Return of the Lowell Folklife Series

January 25th, 2013

We’re delighted to announce the 2013 Winter/Spring season of the Lowell Folklife Series. These free public events featuring craft, music, dance, & foodways traditions are presented by Lowell Lowell National Historical Park in partnership with the Massachusetts Cultural Council. See full schedule here.

Noodling: The Art of Chinese Hand-Pulled Noodles with Chef Gene Wu (watch video)
Place: Event Center @ Boott Cotton Mill, 115 John Street, Lowell, MA
Monday January 28, 2013 @ 7:30 p.m.

 

 

 

 

Latin Dance Night with Alexander Faria & el Quinteto: Dance lesson @ 7:00; live music @ 8:00
Counting House @ Boott Cotton Mill, 115 John St., Lowell, MA
Saturday February 23, 2013 @ 7:00 p.m.

 

 

 

Women’s Singing Traditions: Veronica Robles & her Mariachi

Visitor Center Theater, 246 Market Street, Lowell, MA
Saturday March 23, 2013 @ 7:30 p.m.

 

 

 

Model Making: Ship Models & Pipe Organs with Harold A. Burnham, Erik Ronnberg, Jr., & Greg Bover

Visitor Center Theater, 246 Market Street, Lowell, MA
Sunday April 21, 2013 @ 3:00 p.m.

 

 

All in the Family: Learning from Master Musicians with Balla and Sekou Kouyate on West African Balafons & Sixto “Tito” Ayala and Estefany Navarro on Puerto Rican Congas

Visitor Center Theater, 246 Market Street, Lowell, MA 01852
Sunday, May 19, 2013 @ 2:30 p.m.

For more information click here
Questions? Call Maggie at 978-275-1719

Chinese Hand-Pulled Noodles in the Making

January 22nd, 2013

Gene Wu hand-pulling noodles in his restaurant kitchen

 It’s just a few weeks before Chinese New Year’s, which falls on February 10th this year. In anticipation, the Lowell Folklife Series presents “Noodling: The Art of Chinese Hand-Pulled Noodles.” This cooking demonstration on Monday, January 28th will be presented by Chef Gene Wu, owner of  Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe in Chelmsford, MA.

Wu will share his knowledge and skill in making and serving hand-pulled noodles. Known as “biang, biang mian,” these broad noodles are made from dough that is cut, rolled out, and stretched.  It’s a dramatic thing to see, as Gene pulls the dough, flings it in the air, slaps it down on the counter several times, and then throws it into a pot of boiling water.

Gene Wu grew up in Xi’an, the capital of central China’s Shaaxi Province, a region noted for its noodle soups and flatbread. Menu items at Gene’s restaurant are mostly derived from his grandfather’s recipes.

In addition to talking about Chinese noodle traditions, Wu will demonstrate how to hand-pull noodles. He will then attempt to teach someone from the audience how to do it.

Date:   Monday January 28, 2013

Time:  7:30 p.m.

Place:  Event Center, Boott Cotton Mills Museum, 115 John Street, Lowell, MA 01852

More information

Questions? Call Maggie at 978-275-1719.
No reservations are necessary.

PS  Thanks to Jen Meyers who attended Wu’s demonstration and posted this  – nice photos of several audience members trying their hands at pulling noodles.

Bowmaking Apprenticeship

January 17th, 2013

Bowmaker David Hawthorne has been making bows for stringed instruments for over 30 years.  This past September, he was awarded an MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship  to pass on some of the knowledge he has acquired to Joel Pautz. A woodworker, Joel has studied violin making at the North Bennett Street School. Just before Christmas, I scheduled a visit see how their apprenticeship was progressing.

The 3rd-floor bowmaking workshop is smack in the center of Harvard Square, [just across the hall from Dewey Cheetham & Howe, the Car Talk guys!]. An outer office greets customers; beyond are two workshop spaces full of all sorts of bows in various stages of completion and numerous hand-made tools specific to the trade.

The focus of the apprenticeship is on a French style of bowmaking in the tradition of Dominique Peccatte. “Bowmaking,” David shares, as he gets settled at the workbench, “is a French-influenced pursuit because the French bowmakers were kind of the best.”  David learned from a bowmaker who had studied in France, and then went to France himself to study bowmaking.

The bow Joel is currently working on is based on a model, the original of which is housed in the Powerhouse Museum in Austria. More simple than a modern bow, this baroque bow has a “clip-in” frog. Making a baroque style frog has the advantage of introducing the apprentice to many of the techniques of bowmaking, while modern bows demand skills and techniques beyond woodworking. For example, their screw-adjusted frogs require metalwork, jeweler’s techniques, and inlay.

Clip-in frog

Screw-adjusted frog

David picks up one of two similar sticks from off the workbench.  “We started with a stick. I saw this out at home on my bandsaw. You can see it’s kind of rough looking. And this one I’ve planed a certain amount . . . Joel has done that on a couple of his bows.”

What will follow are the many steps of planing the stick straight, carving the head, heating and bending the stick, and making and fitting the frog of the bow which holds one end of the horse hair.

David decides to demonstrate cutting a mortise, which is basically the hole where the horse hair will go. He speaks slowly, as he is working, “This is the drill we use, the French foret (click to view video) . . . So I’m going to make two holes and then I’m going to carve it out straight. And that’s just my depth stop, that piece of tape. That’s what we were discussing, how deep to make it. Obviously, you can’t make it too deep because it will make a hole through the bow. But you have to make it deep enough to accommodate the amount of hair you want to put in. So you kind of make it as deep as you dare.”

Making a bow demands superb woodworking skills and a keen eye, but how, I wonder, does one learn how to get the sound you want out of a stick of wood? Turns out the most obvious thing affecting the sound is the particular wood out of which each individual bow is made. David adds that the combination of violin and bow will always have to be matched. Being a violin player myself, I’ve noticed how the same instrument can sound so very different when played with a different bow. “Different bows will sound either brighter or darker or warmer or crisper, ” David says, which prompts me to ask, “Is that something you can set out to do?”

His answer is yes, but what he’s really after is great sound. “In general, a very flexible bow has a bigger, warmer sound. I’m interested in the best sound for a bow so I’m looking for a certain kind of flexibility, which can either be a function of the wood — is this wood strong? If it’s strong, did I maximize strength in the way I constructed it?  Which is both a function of the thickness and the taper of the stick, and how you’ve curved it in the end. The camber.

What’s a good tone quality? Well, you don’t want it to sound nasal. You don’t want it to sound strident. You don’t want it to sound tood piercing. But, on the onther hand, you want it to have a certain openess of sound and you want it to have a certain beauty of sound.”

Joel is listening and watching and taking it all in.

Christmas Tradition in Nonantum: La Befana flies in from Italy

December 19th, 2012

Several years ago, I noticed a hand-crafted sign above the door of a small public library. The building is located in heart of Nonantum, an Italian American neighborhood in Newton, Massachusetts.  

Curious, I found my way to  Lucia Diduca, who is a co-founder of the Ciociaro Social Club. Established in 2001, the the club unites the large Italian-American community in the Boston area through social, cultural and philanthropic activities.  Classes are offered in both spoken and written Italian. Folk dancing is taught by the local group Ricordi d’Italia, which has been active since the 1970s.

Lucia was born in Batima in the Valle de Camino, a place she and her husband return annually to visit. Last December, Lucia invited me to attend the club’s annual La Befana Celebration, held on the weekend of Ephiphany. The name of this Italian Christmas tradition. is derived from the word epifania – the Italian name for the religious festival of the Epiphany. At the center of the legend is an old woman with magical powers, who brings gifts to the children of Italy on the eve of Epiphany. As the story goes, La Befana has lost her own child and husband and is searching for the Christ child to bring him gifts.  Alas, she never finds him, but each year continues to search. Children in Italy write notes to La Befana, telling her what presents they long to receive. “They may end up with a lump of coal in their stockings if they haven’t been good.”

I arrived around 3:00 p.m. and Lucia was there to greet me at the door.  It was noisy in the room. Children were playing games, there was a D.J. playing loud music.  At the back was an opening through which I spotted a large nativity scene, known in Italian as a presepio

Lucia introduced me to its maker, Enrico Carrieri. He and his wife emigrated from Naples, Italy in 1967. Enrico has been making nativities since he was a youngster. He talked about the nativity scene in front of us, “Everyone is home. On Christmas Eve, at midnight, the youngest person in the house places baby Jesus in the crèche. The animals all keep the Christ child warm – on each day following, a gift is given to the magi.”

Leona Bartolomucci, who was born in this country, joins our conversation.  “In the old days, the nativity was a big deal. The story is that La Befana lived in a mountain village  of Abruzzi. The legend is of an elderly single woman who made dolls whittled in wood. She spun yarn and baked. She would go to the houses of the poor, giving them baked goods. She flies on a broom.  The mask here in the US is more scary, in Italy, less so.”

As all await the arrival of La Befana, the emcee asks the children to gather around as she introduces a young woman who read La Befana story from a picture book. This takes about 20 minutes. Then, the emcee engaged the children in a conversation about La Befana, who was apparently late. Suddenly, there was hushing, and then the announcement that La Befana has arrived! 

There she was, in ragged clothing, a burlap shawl, a broomstick, a kerchief on her head, and a pretty frightening mask, with a large nose that lit up red every few seconds. As she was greeted and made her way to the children, two really young ones were alarmed and started to cry. Parents came to comfort them. The rest of the children were fully engaged as La Befana sat down and spoke to them in Italian, with the emcee translating. Eventually, they instructed the children to line up to meet her and receive a treat.

 

 

Once everyone had received their stocking and had their photo taken,  everyone’s attention was directed to a presentation of folk dances by Ricordi d’Italia.

 

 

 

 

 

Blaze destroys Central Market

November 28th, 2012

Our hearts go out to the Arsenault family whose Portuguese Market was destroyed in a four-alarm fire yesterday in Lowell’s Back Central neighborhood. Maria Arsenault lost her father, who was upstairs doing repair work in an apartment when the blaze started.

It was just about a month ago that a busload of people visited Maria’s Central Market as part of our Lowell Folklife Series‘ ethnic market tour. Maria welcomed us in the to three-room store and served Portuguese sweet bread and hard cheese, as we asked questions, toured the market, and purchased Portuguese delicacies.

Below are a few photos taken earlier this fall.

 

Banjo music before bluegrass? Find out more

November 5th, 2012

When Lowell’s textile mills were clacking, what parlor music was popular? Come join us for a musical journey back in time, to find out. This was a time when if you wanted to hear music, you had to play it yourself.  The Lowell Folklife Series presents “Classic Style Banjo Concert: The Lost Art of America’s Instrument” on Saturday November 17th at 8:00 p.m. in the Visitor Center theater of Lowell National Historical Park.

Classic style banjo playing was popular in the 1830s and 40s, and became somewhat of a virtuosic tradition by the 1880s. Originally played on gut strings, this parlor music has a classical feel to it.

 

Seasoned musicians Peter LaBau (banjo) and Mitch Nelin (mandocello) will deliver an entertaining evening of music interpsersed with stories of a nearly vanished musical tradition.

The 8:00 p.m. concert is free and open to the public. For directions, click here.

 

An apprentice strikes out on his own

October 22nd, 2012

 

Jesse Marsolais has spent the last six years working alongside master letterpress printer John Kristensen at Firefly Press. In 2009, the two were awarded an MCC-funded Traditional Arts Apprenticeship to work specifically on Jesse learning to use and maintain 19th-century Linotype and Monotype typecasting machines.

This past June, Jesse also had the rare opportunity to apprentice under master carver Nick Benson at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island.  The latter apprenticeship (letter carving in stone) was supported by a Southern New England Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, a unique program administered by Lynne Williamson which funds master artists and apprentices to work together across state lines in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  The latter grant culminated in an open house this past June at the John Stevens Shop (JSS), which Jesse writes about in his own blog post.

Jesse’s nascent skills in letter carving are valued at the JSS, and he continutes to do occasional jobs for them when needed.  If it weren’t for the fact that Jesse just opened his own printing and stone carving business in Millbury, MA, he might very well have been offered full time work in Newport.

Marsolais Press & Lettercarving, Inc.  is located in a free-standing brick building which once housed a textile mill.

Jesse shares the space with blacksmith Derek Heidemann, who began learning his craft at age 14 at Old Sturbridge Village. “When I found out about the space I was really intrigued by the presence of a traditional blacksmith,” Jesse said. “Derek works for Old Sturbridge Village by day but then comes here and does his own things at night.”

Derek happened to be at the shop on the day I visited. His work at the forge gave the space a wonderful smell of burning coal and red hot iron, and the occasional clinking sounds of metal on metal.

 

Jesse offered this: “To be able to work in a space that has another traditional craftsman  is really exciting and generative for me because it keeps the space alive with making. We’re vying for the same sensibility – for people that actually want the traditional process, the traditional level of quality.”

Jesse’s half of the work space is home to his newly acquired Chandler & Price Press, a 400-pound Miller saw, some type cases, a galley cabinet, his grandfather’s engineering drafting table, and a collection of typography and printing books. I ask him to talk about how the allied trades of letterpress printing and stone carving relate.

“For me, it seems like a really obvious bridge. [They are] two very related fields.” A self-proclaimed antiquarian, Jesse naturally has pursued learning more about the history and tradition of typography. “I think the more I researched and the farther back I went, the more I realized the debt modern typography owes to traditional Roman letterforms. Brush-driven letterforms.  Obviously, these are two totally different methods of typographic or lettering reproduction but there is a continuum that’s very much alive in the over-arching tradition.”

There, lying on the drafting table was proof. A slate slab beautifully carved with a Roman alphabet – the letters chiseled in V-cut against the buttery smooth dark slate.

Nearby, was a large beach stone, looking to weigh some 50 pounds. Jesse had begun to design lettering of my father’s name for a memorial stone I’d commissioned. I asked him to talk about finding this particular stone. “Because I was able to learn a little bit about your father, I had some personal information at hand. . .  Searching for a stone can be a fairly emotional and moving moment. . . I knew he was a man of science. It was important to me to find a stone that I thought I could carve.”

“This stone has a purplish hue and it has these beautiful bands of what looks like quartz and some darker stone. I look at this and I just think pressure and time. There’s a fluidity to it. There’s a flow inherent in the surface of the stone. So there’s this play of solid and liquid.”

 Jesse’s shop will be easier to find once Jesse finishes his sign for the exterior of the building.

Two days later, I went to meet Jesse at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island.  The shop has been in operation since 1705; walk inside and history speaks. Beautiful letterforms are everywhere you look.  Jesse greeted me and showed me the piece he wass working on – an impression of a cancelled stamp, carved in white marble. I met Paul Russo, who was chipping away on a slate memorial, carving daffodils in relief. Nearby was a huge piece in progress for Yale University, acknowledging benefactors for their contributions to art, and a number of gravestones in various stages of completion.

Jesse shares with me that he couldn’t imagine better guys to work with and learn from. “They’ve been incredibly generous, not at all guarded with the secrets of the trade.”

As a folklorist working in the public sector, it is gratifying to help support a young man with skills and passion seek out mentors willing to pass on their knowledge in hand-wrought craftsmanship and receive priceless, one-on-one guidance. It is also affirming to see that a small investment of public money in the arts can play a part in growing small business developtment, while preserving age-old New England crafts.

Ethnic Market Tour II

October 10th, 2012

The Lowell Folkife Series is going on the road. Consider joining us this Saturday for a tour of some of Greater Lowell’s ethnic markets. We will meet at 2:00 p.m. at Lowell National Historical Park’s Visitor Center (246 Market Street) and travel by the Park’s hybrid bus to three local markets specializing in Portuguese, Indian, and African foods.

Meet Maria Arsenault, owner of the Central Market in Lowell’s Portuguese Back Central neighborhood, Leela Shah, owner of East West Foods (Indian) in Lowell’s Middlesex Village, and Martha Tanyi, owner of A F & M African Market in Lowell neighborhood known as the Acre. 

  

There will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions, learn about culturally specific ingredients, taste free samples, and do some shopping.

Reservations are required, as space on the bus is limited: 978-275-1719.

Cambodian Kiln Fires Up!

September 12th, 2012

A few months ago, we told you about a blessing ceremony  held for the building of a Cambodian wood fire kiln in Lowell, Massachusetts. We are excited to announce that the kiln is completed and will be fired up for the very first time on Saturday September 22, 2012.

As one of only three master ceramicists to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide, Yary Livan is one of only two still actively creating pottery. The other is Kang Proeung, visiting artist from Cambodia. He and Yary grew up in the same village along thet Mekong Delta and have known each other since childhood.

 

Together they have built a Cambodian-style wood fire kiln in Lowell, on the grounds of the National Park Service maintenance facility. Their hope is that this kiln, and the ware that is fired inside of it, will help insure that Cambodian ceramics can continue and flourish. It is a tradition that dates back to the Angkor Kingdom, which was at its height during the 11th century.

 

Livan, Proeung, and others will be on hand to explain the kiln’s design, the firing process, and features of the Khmer ceramic pieces that will be burning inside. For more information, click here.

 36 hours left before the kiln is lit . . .   Stopped by this afternoon to see Proeung busy glazing ware and Yary inside the kiln making measurements.

Adding new life to an old tradition

August 15th, 2012

Every Monday and Thursday evening, you can find crowds of contra dancers twirling and stomping to the beat of live music at the Concord Scout House on Walden Street.  New England contra dance music finds it roots in English, Celtic, and French Canadian traditions brought to America by early settlers. After a lull in popularity, there was a revival of interest in the 1970s, which continues today.

But when does a revival end and become its own tradition? With new choreography and compositions, contra dance has evolved into a tradition in its own right. So-called “old chestnuts” are performed and danced side by side with modern creations.

Recently in July, veteran caller Linda Leslie called contemporary dances such as “Happy as a Cold Pig in Warm Mud,” “A Good Feeling,” and “Snow in July.” She also chose a more traditional “double contra” dance in which two couples travel through the dance together as a set.

 

The Monday crowd tends to be a bit older, but when the hot-shot band of Perpetual e-Motion, (made up of Ed Howe on 5-string electronic violin, and John Cote on synthesized electric guitar, didgeridoo and foot percussion) played, the room had the feel of a disco. Strings of lights draped the darkened room, young couples were flapping their elbows and jiving the wave among eighty-something regulars.  The tempo moved at a frenetic rate. At the end of swings, young men dipped their partners.

With roots going back to early America, over the last 50 years, contra dancing has evolved into a fresh, contemporary style.

photos and blog by Lesley Ham