Of Saddles and Horse Fly Blankets

June 15th, 2017

Festival season is upon us once again. We have a wonderful line-up of craft artists who will be demonstrating at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. This year’s folklife area features individuals whose work has tangible ties to land or sea, for example, market baskets woven from homegrown willow, Native wampum forged from locally harvested quahog shells, and yarn spun from the fleece of grazing sheep. Craft traditions evolve from the human response to utilitarian needs and the quest for beauty. A hand-crafted wooden ship’s wheel with its polished brass hub looks beautiful and feels good in the hand.

In this post, we introduce you to three crafts people whose work is related in some way to horse fittings. Did you ever wonder how leather is formed into lasting saddles that benefit both rider and horse? Do you know how a western saddle differs from an English saddle? And what about keeping flies off of horses?

Horseback riders in eastern Massachusetts predominantly ride English style, while those in the western part of the state favor western saddles. Lucky for them, they can rely on the craftsmanship of Keith LaRiviere of Orange, Massachusetts, who may be the only western saddle and tack maker in New England. LaRiviere is a parachute rigger by training with 37 years’ experience as a skydiving jump instructor, parachute rigger, and jump pilot. So why saddles? Blame his wife Jane’s need for repair of her horse tack, says Keith. His familiarity with repairing parachuting harnesses led to his slowly accumulating the tools and skills to work on leather horse tack. “I started out small, basically doing repairs and making headstalls and bridles, chaps and chinks.”

Inspired, Keith went on to study saddle making with Colorado saddler Jesse Smith and apprentice with New Hampshire harness maker Russ Bigelow. The apprenticeship was a chance to build a show harness for a draft horse and a replica of an 1859 saddle, the one used by US Cavalry during the Civil War. In addition to the two to three saddles he builds a year, Keith repairs old ones with tender loving care. Beyond saddles, Keith has made or fitted several pieces for Civil War reenactors, created harmonica cases, tool cases, and holsters for modern cowboy mounted shooters.

Tony Cooper of Royalston, Massachusetts has been making, fitting, and repairing saddles since 1984. A native of Dublin, Ireland, he received his training in leatherwork at Cordwainers College, London, where he focused on rural saddlery. Tony completed his saddlery training, was elected to the Guild of Master Craftsmen, and returned to New England and started knocking on barn doors.

A proper saddle gives support to the rider, while distributing the rider’s weight on the horse. If the horse is comfortable under the saddle, it moves more freely, enabling horse and rider to perform optimally as a single unit. “I contour the bottom of the English saddle to fit the horse’s shape.”

In addition to making a saddle from scratch, much of Tony’s time is spent refurbishing, replacing, or rebuilding all parts of a saddle. This can involve re-stuffing panels and converting felt and foam panels to wool; replacing worn seats, skirts, knee rolls, billets and flaps; enlarging panels by adding gussets; and adjusting and repairing trees, the wooden framework of the saddle. Tony likes that there are certain parts of saddle making that must be done by hand. Like sewing – using an awl to punch holes, he sews 12 stitches to the inch, just like a skilled quilter.

Barbara Merry of Wakefield, Rhode Island excels in the maritime tradition of knot tying, fashioning rope into nautical fenders, beckets (decorative rope handles), and other useful marine lines. She recently revived the art of making Victorian-style horse fly blankets, which were once used solely for the purpose of keeping biting flies off horses.

Today, some kind of blanket remains in demand, particularly among discriminating horse owners who choose not to use petroleum-based fly repellent on their animals. Called “swish” blankets and made of nylon, these blankets are woven in two sizes (draft horse and buggy horse). Back in the early 1800s, the material of choice was strips of leather stitched together. In time, the blankets “morphed” into ornate objects, beautifully knotted in natural fiber cordage.

Women excelled at this type of work. It was usually done by wives, sweethearts, and daughters after finishing or repairing nets for their fisherman. It was only natural that these women would turn this skill to the manufacture of horse fly blankets for customers in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston — big cities where there were a lot of flies!

All three craft artists will be demonstrating in the Folklife area of the Lowell Folk Festival this July 29 and 30, 2017.

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at Mass Cultural Council.

“Hiding in Plain Sight” Concert Brings the World to Rockport

May 17th, 2017

Despite gale force winds and rain on Mothers’ Day, the show went on. And what a show it was! We were delighted to have the opportunity to showcase a sampling of our state’s traditional artists to perform at one of the country’s most stunning concert halls — the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. Performers were either past or current recipients of an Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship or Traditional Arts Apprenticeship. We’re happy to share some images shot by photographer Brendan Mercure.

No fewer that 20 members of Lawrence’s Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts opened the show by processioning from the back of the hall, down the aisles and up onto the stage.

Mass Cultural Council executive director Anita Walker gave a warm welcome to all in attendance, pointing out the richness of hidden treasures we have in the Commonwealth, many of whom have come here as immigrants.

 

I followed her by introducing our South Indian Carnatic musicians, which included two master artists, Tara Anand Bangalore and Gaurish Chandrashekhar, and three apprentices, Sudarshan Thirumalai, Pratik Bharadwadj, and Kaasinath Balagurunath. A purely musical segment was followed by Bharatanatyam dancer Sridevi Thirumalai.

The second half of the show opened with a beautiful set of Irish music by Joey Abarta, Matt and Shannon Heaton, and sean nos dancer Kieran Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We closed the concert with West African music and dance led by virtuoso balafon player Balla Kouyaté and master drummer/dancer Sidi “Joh” Camara. Both are considered hereditary artists, meaning they were born into the tradition.

  

Joining them on the stage was the next generation — Tiemoko Camara and Jossira and Sekou Balla Kouyaté — all of whom show great promise in carrying the traditions forward.

 

Balla stood up to invite audience members to join them on stage to dance.

Jossira helped by stepping down off the stage and reaching out her hand, encouraging people to join her. It worked – even 18-month old Maiya Camara got into the act.

Then it was time for a final bow. One of the magical things that happens when you bring musicians together from different world traditions is that they soon find common ground. This often happens back stage, behind the scenes. As one of our stage managers Sara Glidden pointed out, “All of you in the audience missed one of the highlights – the Indian musicians in the green room, jamming along to the video/audio feed of the Irish musicians on stage.”

Postscript: This email from leader of the Dominican masqueraders Stelvyn Mirabal gets to the heart of what our work as folklorists is all about. “I was received like a hero at my work on Monday. My Human Resources boss was at the show on Sunday and she didn’t know I was involved in the event until she saw me there. She took some pictures and posted in the company website. Then everyone was congratulating me for the show. She loved it!! Thanks again for thinking of us for your show.”

Talk about “hiding in plain sight”!

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Mass Cultural Council.

 

 

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Folk Masters of Massachusetts Showcase Concert

April 11th, 2017

We are excited to announce a May 14 showcase concert featuring the excellence and diversity of music and dance traditions thriving in Massachusetts today. Performers are past or current recipients of an Artist Fellowship or Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, prestigious awards granted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Come experience a Dominican carnival procession led by Stelvyn  Mirabal, then be enthralled by leading exponents of South Indian vocals, violin, and percussion, Irish flute, uilleann pipe and old style step dance, and West African balafon (xylophone), djembe drum, and ceremonial dance. The concert will take place at the stunningly beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts on Sunday May 14 at 5:00 pm.

Carnatic music of South India is one of the oldest music systems in the world. Built upon talas (rhythmic cycles) and ragas (melodic scales), the basic transmission of this venerable South Indian tradition is done via face-to-face lessons in which the guru vocalizes first and then demonstrates the lesson.

  

   

Irish tradition has deep roots in Massachusetts. Tunes once played at crossroad dances traveled the ocean in the hearts, hands, and feet of Irish immigrants. Boston in known for its active scene of pub sessions, concerts, competitions, and classes.

  

  

In parts of Mali, West Africa, dance, music, and song are an integral part of everyday life. Birth, death, initiation rites, and marriage are all marked with specific dances and songs. Many musicians and dancers are hereditary artists, meaning they are born into the tradition.

 

The concert will take place at the stunningly beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts on Sunday May 14 at 5:00 pm.  A perfect outing for Mother’s Day!

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

 

Apprenticeships Matter

March 13th, 2017

Back in 2005, we funded an apprenticeship in icon writing that supported renowned Russian iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky to work with apprentice Sr. Faith Riccio. The centuries-old artistic tradition of iconography requires the application of very specific techniques and image representations that have been passed down from artist to artist through the ages.

Ksenia Pokrovsky is widely credited with reviving the writing of traditional Russian icons. She learned at a time when Russia nearly lost the old method of writing icons, due to Soviet restrictions on religious expression. Ksenia was encouraged to learn in 1967 by a priest, Reverend Aleksander Men, whom she considers her “spiritual father.” Students from all over the world come to study with Ksenia Pokrovsky.

To hear Ksenia’s distinctive voice, listen below to a radio feature we did with her on WUMB radio.

Sister Faith Riccio lives in an abbey on Cape Cod, where they are interested in keeping old art forms alive. She explains how she came to icon writing, “. . . My prioress asked if I would learn icons. I started out kind of on my own . . . I found [Ksenia] on the Internet. And she said, ‘Well, you really don ‘t know what you ‘re doing, ‘ in her just wonderful, diplomatic way. I said, ‘No, I don ‘t. And I ‘ll keep doing that if you don ‘t help me.'” A Traditional Arts Apprenticeship awarded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program was added incentive. Sister Faith spent significant time in the Pokrovsky household working under Ksenia’s guidance. Ksenia considered Sister Faith one of her best students, “She has the time to devote to this; she works very hard. ”

The two women were in close touch until 2013 when Ksenia Pokrovsky passed away. The world lost a remarkable artist. Fortunately, her technique and artistry lives on in those she mentored. We were delighted to learn that Sr. Faith has just published a book, Icons: The Essential Collection. A large collection of her icons are currently on display at the Church of the Transfiguration, which includes installations of mosaics, true fresco, bronze and glass. Sr. Faith will be speaking at the Community of Jesus on Friday March 17 at 2:00 pm.

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Restoring the Maria

March 6th, 2017

 

One of the MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeships being funded this year is to master shipwright and National Heritage Fellow Harold A. Burnham and his son Alden Burnham in wooden boat restoration — a skill that is becoming increasingly endangered. As Harold pointed out in his application, “Since the advent and acceptance of modern materials (mainly fiberglass and steel) for boat and shipbuilding, the wooden shipbuilding industry has all but disappeared, and many of the supporting industries, the requisite skills, and means of passing them on have gone with it.”

The goal of the apprenticeship is to rebuild and restore The Maria, a 23-foot vessel based on the lines of a historic Maine lobster smack. Named for Alden’s grandmother, she was the first vessel Alden’s grandfather built in 1971. The Maria was the perfect size for the young family to sail up and down the New England coast. But in 1972, she was sold out of the family to fund an overseas vacation. When Harold was in high school, he tried to buy her back, offering a more than fair price, but the owner wouldn’t sell. Harold was patient, finally buying the sloop in an estate sale in 2008. By that time, she was in pretty rough shape; large amounts of rot were found in her keel. The MCC apprenticeship was just the incentive Harold and his son Alden needed to finally get to work on rebuilding and restoring Maria.

The family connection was one reason to salvage her, but Harold pointed out others, “There are compelling reasons for repairing or rebuilding an old boat, and as important as the reasons are the lessons that can be learned. Old boats teach you about the materials, the techniques, and the culture of the people that built them.”

Harold A. Burnham’s life revolves around building or operating boats. He started building and restoring boats in the family shipyard in Essex, where boatbuilding has been not only a family tradition, but part of the culture, dating back to the early seventeenth century. This black and white portrait shows three generations of Burnhams, with Alden in the center.

Although building full-scale historic representations of indigenous fishing vessels for use in cultural tourism has helped rekindle an interest in the region’s maritime traditions, Harold is the first to admit that it has not been a lucrative or easy way of life. “People always used to ask [my father] why he thought he could build boats,” Alden recalls. “His answer to them was simple and yet profound; He knew that he could do it because his father had done it, and he knew people that had done it, and through their efforts, they found a way.”

Alden Burnham, who is now one full year out of college, has grown up around boats. He recalls that when he was 14 years old, an old gray skeleton of a wooden sailboat was dropped in the mud behind their family house on the marsh. He rebuilt the 11-foot turnabout and had a front row seat as the double sawn frame, trunnel-fastened schooners Fame, Isabella, and Ardelle came together outside his house in the shipyard. He appreciates, now more than ever before, what he is father and grandfather can teach him.

We paid a visit to the Burnham shipyard on an unseasonably warm late February morning. Muck and snow melt all around the yard foretold the mud season soon to come. We entered the “barn” where The Maria took up three quarters of the space on the ground floor. We gathered around her to take a look at the progress being made.

Harold, in his characteristic dry humor, remarked, “And you can see, it’s nice and neat in here. No trip and fall hazards.” We watched our step.

“So tell us what we’re seeing right here,” I said.

“Well, you can see that the keel is new. The first thing we did was take the whole keel off and put a new keel in it. All the ribs are getting sisted.”

“Sisted,” I repeated, not familiar with the term. “How do you spell that?”

Alden, who was nearby by a board through the table saw, piped up, “Sistered.” (Sistering is basically a construction term meaning to strengthen or reinforce a structural member by attaching a stronger piece to a weaker one.)

While we were there, Harold and Alden worked independently. Alden was busy preparing new ribs, using the planer and the table saw.  The day before, Alden had steamed, bent, and installed seven ribs.

In this photo below, you can see the recently installed ribs which are untrimmed.

While Alden concentrated on planing and sanding ribs, Harold was busy threading and painting a piece of pipe that will connect to the rudder. “That’s really the trickiest part — the mechanical end. Like how to connect the metal to the wood — the engine to the boat, the rudder to the boat.”

 

It turns out that working on The Maria is the perfect learning situation. In Harold’s words, “This boat is a nice size . . . The nice thing is is that all the installation of an inboard engine, the rigging, the propeller shaft and shaft log and the rudder and all of the geometry of how to put all the metal and wood together, is the same on this as it is on a large boat. This is great learning tool. . . If he falls in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, this boat will be too small for him in fairly short order.”

Five months into the project, Harold and Alden have replaced the keel, sternpost, and worn timber for Maria as well as many frames. They’ve gotten the shaft log ready and the hole prepared for the rudder port. Now that the weather is warming up and the daylight hours longer, they will make real progress. Next up is sistering all of timbers, re-planking her hull, replacing her deck and cabin, installing an engine and systems, building new spars and rigging, and making sails for the vessel. They’ve set a launch date of May 27th.

 

Fellows Notes: Shannon Heaton launches “Irish Music Stories” podcast

February 14th, 2017

Shannon Heaton_facing forward_smaller

Shannon Heaton (MCC Artist Fellow 2016) has just launched the inaugural episode of her podcast, “Irish Music Stories.”  She takes us from Boston to Chicago to County Clare, Ireland, where we hear from young players and older masters alike. They reflect on the tunes and how they are learned, the excitement of competing in competitions, and the sense of community that is forged through the multi-generational sharing of the music. It’s like a Valentine’s Day gift to Irish traditional music lovers around the world.  Great work Shannon. We look forward to hearing more episodes.

 

Bringing a Skill Forward: Apprenticeship in Ship Wheel Making

February 2nd, 2017

FullerApp_Bob_holding_wheel FullerApp_cranberry

Master craftsman Bob Fuller was fortunate to have grown up in a boat building family, where he apprenticed under his father and grandfather. The family developed the Edson Yacht Wheel and has been making wheels for Edson International in New Bedford, Massachusetts since 1965.

FullerApp_wheel_detail

In 1990, Bob founded his own shop,  South Shore Boatworks, which specializes in custom boat building, finishing and restoration work, and handmade wooden ship’s wheels. In fact, Bob Fuller may be the only craftsman in the country today who is still making wooden ship wheels by hand. This highly specialized maritime craft involves pattern making, metal working, marine joinery, and fine woodworking. There are only a limited number of places to learn marine joinery. Although a few boatbuilding schools exist along the New England coast, one of the best ways to learn is one-on-one under the guidance of a skilled master.

FullerApp_portrait

Bob Fuller and John O’Rourke were awarded an MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship last fall. They typically meet on Sunday mornings from 8:30 to noon. We were there to check in on their progress and observe some of the In late January, Russell Call and I paid a visit to his South Shore Boatworks in Hanson, Massachusetts. You might expect such a place to be situated on the water, but it’s located in an Industrial Park, 30 miles from the coast!

FullerAPP_outside FullerApp_inside

John is a recent graduate of the North Bennett Street School where he earned a degree in preservation carpentry. “I learned mostly historic buildings, nothing about maritime woodwork or marine joinery. In preservation I learned to restore historic structures, historic windows. Try to keep things that were made by hand a long time ago around. So this is very similar. And trying to keep the craft alive.” In contrast, Bob adds, “I don’t work in houses. I chose to work on things where nothing is ever straight. And generally on boats, if something looks straight or looks plumb, it’s wrong.”

Before showing us what they were currently working on, Bob oriented us by explaining the terminology of a ship’s wheel. “Basically, you’ve got the hub, it’s either bronze or it’s chrome plated, but it’s a piece of bronze. And then you have the spokes. The spokes go from inside the hub out. And then you have the pieces in-between here. I call them segments. Some people call them fellows, which is a word that has more to do with wheel making, like for carts. And then on the top of it, this is a band – it kind of bands things together. And then beyond that, on the spoke, you have the king spoke, which that designates, gives you a reference to where the steering should be neutral.”

FullerApp_king pin

These three turnings along the top of the king spoke has always been the family’s signature. “It gives you a sense of feel, especially if you’re operating the boat at night where you can’t have a lot of lights on inside the cabin because it will just blind you, you can’t see out. This way you have a sense as to where the steering is.”

The wheel John was currently working on when we visited is about 2/3rd done. Twenty-eight inches in diameter, it has eight spokes. “There’s a lot that goes into the actual finishing of it, Bob stresses. “Sanding it, hand sanding and then lots of coats of sealer and varnish. . . The wheel I just finished for a customer, the process, the varnishing, was a total of two coats of sealer, and eight coats of hand varnish. And it was a big wheel. It took me roughly two weeks to finish it.” A wheel like this sells for between $2,800 and $3,000. The price can go up from there depending on its complexity, that is, whether is has additional brass band on top or custom engraving on the hub.

FulllerApp_placing_screws

In addition to building wheels for Edson, Bob Fuller has customers around the world. Last year he was commissioned to build a wheel for the 50-foot, passenger-carrying lobster boat that services Acadia National Park. High profile wheels include a replacement wheel for Robert Kennedy’s wooden yawl Glide. 

It was interesting to hear Bob talk about a recent wheel  commission for the new luxury fiberglass motor yacht Cakewalk, built by Derecktor Shipyards. “It was an afterthought. The whole bridge on this boat was set up for using computer settings and all that kind of stuff, but both the captains, an Australian and an American captain, they felt strongly that that boat need a wheel and it would have looked really funny without it. It’s kind of strange today because, with all the computerized stuff — the joy sticks, they call it ‘fly-by-wire’ — a lot of boats don’t have steering wheels anymore. But it’s such a part of our heritage and tradition, that I think it’s going to continue onward.

FullerApp_calipers

“We’re preserving the skills to move this forward for a couple of generations. It is just such a part of our maritime tradition, in Massachusetts especially. Shipbuilding, fishing, boat-building, that’s why I feel strongly about this. I learned from my grandfather and father, apprenticing with them. And, if it wasn’t for a situation like what I’m doing with John, I also have someone else that works with me too that’s learning, but not part of the official apprenticeship – where would someone learn this?”

“It’s a great atmosphere when you can teach people the skills that are required to do a craft. It’s been a great opportunity to show this to John in the apprenticeship, to bring a skill forward. . . . this is part of our heritage, as I mentioned before. This needs to be brought into the future. Largely, that’s what the [Massachusetts] Cultural Council is good at, whereas this is such a small niche, it’s hard to, you don’t really fit into someone’s idea of being an industry, but it really is a cottage industry. And that’s what’s kind of going along the wayside. Skills get lost for generations and then all of a sudden, no one knows how to do it anymore.”

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Photos by Russell Call.

Connecting Curator and Artist

January 23rd, 2017

On some days, my job as a folklorist is especially gratifying. This past week I had the pleasure of facilitating a meeting between Cambodian ceramist Yary Livan and Louise Cort, Curator of Ceramics at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer|Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Yary with Louise

It was dreary, cold, and wet on January 18th when I picked up Louise at Boston’s Logan airport. We drove the 30-odd miles north to Western Avenue Studios in Lowell where Yary Livan has studio space. Traveling with Louise was Danny Eijsermans, a Freer|Sackler Curatorial Fellow currently working on a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian art history. With deep respect and knowledge of the Khmer ceramic tradition, both Louise and Danny found an immediate rapport with Yary.

Yary pointing out blue glaze

Yary Livan listening to Louise Sort, while Danny Eijsermans inspects an Apsara in the making

I first met Louise Cort in 2014 at the annual meeting of NCECA in Providence, Rhode Island. I was part of a panel that Middlesex Community College Professor Marge Rack had organized featuring the work of Yary Livan. In addition to Yary’s voice, the panel included the perspectives of a folklorist, art professor, and secondary school art teacher. It was a memorable experience, not only because of the craft of this incredible artist, but because of the stories shared and the emotions triggered by his life story. Those present learned of Yary’s training in Khmer fine arts, his surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide, his resettlement in Lowell where he slowly regained  access to clay, the building and firing of a wood-fired kiln, and his dedication to teaching the next generation.

A year following the NCECA panel, Yary Livan was named a National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. He continues to produce a wealth of new work and to mentor students.

Pouring vessel in the form of a caparisoned elephant, with a spout on the shoulder Vessel

Louise and Danny  are preparing an exhibition at the Freer|Sackler titled “The Glazed Elephant: Historical Khmer Ceramics from the 11th-14th century.” The exhibit draws on the museum’s Hauge collection of glazed ceramics from the Angkorian kingdom in Cambodia. It will open April 15, 2017 and run through the first week of July.

In a happy convergence, the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is celebrating its 50th year, will present “American Folk: Celebrating the NEA National Heritage Fellows.” What perfect timing, to feature National Heritage Fellow Yary Livan, who on July 4-9 will demonstrate the current day practive of Khmer ceramics, a tradition that was nearly lost. His presence on the nation’s National Mall will be a reminder, not only of the value of our national museums as caretakers of art dating back centuries, but of our country’s recognition and support of immigrant artisans who are keepers of tradition.

Multi-colored jar

Our January visit ended with a stopover at the wood fire kiln, which Yary had fired over the weekend. Then it was time for a late lunch at Palin Plaza, where Yary ordered for us, family style.

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Riding the Wave of Ukulele Popularity

December 1st, 2016

magicfluke_sign

Drive along Route 7 in the Southern Berkshire town of Sheffield, Massachusetts and it’s hard to miss The Magic Fluke Company. Founded by Dale and Phyllis Webb in 1999, the company turns out several thousand musical instruments a year. All design, finishing, and assembly takes place inside a timber-framed manufacturing facility, whose solar panels provide electricity.

magicfluke_exterior

The Webbs and their half dozen employees pride themselves on making musical instruments that sound great, are well designed and affordable, and are assembled from mostly locally sourced materials and parts. “We are not luthiers,” Phyllis said, “although the instruments are all hand done. Dale’s design is innovative, bringing together injection molded parts and wood.” Phyllis credits her brother, Jumpin Jim Beloff, for the recent wave in popularizing and teaching the ukulele. Jim’s numerous instruction manuals line a shelf in the showroom. The ukulele’s wide appeal is easy to understand.  “It’s the easiest instrument on the planet to learn to play,” Phyllis say, adding that “it brings people together, it’s affordable, and because of the composite . . . it can take a beating.”

“Fluke” refers to the original style of ukulele the company makes. One with a different shape is called “The Flea.” A banjo ukulele is known as “The Firefly” and a violin-inspired instrument is named “The Cricket.”  All are extremely portable, ideal for traveling and camping.

magicfluke_ukes_in_showroom

Dale ‘s background in molded plastics, materials research, and acoustics has served the company well. It is the business aspect of running the company that remains the most challenging. “For a long time, we were the only serious manufacturer doing any kind of volum with an affordable instrument. But since it’s gotten so popular, so many of the larger companies are now producing overseas and they’re really putting the squeeze on our profits. . . But still, we’re hanging in there. We do a lot of colorful, unique designs. . . we work hard and tr to keep everything as local as we can.”

The main room of The Magic Fluke facility has a number of different assembly stations, each for different parts. Unfinished fingerboards,  ukulele tops, and assembled ukuleles ready for stringing hang on vertical posts and rafters around the well lit room.

magicfluke_assmembly

One of the more unique things about Magic Fluke is their ability to produce one-of-a-kind instruments using a process called dye sublimation. They can take an artist’s work and transfer it directly onto the face of the instrument, embedding it right into the wood using a heat process.

magicfluke_dye-sublimnation

Locally sourced and manufactured, Magic Fluke’s instruments find their way into the hands of musicians around the globe. They are also supplied to area libraries and schools, replacing the once ubiquitous recorder as a 3rd grade starter instrument. The Magic Fluke’s presence in the community has even inspired a multi-generational ensemble: the Berkshire Ukulele Band.

magicfluke_banjo-ukes

“[The ukulele] crosses generational lines — young, old, and socio-economic,” Phyllis notes. “In light of today, I often say, that if we were all playing the ukulele, I think that we’d have a better sense of community.”

 

Diwali goes Mainstream

November 4th, 2016

What does it mean when ancient holdidays, grounded in ethnic identity and religious belief and celebrated by cultural insiders for centuries, are brought to mainstream, high profile venues to be shared, celebrated, and interpreted? Who benefits? What is gained and what is lost when a festival moves from private space (a temple, a home) to a public space (a state house, city hall, or museum)?  How is cultural meaning negotiated?

diwali_statehouse

For the last five years, Amit Dixit, the leading light behind the South Asian Arts and Cultural Council, has organized an annual Diwali lighting ceremony at the Massachusetts State House.

diwali_amitdixit

The invitation to attend describes Diwali, popularly known as The Festival of Lights, as  “. . . the most sacred of Indian holidays celebrated by Hindu communities throughout the world, including those in the Indian diaspora together with worshipers of Hinduism in Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. The holiday is the embodiment of the supremacy of divine light over spiritual darkness, of knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. Diwali is associated with great optimism, generosity and, most importantly, new hopes for the future.”

Those attending the State House event on October 29, 2016  were a mixture of cultural insiders, government employees, and members of the general public.

diwali_unlit  diwali_lit

An official from The United States Postal Service was present to help unveil the Diwali forever stamp.

diwali_veiledstamp diwali_unveiledstamp

Diwali is celebrated for seven days every autumn. This year Diwali officially began on Sunday, October 30 and ran through Saturday November 5. Mid-way through, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston held its own celebration of  the Festival of Lights. On offer was a splendid variety of South Asian expressive traditions including music, dance, Madhubani and Mithila art making, and a moderated discussion about Diwali in Boston and around the world.

sunanda_holding_bw

family_coloring

Having the MFA celebrate Diwali helps legitimize the expressive traditions of lesser known cultural communities. As Saraswathi Jones (second from left), who grew up in one of the only Bengali families in Grand Rapids, Michigan put it,  “It’s meaningful. It’s validating.”

panel-discussion

In writing about Washington DC’s Latino Festival (1991), Olivia Cadaval says, “The festival transforms physical space into a means to cultural identity. As a temporary center of power, the festival brings together large numbers of Latinos, unifies space, and generates action, during which symbols and traditions are manipulated, cultural forms are given expression, relationships are negotiated, and new social identities are forged.”

Although it’s a vastly different culture and a different time, I believe Cavadal’s observations still hold true. In addition to introducing cultural outsiders to Diwali, the public acknowledgement of  an ancient holiday rooted in Sanskrit and prayer trumps linguistic, regional, and national differences, creating solidarity among South Asians who make Massachusetts home.

boston-skyline

Things work best when ethnic self-representation and institutionally curated presentations are done collaboratively. It’s a win win.The MFA’s event planners are to be commended for working with cultural insiders to interpret and present expressive traditions that might otherwise be little understood by cultural outsiders.

audience father-and-son


css.php