New Heights of Cincinnati Music

Clifton Heights Music Festival keeps its focus local and community-oriented

You might recognize him next to a shot of Jack Daniels, a Newcastle and a few friends in any bar around Clifton Heights, but when not out with friends Rome Ntukogu is busy planning the Clifton Heights Music Festival (CHMF) and keeping it focused on his passion: furthering unity in a community through music and art.

Ntukogu found a passion for it by creating smaller events while he was managing bars around Clifton Heights. These kinds of events helped him bring music to the community around UC, but it wasn’t enough. While he was managing Baba Budan’s, he mentioned adding music into the monthly pub crawls at the Clifton Bar Association meetings but never received much more than apathetic “go aheads.”

Not until a local band and an MC came to Ntukogu with the idea to play two shows in the same night did the CHMF start to come together. His name was at the helm of the show, and the band wasn’t the ambitious musicians he thought they were, so he decided to make it something more.

He quickly put together venues, sponsors and a grab-bag of musical acts, and the first CHMF took place in October 2009. Drawing a crowd of 1,500, it was an instant success. The second fest took place only six months later, and more than 3,000 attended.

This growth has been great for Ntukogu’s business, Far-I-Rome Productions, but it also presents potential problems.

“It’s about the community, not just the music, not just the revenue,” he says.

Ntukogu has seen other festivals experience the same kind of rapid growth, but eventually they lose focus on the community. These festivals, like the MidPoint Music Festival, admittedly bring national attention to Cincinnati, but the CHMF tries to focus that attention to the Cincinnati musicians, not the larger national acts.

“I feel like bigger festivals think they need a bigger national act to legitimize local acts,” Ntukogu says, “when those local acts are completely capable of standing on their own.”

Ntukogu acknowledges that the larger festivals are great places for local bands to garner fans, but the goal for his festival is to create a musically diverse festival that never loses sight of its community. And the concept is simple: one weekend twice a year where the only focus is music and art.

The entire community of Clifton Heights is engulfed by music in a carnival-like atmosphere. People come from places like Hyde Park and Covington to a neighborhood that's usually frequented by college kids. Every bar features local bands playing music varying from Ska to Hip Hop. Within minutes, a festival-goer can travel from one venue to the next to catch any act performing at the fest.

There shouldn’t be any reason to miss out on entertainment while traveling from bar to bar, so street acts performing everything from music to magic will provide entertainment along the way. Local artists will team up with UC for a street art series and also have areas to display their art to over 3,000 sets of eyes. The food vendors and sponsors of the festival are even local. The complete local vibe is meant to create a comfortable atmosphere for everyone.

Ntukogu doesn’t aim for a demographic. He targets music lovers who just want to help further the Cincinnati music scene.

“I don’t want it to be commercialized,” he says. “I want it to be full of people who want to check out their friends’ band.”

Creating this atmosphere isn’t a simple task. Each band is hand-picked by Ntukogu, as is their venue. The close proximity of the venues is perfect for mixing up the music, which allows him to dictate the vibe at each bar. Making people who want to hear a certain genre of music travel from venue to venue is exactly what Rome wants.

“In making people check out different venues, hopefully they will catch shows they didn’t intend to catch and love it,” he says. “It’s all about breaking down the cliques and bring the community together.”

With continued growth and a creator to keep it on the straight and narrow, it looks like Ntukogu and the CHMF will be helping burgeoning musicians be heard and seen in their own community for a long time. When asked what the final goal for the festival was, he says, “If I can help someone make money doing something they love, I’ve done a good deed for life.”

THE CLIFTON HEIGHTS MUSIC FESTIVAL is Friday and Saturday at five Clifton Heights venues near the UC campus. Friday's headliners include The Cincy Brass, Banderas (pictured), Buckra, The Prohibitionists, Eat Sugar and The Ohms, while Saturday's headliners include The Pinstripes, The Happy Maladies and The Best Revenge. Tickets are $8 (one night) at the door and $12 for both nights. Check out the lineup, ticket info and venues here.