the stage crew rolled out the DJ podium emblazoned with Nas’ iconic moniker. With eight consecutive platinum/multi-platinum albums and 13 Grammy nominations under his belt, Brooklyn-born Nasir “Nas” Bin Olu Dara entered the stage to greet an ecstatically enthused full house.
Opening the set with a haunting blend of synth, horns, and strings, his collaboration with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of music director Jaap van Zweden, asserts its immediate merit. Their texture is thick and nuanced, adding layers of tonality and energy to Nas’ trendy, bass-heavy beats. The 44-year-old hip-hop recording artist, rapper, and producer is genuine and unpretentious on the mic, with a presence that one fanatic attendee expressed as “a perfect medium between Biggie and Pac.” He commanded the room with the intricate rhythms and provocative poetry of familiar hits like “N.Y. State of Mind” and “One Love” from his 1994 debut album Illmatic, and “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That),” which is considered by many publications to be one of the greatest rap songs of all time. Nas’ lyrics take on a range of issues, from politics and social consciousness to his own personal narratives reflecting on past struggles and overcoming adversity.
It was clear that the majority of those in attendance were there for this moment—an entire room mesmerized in uniform head bobbing by the hip-hop icon and the brilliant musical partnership with the DSO.
Closing the night was a rousing set from Big Gigantic. Even though it was late in the evening, the venue was still bursting with dedicated revelers, and this instrumental/electronic musical duo delivered exactly what patrons were looking for—big, driving beats and sensual dance rhythms. The Boulder, Co.-based group consists of saxophonist/producer Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken. Together they create a distinctive sound that blends the hard-hitting elements of trap, hip-hop, and EDM beats with sensual, jazzy melodies with Lalli’s improvisatory sax and keys.
The energy was multiplied through their collaboration with the Dallas Maverick’s eight-piece drumline. The percussionists occupied several levels about the stage, moving through different formations as they drove the heavy rhythms of the hour long set—an hour that was clearly a call for the crowd to let loose and dance, which many did with abandon. It was the perfect way to close out such an engaging, eclectic evening of art and music.
As a recent transplant to the Dallas area, and therefore a noob to the local arts and culture scene, I must say that I am impressed. The performances at the Array: Music Collaborations concert demonstrated an apt and thoughtful blend of contemporary and fine arts, with an emphasis on community engagement. In a time when cultural distinctions seem to foster ever-growing divisions in our society, these effective collaborative efforts serve as more than just riveting entertainment. They remind us of the power of cooperation and the importance of art in building connections throughout the community.
Events for the Soluna Music and Arts Festival will be taking place at various spots in Dallas through May 28.