Tibetan musician Penpa Tsering to perform in Boston

March 11th, 2015

Penpa Tsering playing one of his handmade flutes. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

I first heard Tibetan musician Penpa Tsering perform at the 2008 Lowell Folk Festival. It wasn’t until November of 2014 that I made it out to Bedford, MA where he now resides, to interview him. I knew that he made some of his own musical instruments and that he plays sixteen different instruments including the deling (flute), pi-wang (lute) and the impressively long brass trumpet, the dungchen.

Born in Chamdo, Tibet in 1963, music filled Penpa Tsering’s life from an early age. His mother and grandfather taught him to sing traditional Tibetan songs, including the healing songs of his family, who, for generations, have been nomadic farmers. He claims to know over 70 Tibetan traditional songs, which are not well documented and at risk of being lost.

Sometimes, interviews lead to other opportunities for artists.  I was able to help connect Penpa with members of a Connecticut Tibetan community who were very interested in learning Tibetan songs, music, and dance.  Their apprenticeship is currently underway, thanks to a grant from the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program.

Penpa Tsering is not only passionate about sharing Tibetan culture through teaching, he is also eager to perform. So it was a pleasure to pass on his contact information to Bridget Lynch, Director of the Trustman Art Gallery at Simmons College. Anya had come across Penpa’s profile on our Keepers of Tradition website while looking for a performer to kick off a new “Music in the Gallery” series. Things fell into place and the upcoming event is one I look forward to attending. Dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing, Penpa will perform on a variety of musical instruments and sing traditional songs from his family’s repertoire. The concert/demo takes place on Tuesday April 7 from 2:00-3:15 pm at the Trustman Art Gallery, located on the fourth floor, Main College Building, 300 The Fenway in Boston. The concert is free and open to the public. For more info, contact Marcia Lomedico 617-521-2268.

Penpa Tsering playing the he Tibetan pi-wang (lute), Tibetan musician, 2014 Photography by Maggie Holtzberg    	Penpa Tsering playing the Tibetan rag-dung (trumpet), Tibetan musician, 2014 Photography by Maggie Holtzberg

Saving Stuff: Exploring a Repository for our Archival Collection

February 17th, 2015

Six years ago, I posted a blog  commentary about how the world of archiving folklore fieldwork was changing. I was concerned about the challenges of keeping “born digital” items safe, and I remain concerned. Since 2008, we have switched exclusively to using digital devices (cameras, audio recorders) in our field research. That means that all new field-generated audio and visual data is captured in bits and preserved on DVD discs, SD cards, and external computer hard drives.

Fuji film cannister Box of Kodachrome slide film      arrow pointing right     archival DVD disc

Cassette and DAT magnetic tape       arrow pointing right       2 GB Sandisks

The responsibility of preserving archival collections and making them accessible was, frankly, a lot simpler in the pre-digital age. Tangible items in a collection — paper, prints, film, and  magnetic audio tape — are physical things that take kindly to acid-free file folders, chemically inert plastic sleeves, and Hollinger boxes. But our collection is comprised of both physical and born digital materials. We have manuscript materials (field notes, transcriptions of audio recorded interviews, release forms, and ephemera) analog and digital audio field recordings, color slides, black and white negatives, and digital images. From the creation of the archive in 1999, we have employed archival preservation methods for the tangible items; caring responsibly for digitally born materials is more of a challenge. We store field-generated audio (.wav files) and images (.tiff) on writable compact discs and external hard drives, rather than on redundant file storage servers, as is recommended by archivists. Like the majority of public folklore programs around the country with archival collections, we lack trained staff dedicated to audio preservation, quality analog playback and digital conversion equipment, and large-scale information technology support.

archive_materials

The issue at hand is how to ensure long term access to and preservation of this ever growing folk archival collection.

Storage containers for digital content

We are essentially ready to explore some kind of mutually beneficial partnership with a university special collections or other repository that has both trained staff and a stated mission supporting preservation and access.

For advice, I’ve reached out to individual archivists, like Steve Green of the Western Folklife Center Archive, who has been tremendously helpful, and other state folklorists who have made progress securing their own archival collections like Joey Brackner at the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Mary Allison Haynie at the Alabama Folklife Association, Wayne Jones, Karen Paty, and Julianne Carroll who are leading the effort to preserve the Georgia Folklife Program’s collection; and Cliff Murphy at Maryland Traditions who helped facilitate the Maryland’s Folklife Program archives move to UMBC.

Closer to home is Dr. Jack Warner, State Archivist and the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board who reviewed our situation. There are some promising partnerships on the horizon.  We will keep you posted on any new developments.

 

 

This is soooo Boston

February 4th, 2015

Confetti on snow

Between the New England Patriot’s victory parade down Boylston Street and the over 40 inches of snow Boston has received in  just one week’s time, this image says it all.

Okay, I’m not exactly a football fan and, to be honest, I have no comprehension of the game. On the big day, I didn’t watch the Superbowl — ( I’m more of a Downton Abbey fan). The only way I knew the Patriots had won was being awakened by the distant sound of fireworks going off late Sunday evening.

That said, I am surrounded by knowledgeable and fervent fans. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement and hometown pride over the Patriot’s victory. And even a sports dummy like myself knew key players ridomg by on Boston’s duck boats.

Malcolm Butler and fans

Fans cheering on Malcolm Butler. His interception is a big part of why we are all here today.

Robert Kraft

Robert Kraft holding the Super Bowl trophy

Coach Bill Belichick on the far right.

Flag atop Hancock building copy

Even the buildings are proud!

 

Scenes from a Gubernatorial Inauguration Celebration

January 12th, 2015

We don’t usually attend gubernatorial inauguration celebrations, but we were excited to help showcase a rich diversity of Massachusetts’ performing artists at Governor Charlie Baker’s celebration, which took place at the Boston Event and Exhibition Center. It was a logistical challenge escorting 16 performing groups to five stages throughout the evening. In the mix was the Irish step dancing, Cambodian court dance, police piping and drumming, a Dominican carnival comparsa, a 150-plus member high school band, two choirs, a drumming group, a Caribbean carnival mas band, and a jazz trio.  Here are a few snapshots from the evening.

Before the inaugural celebrants arrived . . .

Before the crowd arrives

A humungous cake made with edible paint, baked by Montilio’s Bakery of Boston.

Cake baked by Montilios Baking Company

Members of Asociacion Carnavelesca de Massachusetts in their “green” room and then performing on stage.

Asociacion Carnavalesca members in their green room

Asociacion Carnvalesca on stage

Members of the hip-hop group, Origination performing on stage

Origination on stage

Members of the Boston Police Gaelic Column Pipe and Drums tuning up.

Boston Police Gaelic Column Pipe & Drum Band tuning up backstage

Boston Police Gaelic Column descending the escalator

Gaelic Column coming down the escalator

Drum Major Jim Barry leads the processional followed close behind by Governor Baker and his wife Lauren.

Drum Major Jim Barry

Governer Charlie Baker and his wife Lauren

New television series hosted by Alan Kaufman featuring traditional musicians

December 8th, 2014

Scene from "In the Tradition" with Alan Kaufman and Don Stratton

In addition to being a fine old time fiddler, guitarist, and singer, Alan Kaufman is incredibly knowledgeable about a variety of traditional American folk music genres of the 20th century. We were delighted to learn that Alan has launched a wonderful new television series called “In the Tradition” produced by Arlington Community Media Inc television. The program, Alan explains, was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Rainbow Quest, a television series Pete Seeger devoted to American folk music.

Two episodes of “In the Tradition” have aired to date and they are available to those outside of Arlington, MA through vimeo. Click here for the second episode in the series and stay tuned for more.

From Intern to State Folklorist and Published Author

November 24th, 2014

It was a decade ago that CliffMurphy interned with the MCC’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program. A graduate student in ethnomusicology at Brown University at the time, Cliff was deep into his research on New England’s Country and Western music. I was fortunate to travel with him on a few of the many interviews he conducted with Massachusetts musicians — key figures like Georgia Mae Harp, “Jimmie Cal” Calderone, and yodelling Kenny Roberts.

Georgia Mae Harp with her signature white guitarKenny Roberts album cover

His wonderful new book, Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England was recently published by the University of Illinois Press. Not only is it an engaging and informative read, the book breaks new ground in country music scholarship by challenging the notion that country music is inherently southern.  New England Country and Western music is not the same thing as the country music heard across New England on country format radio. It is a homegrown, working-class regional music with deep roots. Read this book and you come to know a once vibrant regional music virtually ignored by the country music industry. Prior to the 1960s, talented performers dressed in country western garb, “barnstormed” their way across New England, doing live radio shows, performing community concerts, and playing for social dances.  New England’s multi-ethnic demographic makeup helped create a distinctive style of country music.

YankeeTwang book cover

We are fortunate to have had Cliff Murphy delve deep into one of New England’s core music traditions at a time when many of its exemplary performers were still alive. The documentary work Cliff did in Massachusetts is now safely archived in the MCC’s traditional Arts Archive. Cliff has since gone on to be the Director of Maryland Traditions, the folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council. Massachusett’s loss is Maryland’s gain.

Listen to WBUR’s story about Cliff and Yankee Twang here

The Public Folklorist and the Nature of Aging: A Personal Take

October 24th, 2014
Retired gandy dancers being recorded by Maggie Holtzberg, Calera, Alabama, 1988. Photo by Joey Brackner

Retired gandy dancers being recorded by Maggie Holtzberg, Calera, Alabama. Photo by Joey Brackner

There was a time in the late 1980s, when, as a newly minted folklorist, all the tradition bearers I’d seek out to interview and learn from were decades older than I was — Southern gandy dancers in their 70s and 80s, holding on to the last thread of work song culture; women quilters whose mothers had taught them to recycle old feed sacks and scraps from worn-out dresses; and Irish fiddlers whose venues had changed from crossroads dance halls in Co. Kerry to bars in New York City. These folks were the age of my own grandparents.

Nellie Kinsey holding a string of leather britches and red peppers, Kinsey Town,  White County, GA, 1989. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Nellie Kinsey holding a string of leather britches and red peppers, Kinsey Town, White County, GA, 1989. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Time passed. Contract fieldwork turned into salaried positions at state art agencies. I relocated from the Deep South back home to the Northeast and dug into the folk culture of Massachusetts’ people – Italian feast days, Yankee wooden boat building, Franco-American  and Cape Breton fiddling, Polish pysanki and Cambodian dance.

Procession of St. Mary of Carmen, Nonantum. MA. 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Procession of St. Mary of Carmen, Nonantum. MA. 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Eight or so years into the work, I began to notice that there were no longer decades of lived experience between the majority of the people I was interviewing and myself.  We were, in fact, cohorts in age.

Maggie interviewing Michelle Fernandes and Anita Peters Little about their apprenticeship in Wampanoag regalia making. West Barmstable, MA, 2005. Photo by Russell A. Call

Maggie interviewing Michelle Fernandes and Anita Peters Little about their apprenticeship in Wampanoag regalia making. West Barmstable, MA, 2005. Photo by Russell A. Call

It’s now been 15 years since I came to manage the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program.  A few months ago, I was sitting across from a Nepalese sarangi player, a Tascam DR100 recording device in my hand, listening to him talk of his experience immigrating to the US. There were photos of his young daughter on the wall. It was after I asked him the year he was born that I suddenly realized; “This man is 20 years younger than I am. In fact, so are the last three people I interviewed.”

Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangi. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangi, 2014. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

The arc of any folklorist’s work experience is grounded in time. I’ve gone from being the youngster interviewing elders, to interviewing people of my generation, to the odd sensation of realizing that I am older than many of the people with whom I work. I suppose it is the opposite experience of academic folklorists who, each fall semester, find themselves in classrooms filled with students who never seem to age.

Either way, we all grow older.

Musical worlds

October 7th, 2014

One of the gratifying things about being a folklorist is being able to connect tradition bearers with potentially influential people, resources, and opportunities. When done well, the folklorist plays the role of being what Malcolm Gladwell called a “connector” in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Soon after meeting Sushil Gautam, a local Nepalese sarangi player who helped establish the Music Museum of Nepal, I had the good fortune to meet Darcy Kuronen, Curator of the Musical Instruments at the Museum of Fine Arts. It turns out that in this collection of over 1,100 musical instruments, there is no Nepalese sarangi. So it was with pleasure that I was able to introduce Sushil and Darcy to one another. Time will tell if something comes of their acquaintance.

The MFA’s Musical Instruments Gallery is a little gem. The intimate sized gallery is filled with musical instruments and sound samples from around the world. For the past dozen years, Darcy has programmed regular gallery talks and demonstrations, engaging in conversation with visiting musicians who bow, pluck, finger, or breathe life into the featured instruments.

Abarta_MFA

On Monday, October 6th, that musician was Joey Abarta, who, coincidentally, was one of the six master artists who was recently awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Joey had brought two of his own Irish uilleann pipes to perform on, since the museum’s set is not in working order. And uilleann pipes are finicky instruments.

The gathered audience was treated to some beautiful playing — an air, a set of jigs, a set of reels — plus some really interesting conversation about the history of the uilleann pipes, renowned makers both historical and living, and the technical challenges of playing, which include manipulating a chanter, drones, and regulators, in addition to the bellows, which are filled by pumping one’s elbow. (Uilleann is the Irish Gaelic word for elbow.)

Darcy asked Joey to let the audience know where they might be able to hear him playing locally. Every Thursday evening, at 7:15, Joey leads an Irish music session at the Canadian American Club in Watertown. Everyone is welcome.

The Price and Promise of Leaving Home

September 24th, 2014

Sushil_competing

Old Time musician Alan Kaufman and I were in Lowell to judge the 35th Annual Banjo & Fiddle Contest on September 6th. As the audience began to gather, Alan mentioned, “There is someone I want you to meet. A man from Nepal who plays the Himalayan fiddle (a four-stringed wooden instrument played with a bow), and jaw harp. His name is Sushil Gautam.” Alan explained that he had met Sushil at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Arlington, where Sushil works. A few weeks earlier, Alan had walked in wearing a Banjo & Fiddle contest tee-shirt and the two got to talking. This is when Alan discovered that the man who serves him his ice tea is not only a Himalayan fiddle and jaw harp player, he also helped to establish The Music Museum of Nepal and published  a book on the history, ethnic songs, and methods of playing the Nepalese sarangi.

Sushil, Alan, and I spoke briefly before the contest began. Although Sushil had brought his sarangi, he was not planning on entering the contest. I told Sushil I’d be in touch soon about interviewing him for the MCC Folk Arts & Heritage Program. He kindly gave me a copy of his paperback, Sarangee, A Guide Book. The book, in Nepalese, was published by Orbit International Education Culture Education Department in Kathmandu, Nepal. Before walking away, Sushil handed me his business card, saying  “This is the view from my parent’s home.” It was a stunning panorama of the Himalayan Mountains with a small village in the foreground.

Sushil Gautam's business card

I stared at the picture, worthy of a travel brochure. Wrapped up in that little moment was the price of leaving home. The push/pull factors of limited economic opportunities, family, farm fresh food. . . .Why would someone leave such a place of physical beauty to resettle in a country halfway round the world. Clearly, it wasn’t the job. Or was it?

We scheduled a time for me to interview Sushil at his home in Somerville, where he lives with his wife and young daughter.

On September 12, I found my way to a rental house on a narrow side street off Somerville Avenue. I rang the doorbell.  At first, there was no response. I rang again. The windows were open; orange silk curtains fluttered in the screenless windows. I rang once more. Sushil appeared with a smile on his face and welcomed me into the front room of the house. It was sparsely furnished. Around the room were reminders of home —  photocopied color prints of family members and scenes from his parents’ village in Nepal. His daughter’s stuffed toys were piled in one corner. Several musical instruments were lined up against the back wall, resting on the carpeted floor; a few more hung from the walls. Sushil showed me two sarangis, one carved out of a lighter wood, and one of a darker, denser wood. The latter had an ornate carving of an elephant on the back. “Oh, Ganesha,” I remarked.  Sushil, surprised, asked “You know of Ganesha?”

Carving of Ganesha on back of sarangi

I asked if I could record our interview. He nodded and gestured to a small side table and two plastic chairs.

Economic opportunities and the chance to better his daughter’s future motivated Sushil and his wife to emigrate. Sushil Gautam came to this country with his wife and young daughter in January of 2013. “I grew up with tourism in my village.” Although the snow-capped Himalayas loom in the distance, snow never falls in his village. “All the year it is green.” Arriving in Boston, during the deep midwinter, came as somewhat of a shock. “I experience snow by my hand and leg here in Boston for the first time.”

Sushil had been selected by lottery for a green card and the opportunity to work and stay in the United States. Like many immigrants, he and his wife have university degrees, but can only find work in the food services. For now, Sushil is happy with his job at Dunkin’ Donuts, which provides an opportunity to improve his speaking skills in English. He has aspirations of finding a job as a teacher of languages and culture in the future.

Sushil Gautam playing a Nepalese sarangee

The sarangi is a bowed chordophone, carved from solid or composite wood, rather than pieced together like a violin. It has four strings; nylon has replaced gut (sheep intestine), and a metal string is used for the highest pitched string.  The sarangi is held vertically, much like a South Indian violin, or Chinese erhu. The outer two strings are tuned to an octave; the middle two strings are tuned a 4th up from the lowest string, e.g., G, C, C, G.  In western parlance, we’d call this an open tuning, meaning that all the strings are tuned to harmonized notes.   Some sarangi are highly ornamented, with carving depicting the God Ganesha or the Buddha.

Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangee

The Gandharba, a caste of occupational musicians, consider the sarangi to be their instrument. Until fairly recently, it was possible for them to make a living in Nepal. Much like other hereditary musicians, they played a key role in society, traveling from village to village, spreading news and entertaining.

Sushil recalls their music from his childhood, “Before there was any communication, people used to come to the mountain to entertain a lot of people. And they used to collect a lot of food for them. It was the living for this musician caste, and entertainment for the farmers in the mountain.  But time changes. A lot of radios and television came and the entertainment means are changed and these people lost their job.”

Sushil holding a jaw harp

Sushil playing the jaw harp

In generations past, the Gandharba caste were considered low and experienced discrimination. Although Sushil is from a historically higher caste, he plays the Gandharba’s instrument and has worked hard to elevate the musicians’ status and preserve their traditions. Sushil feels fortunate that he got to study with a very good teacher, Khim Bahadur Gandharba, who is a well-known sarangi player. In fact, he was the first sarangi player, selected by the king, to travel outside of Nepal to perform on a royal visit to Hong Kong and China.  Today, Khim Bahadur Gandharba is nearing 80, and is no longer physically able to play.

Sushil_3instruments

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Sushil moved to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, to pursue his masters in music. Before leaving Nepal, Sushil was teaching sarangi, performing, and making recordings. He also helped establish the Music Museum of Nepal, and wrote his guide to playing the sarangi. One of his motivations is to change the hereditary system of learning sarangi in Nepal, opening the instrument up to everyone.

“When the father wanted the child to chance to learn, even in the same ethnic group, if the caste, if somebody’s father does not know how to play sarangi, even though they belong to the same caste, they have no chance to learn. Because they don’t have a teacher. And they don’t have a book. With the generation gap, now, from my book, everybody can learn sarangi. Even if their father is not a sarangi player.”

 

Six New Apprenticeships Funded by MCC

August 25th, 2014

We are delighted to announce this year’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. The following six traditional art forms will be taught by master artists to their apprentices: Irish uilleann pipe playing, South Indian carnatic singing, sign painting and gold leaf, ornamental and architectural wood carving, North Indian Madhubani painting, and South Indian carnatic drumming.

Irish uilleann pipe playing: Joey Abarta, master artist and Caroline O’Shea, apprentice

JoeyAbarta_full____________________________________________________________________

South Indian carnatic singing: Tara Anand Bangalore, master artist and Pratik Bharadwaj, apprentice

Bangalore_Bharadwaj_main

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Sign painting and gold leaf: Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs, master artist and Corinna D’Schoto, apprentice

JoshLuke_main___________________________________________________________________________

Ornamental and architectural wood carving: Dimitrios Klitsas, master artist and Spiro Klitsas, apprentice

KlitsasApprenticeship_main___________________________________________________________________________

North Indian Madhubani painting: Sunanda Sahay, master artist and Sanjana Krishna, apprentice

Sahay_apprenticeship_main___________________________________________________________________________

South Indian carnatic drumming on mridangam: Gaurishankar Chandrashankar, master artist and Kaasinath Balagurunath, apprentice

Chandrashankar_apprenticeship_main

Apprenticeships are a long-standing method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Applicants were reviewed by a panel of experts who evaluated the artistry of the master artist, skill level of the apprentice, rarity of art form, significance of the tradition,  appropriateness of the pairing, and work plan. Grantees are expected to offer a community presentation at the end of their 9-month long apprenticeship.

To see a list of all MCC-funded apprenticeships since 2002, click here.


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