Albuquerque Folk Festival and NM Folk & Dance Community Leader
The measure of a man can be understood through the variety of realms in which he has had a notable impact. Gary Libman made his mark as a family man, husband, father and grandfather. He also had a notable professional life in industry as a microbiologist, as a musician and as an extraordinarily outsized volunteer in our city as one of the long-time leaders of the Albuquerque Folk Festival community. A portrait of Gary would be woefully incomplete without noting that throughout his life was fondly known for his puns, his joke telling and especially for his spontaneous humor.
One hundred people gathered at a Four Hills home in Albuquerque to honor the memory of Gary Libman, a key leader of the ABQ Folk Music and New Mexico dance communities. Gary died on Oct. 18, 2016 after an extended illness.
During the memorial service singing was heard. It went something like this, "This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, Let it shine, let it Shine, let it Shine."
Hosts Peter and Trylla Esherick effortlessly welcomed the large group of mourners and celebrants of Gary’s life. Within an hour, a forty-plus person song circle broke out in the spacious backyard under three tent awnings on a beautiful fall afternoon. Instruments aplenty were pulled out from their cases and the music floated across the property to celebrate the life of an extraordinary man, leader and inspiration to thousands.
It was a fitting tribute to Gary, who for many years had been a force of nature in the folk music scene in New Mexico and beyond.
“Gary was the lifeblood of the Albuquerque Folk Festival. It will be a tremendous loss not having him around,” said AFF founding board member Linda Starr.
Earlier in the day, at a graveside service, people remembered both the personal and public sides of this influential man who presided over the resurrection and growth of the AFF from a local into a regional phenomenon— especially after AFF moved its location to the Albuquerque Balloon Museum in 2012. Gary focused on developing the relationship between AFF and the Museum, including becoming a board member of the relatively new Museum. Gary’s goal was to promote the growth of both the Festival and the Museum.
Leaders are people who are busy minding the future while many around them often dwell in the present or cling to the past. Leaders create futures that are distinctly different from the past. That is just a small part of the story of Gary Libman’s legacy in Albuquerque. Evidence of his leadership was visible throughout Burque and beyond. For example, under his guidance, attendance at the Albuquerque Folk Festival doubled from 2,000 to approximately 4,000 for each of the past three years.
Many people who knew and loved Gary were eager to share their insights about what made Gary so special. Here is some of what they told Weekly Alibi.
C. Daniel Boling—internationally known singer-songwriter, Grammy award nominee, and resident of ABQ—who knew Gary Libman since 2008 recalled Gary as “An amazing, smart, funny and unfailingly kind man ... Humor and kindness were Gary’s defining traits which he gently applied to make big things happen. When it came time to lead, Gary stepped up with grace ... His band and I shared a show last year to raise funds for the festival. At the time, Gary’s illness was in remission, and I’ll always remember the contagious joy with which he threw himself into the music and the jokes, and all the fun everyone had in the hall that evening. What a gift.”
Bill Balassi—Albuquerque Folk Festival Board Member and fellow band member— remembered Gary, saying, “Like many of us, I remember the first time I met Gary ... at someone’s house, this person comes in carrying an armload of instruments and exuding energy that immediately filled the room and transformed the evening. I said to myself, 'Who is this guy?' I’m deeply grateful that for the next twelve years I’ve had the privilege of finding out.”
Bill’s memories continued at Gary’s funeral, where he said, “For many here, you know Gary best as the director and spokesperson for the AFF. It is hard to imagine someone better suited for this position. Gary had the managerial skills, the encompassing vision to separate the essential from the trivial. He had unflagging energy and the patience to always respond with grace and kindness. And the enthusiasm to make you believe that the Folk Festival was about the coolest thing anyone could be associated with.”
Balassi added to those who had also commented on Gary’s “wide ranging and deep love for music" by recalling that Libman was the founder and leader of the Placitas Mountain Band. He played clarinet for Klezmer gigs with the Adobe Brothers, billing the group as Shlomo & The Adobes. He regularly played with the Albuquerque Megaband. He made music each week with the Wednesday Guitar Group. He was a member of the annual acoustic orchestra known as Carp Camp in Winfield, Kansas. And he played banjo, clarinet, and autoharp with the contra dance band Cheap Shots, with whom he played his last gig at this years Albuquerque Folk Festival.”
Bill Balassi closed his remarks by saying, “Gary left a legacy most of us can only aspire to. He made the world a better place. He was irrepressible and irreplaceable.”
Deb Brunt—Albuquerque Folk Festival Board Member also remembered Libman. “Whenever Gary was promoting the Festival, including when he was on KUNM, he always made sure to mention that AFF was an all volunteer organization and Festival. He was passionate about it being a participatory event. Gary was also a proponent of including dance at the Festival. He was a big part of FolkMADS , the New Mexico Folk Music and Dance Society. Gary was a leader of the late-night jams at the FolkMADness events in Socorro each Memorial Day weekend.
The Albuquerque Folk Festival partnered with the City of Albuquerque in a number of ways. In earlier years the city’s Special Events office was able to contribute funds to support the Festival. Later, the Festival moved to the Balloon Museum location for the last several years.”
Linda Hubley—Operations & Events Manager, Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, City of Albuquerque recalled Libman's talents. “It was easy to admire Gary for his amazing talents as a musician and also for his many contributions in his professional career. The one thing I valued most about Gary, however, was how he used humor in his everyday life to entertain and uplift friends and strangers alike. Gary loved to be funny and he was one of the best at using humor to unite people to work towards a common goal, even when there was disagreement. When working with Gary, you always knew there would be plenty of grinning and lots of head-shaking moments—a constant reminder that we need to laugh more and not take life so seriously. You just never knew what was coming next, but you knew it was going to be entertaining and you wanted to be a part of it. He was a genuine and caring man who embraced everyone and everything with a carefree spirit. It is a great loss to everyone who was part of his world.”
Paul Garver, Manager, Albuquerque International Balloon Museum also had something to say about Libman. “Gary Libman was not only a Balloon Museum trustee. He was our friend. In fact, anyone who met Gary could not help but like him. He was a delightful person and a gentleman. His memory will be cherished by many, including not just the Balloon Museum family, but also all of those with whom he worked as part of the Albuquerque Folk Festival.”
Peter Esherick, Past-President of the AFF Board and musical partner with Gary told Weekly Alibi, “Early on, the big idea behind the Festival, it’s purpose, was to build community through participation—through music, dance, storytelling and folk arts. Behind this thinking was the idea that our community has withdrawn into homes, behinds computers. Whereas people used to sit on front porches, and say hello, now we had the isolation of families. You may have mistrust of, say, Middle Eastern people. But if you learn how to belly dance or jam with them, you will not fear them.
Gary is the absolute embodiment of that.
And through his involvement with AFF, he suddenly gets to belong to a community and have a good time with others, and give back to the community through his volunteerism, learning about other people and other cultures: that was his great gift to our region.”
Debra Fortess, Apple Mountain Music Store Owner, and AFF Board Member was also able to comment about Libman's life and work. “Gary was happy we carried autoharps. He gave autoharp workshops here, which became among the most popular workshops we had.
He was a joy to have around; he had a million jokes. He was a great supporter of the store; he sent a lot of people to us. He was a great friend to me over many years. Also, he brought his autoharp hero, Brian Bowers, to do a workshop at Apple Mountain Music, and that was a real treat.”
Norma Libman, Gary’s former wife recalled, “Gary was an amazing person with music, could pick up about any instrument, and play it by feel. I was always in awe of that. When I was in college and required to play recorder, I never had lessons. Lack of exposure, so proud I could play a few notes . ‘Look, I can play,’ I said to Gary. Then, he picks up the recorder, and immediately, within seconds was playing recognizable songs. He was so talented, he could play anything. He was musically proficient in almost an instant.
“He was a very hard worker, whatever he took up, being a father to the kids, a volunteer, professionally, he got things done.”
Amy Cohen, Gary’s daughter remembered the man, saying, “Driving with dad, he used to keep a baton in the car, and he played classical music during car rides. Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and he conducted at the red lights; it made music more exciting.
I have one child, only three years old; he loves to sing and hear music. I’m really hopeful he gets that music bug. He loves music, and loved when my father Gary would play, he was mesmerized.
He was so kind and generous, with family, loved his children and grandchildren. For my three-year-old son, Gary bought an Explora Children’s Museum annual membership. Once a month he took him regularly.
And something else about him as a family man, not mentioned in funeral: Gary’s mom passed away two weeks before turning 100. She was living here, and he took such incredible care of her. He went to her every day, when he was not in the hospital himself…She noticed his absence when he was in the hospital very much. Gary was his mother’s only remaining son, and he was the center of her life. He was a daily visitor and that was all that mattered to her.
“Although we all gagged at some of Gary’s puns and jokes, he was dependable for making people laugh and feel good in his presence.”
Erika Gerety-Libman, Gary’s wife, said, “Gary was incredibly enthusiastic. Everywhere we went he tended to wear the Folk Festival t-shirt. He consistently promoted the Festival, and everywhere he went he encouraged people to find or revive their musical selves. He brought enthusiasm to a lot of people. For example, he’d play back up for and taught young kids how to play their instruments.
“The thing about wearing the shirt or hat of the Festival, that was who he was too, a passionate person ... If people gave him a present of a shirt, he’d wear it if was going see them again. It was his way of showing his love and caring.
“Gary was really excited, when the ABQ Folk Festival won the Bravo People’s choice award from the City of Albuquerque.
Interacting with the volunteers was the main job of Volunteer manager; and Gary collected and disseminated information to the volunteers, which became an army on the day Festival itself. Gary would put together letters, and named the people he was so proud of in announcements throughout his leadership of the festival. Whether it was by email or phone calls or in person, Gary would thank and acknowledge the importance of everyone—individually, letting them know what a wondrous thing they had just put together. He was particularly good at rallying people through his enthusiasm. I saw him do the same with Placitas Artist Series, of which he was the President. He made that fun.
What was also charming about him was his embrace of his Chicago family’s Jewish culture. He embraced that and taught people about his tradition. Gary had such a fun vision. He brought people into holidays through his love of telling jokes, old Jews telling jokes, with the accent, and through telling stories about how his family got here.
He was in touch with his family immigration story. And he was a leader in his family. One of the things he did was write a play about the immigration of the family from the old countries. He had his cousins play their parents. All the family watched, and as they played it, his aunt would yell out how true it was. ‘It’s true, it’s true.’ To create the play, Gary sat with a tape recorder and had the elders tell their story, and he prompted them with memories. An hour would go by of people correcting each other about the last boat out.”
This is just a sample of the many stories his friends shared. Some retold their favorite joke or story Gary told. So many people were at the ready to share their memories of this remarkable man, Gary Libman.
Gary’s passing will leave a huge hole in the spirit of New Mexico.
Our world will be dimmer. May his memory be for a Blessing for our community for years to come.
Douglas Cohen – Culture Writer & Essayist based in Corrales.
Concert & Music Festival Reviewer for www.alibi.com