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Bob Queen will admit today that when he and some of his east Madison neighbors organized the first Marquette Waterfront Festival 27 years ago, they had no idea what they were doing. Today, pulling together neighborhood festivals dripping with atmosphere, culture and good vibes is second nature.

“He found out he was good at this,” said Nancy Kathman, Queen’s wife. The two met in Cuba on a sugar plantation 45 years ago.

Kathman accompanied Queen for an interview last week at the Cap Times, finishing his sentences and fact checking him on the fly. The pair now travels the world each winter, attending music festivals to strike deals with performers like Haiti’s BelO or Mexico’s Boogat, who will anchor the Marquette Waterfront Festival’s schedule this Saturday.

The first of four east Madison summer get-togethers — along with La Fete de Marquette in July, Orton Park Festival in August and the Willy Street Fair in September — Waterfront has grown from humble roots into a singularly Madison event. Its two days feature an eclectic slate of musical acts and vendors set up along the bank of Lake Monona at Yahara Place Park. Queen has applied what he’s learned to putting together the Central Park Sessions as well, a series of concerts starting in late July.

Queen and Kathman talked about the history of the Marquette Waterfront Festival, where the money goes and some of the controversy surrounding the size and volume of the east side events.

How did the Marquette Waterfront Festival get its start 27 years ago?

Well, our elementary school, Marquette, was being threatened with closing. Our kids were very young and walking to school and there wasn’t a lot of coordination between the Marquette Neighborhood Association and the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. We had to do something, so we got involved and some of the neighbors got organized and we got really excited. We had heard that Tricia Yu, who was teaching tai chi at the time, had been kicked out of Yahara Place Park. So we decided to do an early summer festival. We couldn’t wait, we had to get the ball rolling.

We knew absolutely nothing about doing this kind of thing, but we picked a date and invited Wil-Mar to come, they made hot dogs and beans. Dorla Mayer designed t-shirts. I think it was the first year of the Weather Channel and it looked like 100 percent chance of lightning, thunder, torrential rains and tornados. I canceled the porta potties and I canceled the tents, we were kiting checks to people to make this happen. Of course the time came and we had our stage and our sound system and it didn’t rain a drop, sunshine all day and people were peeing wherever.

That was the start. I think we grossed $1,000 and that covered our small costs. Chris Plata played, his was the only band I knew. There were kids tap dancing. Harris Lemberg did a jazz thing and Chris Powers did a bluegrass thing. Bob Kann did magic. It was just to promote that park. It was underused and people didn’t feel comfortable there because at that time people had piers on the other side of the park, so it was kind of like a right of way. If they couldn’t tolerate a tai chi class, who was living here and why can’t we use our park? That was the intent, to start slowly and take over the park. Of course now we have such buy-in. People who live on the park have parties during the festival, we use the houses as green rooms, running cords across the street. It’s just a wonderful feeling, very neighborly and comfortable.

And over time it’s grown into this mix of local and international acts?

It’s sort of like Wal-Mart; we started off only bringing in home-grown products! Which we still do. Twenty-seven years ago, our neighborhood was a little dicey and people were a little apprehensive about coming there.

Nancy and I met in Cuba cutting sugar cane in 1971, breaking the blockade. I heard that Willie Ney had brought Sierra Maestra, a great Cuban band, to the Club Tavern. I thought, "I have to talk to this guy and find out how he did it." So in the next bunch of years, we brought in a lot of international acts, Central American All-Stars, a 13-piece Cuban Band, Otra Vision, Fernanda Lopez, who played with Sting.

It’s really a curated event. People may not know anything about the musicians before they come.

We want it be cultural. For us to be involved for 27 years, it has to be interesting. To me, you have to make it better than the year before, get people to scratch their heads and say, “How do they do it?” Our niche is a good niche. I was at a Dane County Arts grant review meeting and someone said, “I don’t know any of these performers, but if Bob Queen did it, it has to be good.” That’s so nice to hear. They rated the Central Park Sessions up with Opera in the Park and La Fete de Marquette as the top 3 events to get funding. And the Waterfront is really a hodge-podge, a melange.

How does the philanthropy work?

We partner with the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center and they’re doing sweat equity, grilling burgers and brats and selling pizza. But the Marquette Neighborhood Association is the agency I work for, I’m the events coordinator and have been in various forms for 27 years. We raise money and put it in the central fund and help out CommonWealth Development, help out schools, scholarships and it’s mainly to make our neighborhood better. That’s the reality. It’s also a promotional event and we get a nice amount of sponsors. For 25 years, we’ve run a summer camp called East Side Express. I was the director of that for 24 years. The camp has over 200 registrants for a free drop-in program at the Marquette Elementary School field. We still have neighborhood kids getting their first jobs as counselors. Field trips, canoeing every week. And all the funds come from the festival proceeds.

The Orton Park Festival has been in the news recently for some controversy among some of the park’s neighbors.

It’s actually a neighbor. We were getting hammered there, accused of killing trees, having 120 decibels behind the stage, having at one time over 100,000 people in the park. They were having community meetings over these kinds of accusations and it was like pandora’s box. Giving credence to bogus accusations like those. It all started with the Carolina Chocolate Drops (in 2010). And that was as beautiful and inclusive event as you’re ever going to have. And everybody was going “this is our ka-ching moment.” All the vendors were rolling in money. And that’s what you do, you set up these things and you hope that people come and when the time comes and they’re coming in masses and they’re behaving beautifully, that’s the ideal situation. Some people thought it was out of control.

It was a night to, like the Yiddish word, kvell (to be delighted). It was an amzing evening. There had to be a great number of people there, and everyone was behaving, the park tolerated it. Someone on our board said, "We’ve gotta stop it." Why would you stop it? Because there were a lot of people there? This is folk music we’re talking about.

So you’re not involved in booking music or organizing Orton anymore?

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No. I fundraise for Orton and the Waterfront, both of the Marquette Neighborhood Association events, very willingly, making sure we have enough money so we can have two great events. And that’s the important thing, make them stay strong and stay wonderful. This feeds into the unfortunate situation over noise level. Some people wanted to make it so the events would be less enjoyable for the attendees. When you have a big crowd, you need to make it so you can adjust the sound, you have to adjust to conditions. If you take away that right and just measure the levels when rangers drive by and hold out their decibel meters, you’re endangering a wonderful experience in our beautiful parks. When I went to speak to the Parks Commission, I said, “I have been organizing events for 26 years and have given you $150,000 in fees. Why am I not at the table here? Why are you making it more costly to do an event and make it more confusing when so many people are there and offering support?” It made no sense to me.

What are you going for with the Central Park Sessions?

I thought it would be fun to have sessions that put together bands that fit into a category, maybe it’s just their names or their style of music or even where they’re from. We’re in our third year. We had a conflict with the skatepark last year, so we were out of Central Park, but we still thrived and did profit sharing with our nonprofits. We do a raffle, but all of our profits that we bring in from beer sales and sponsorships get split with our nonprofits. The Literacy Network is our partner for the year and we work with other groups on the individual sessions. They’re all tickled to death to do it. The raffle is sensational, great prizes. It’s a license to print money and everything they make off of it, they keep. We take nothing.

There are people from all over the city and county who will come to this event and make it a regional park instead of a neighborhood park. It’s such a family event. it’s 5-10 p.m., so you have a small window of opportunity and I always say come hungry and thirsty and Thursday night is just perfect.

Last summer we had the Silk Road Session at Olbrich Park, which was the most incredible thing. We had Hanggai, a band of Inner Mongolians, who just got their visas three days before the event while they were in Toronto. We were their entire American tour. An Inner Mongolian motorcycle gang came up from Chicago. When they sang the Inner Mongolian national anthem, half the audience was singing along! Who knew? That’s what you like to do, get people someplace they’ve never been.

You’ve really built discovering, booking and signing these bands into your lives, right?

In October, we go to Europe, the dollar is so strong and we can spend time with friends — we have friends all over the world now — and the World Music Expo is the anchor, where we watch showcases with all of these bands.

The Festival International de Louisianne is where we go in April. We just took down Oscar Mireles, who runs the Omega School and is our poet laureate, he had a great time. And we stay in the hotel with the bands. That’s where we met Boogat, who is right in our wheelhouse. He’s an MC, great dance music. Seeing the bands live reaffirms how an audience will react. That’s what we’re trying to gauge, how a Madison audience will react. It’s nice to get people dancing.

Does Madison have a type when it comes to these world music groups?

I’ve never told anyone this, but doesn’t a bride have to have something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue? That’s my formula. You get a new band, you steal from somebody else, you know something that’s tried and true and you get a blues band so people will drink beer.

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Jason Joyce took over as news editor of The Capital Times in 2013.