Carnival, Dominican style

For several years now, we’ve been trying to track down the Dominican carnival comparsa rumored to be based in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Having seen photos of these fantasic costumed masqueraders, we thought they would be a perfect fit for leading the parade opening the Lowell Folk Festival. Finally, success! We recently visited with Stelvyn Mirabal, founder of the Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, in his home in Lawrence.

In the Dominican Republic, Carnival is celebrated during the whole month of February, where groups of elaboratively costumed people parading through the streets.  Some of the most famous of all the masked participants are the Diablos Cojuelos (limping devils). As the story is told, a demon was once banished to Earth because of his clownish pranks and was injured in his fall, hence the limp.  Diablos cojuelos are multi-horned, sharp toothed beings. Many regions of the Dominican Republic have varying versions of this frightening devil.

The Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts brings a bit of Dominican Carnival to the United States. Twelve years ago, Stelyn Mirabal saw the need to preserve Dominican folkloric traditions in Lawrence, where there was (and is) a sizable Dominican population. He formed a comparsa (meaning a group of costumed people who  participate in the carnival parade) to take part in Lawrence’s 2nd Dominican Parade. In 2006, he decided to go bigger and brought back 16 masks at the same time. Currently, there are 75 people in his comparsa.

Stelvyn’s home city of Santiago Los Caballeros is known for its style of masks, which are called lechones (meaning pig). They are considered tradicional costumes and are relatively simple; the masks represent pigs or ducks.  Suits from the city of La Vega are larger and more elaborate and are referred to as fantasía. The lechones play the role of vejigantes, those who protect the people in the carnival, who, at one time, were members of the royalty. Vejigantes carry and swing inflated cow bladders to keep the crowd away from the parading comparsas.  Here in the United States, the cow bladders have been replaced by colorful balloons.

It was Stelvyn’s uncle who taught him and his cousins the carnival traditions of mask making and parading. At age 42, carnival has become a family affair for Stelvyn, “In fact, my mother and my sister, they all dress up. . . My father, a tailor, he used to make the suits.”  Below is a photo of Stelvyn’s son Leonardo dressed in a fancy suit and wearing a lechone mask. Leonardo has also become an expert at cracking the whip.

 

The masks are made from a mold of clay and covered with a paste like papier-mâché. The masks are shined, painted, and decorated. Although Stelvyn knows how to make the molds and papier-mâché masks, he prefers to import them from the Dominican Republic. The more elaborate diablos cojuelos costumes are professionally made using real teeth, horns, and skins, mainly of cows. The Asociación has more diablos cojuelos than lechones because to be a lechone, one has to know how to crack the whip and dance.

One finds Spanish, African and Catholic influences in the tradition. Stelvyn points out a distinguishing feature of the Lechones,  “The way we dance is an African dance. So it’s passed generation to generation. We dance different from the guys from La Vega. They jump,” he says, referring to the Diablos Cojuelos. “. . .  When we move through the crowd, we try to be like the best horse there is, the Paso Fino.”

Carnival in the Dominican Republic has gotten more elaborate, competitive, and commercial. Stelvyn says there is a move to bring back some of its folkloric roots. “The dances and things have been forgotten a little. So some groups are going back to the traditional.”

Today, the Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts is well known throughout New England for their participation in Dominican and Latino cultural festivals and parades as ambassadors of Dominican culture. You will have a chance to see this spectacular entourage by attending this year’s Lowell Folk Festival. The Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts will be leading the parade on by Friday and Saturday evening of the festival.

 

Latin Music & Dance Night with Alexander & his Quinteto

Bachata, both a genre of music and a type of dance, originated in the Dominican Republic during the early parts of the last century, later spreading to other parts of Latin American and Mediterranean Europe.

In its early days, bachata was unofficially banned from radio play and concert halls by those in power. Eventually, bachata’s popularity could not be denied. Come find out why at the next Lowell Folklife Series event.

Time: Saturday February 23, 2013

7:00 p.m. dance lesson; 8:00 p.m. live music

Place:  The Counting House, 2nd Floor, Boott Cotton Mills Museum

115 John Street, Lowell, MA 01852

Learn the basics of bachata and merengue dance of the Dominican Republic with National Park Ranger Victor Medina. Then listen and dance to the music of Alexander el Cantante and his Quinteto. Born in Venezula, Alexander Faria began singing and performing as a child. He came to Boston in 1995 and has been active in the Latin music scene ever since.

Seating will be provided, however ample space will be left open for dancing.

Return of the Lowell Folklife Series

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

Christmas Tradition in Nonantum: La Befana flies in from Italy

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 reads 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, followed by 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.

 

 

 

 

Adding new life to an old tradition

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

Next Lowell Folklife Series features RUMBAFRICA

The Lowell Folklife Series  is pleased to support the headliner band, Rumbafrica at the 2012 African Festival in Lowell, MA. The festival takes place Saturday June 16, 2012 at the Sampas Pavillion along Pawtucket Boulevard. Rumbafrica is led by Congolese guitarist/singer Tshibangu Kadima. They play a rumba dance music called Soukous (derived from the French word meaning “to shake”), which originated in the 1930s. The group features a variety of African percussion and several dancers.  They will  be performing sets at 2:00 pm, 4:00 pm, and 6:00 pm.

In addition to live music and dance performances throughout the day, there will be traditional African crafts and food. Below are some photos from our visit to the festival in 2009

African Festival, Ethnic festival, 2009; African Festival of Lowell; Lowell, Massachusetts; Photography by Signe Porteshawver

Drummer in Mamadou Diop band; Ethnic festival; 2009:

Young boys in African Festival t-shirts; Ethnic festival; 2009: Lowell, Massachusetts

Woman selling African fabrics; Ethnic festival; 2009: Lowell, Masachusetts

Festival photos taken by Signe Porteshawver for the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Afro Caribbean Workshop today!

Jorge Arce performs twice today at Lowell National Historical Park.  At 3:00 pm, Arce gives an Afro Caribbean workshop as part of the park’s Kids’ Week activities.  Tis evening at 7:00 p.m., he performs for the Lowell Folklife Series in the Visitor Center theatre.

Expect an interactive experience featuring music, dance, lore, and stories steeped in the African ancestry of Puerto Rican culture. Try your hand with a Puerto Rican percussion instrument. Learn how to move to the beats of bomba and plena. Be surprised by two carnival masqueraders wearing typcial vejigante masks of the season.

 

Free Traditional Irish Dance & Music Performance on June 4

 

Traditional Irish dance and fiddle music will fill the Merrimack Repertory Theatre on June 4 in a program sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park.

Fiddle player Laurel Martin and step dancers Kieran Jordan and Kevin Doyle are all recipients of 2010 MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants. These publically-funded grants allowed these artists to provide a year of one-on-one teaching to talented apprentices Natayla Kay Trudeau, Emerald Rae, and Nicole Leblanc.

This free concert presents a unique opportunity for collaboration, as teachers and students come together to present the results of their apprenticeships and insight into their teaching methods.

Come join us for an exciting evening of solo, duet, and group performances revealing the history and shared languages which these artists express, preserve, and pass on.

Place: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, downtown Lowell

Time: 8:00 p.m.

No tickets required. For more details:  click here

Event presented by Lowell National Historical Park and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Southern New England Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.

Women’s Singing Traditions: African Praise Songs to Irish Ballads

 

Join us this Saturday evening for a free concert of Irish and African music featuring two remarkable female vocalists — Aoife Clancy and Adjaratou Tapani Demba. This concert will take place on Saturday March 19, 2011 in the sanctuary of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in downtown Lowell.

Aoife Clancy brings a refreshing new voice to traditional Irish songs, ballads, and recitations. Originally from County Tipperary, Ireland, Aoife was brought up in a family steeped in music and poetry, which her father Bobby Clancy passed down to her.  She is a former member of the popular “Cherish the Ladies,” one of the most sought-after Irish American groups in history.  Now with seven recordings under her belt in the last decade, Aoife has clearly established herself as one of the divas of Irish folk music. Accompanying herself on the Irish bodhran (drum), Aoife will be joined by Shannon Heaton on flute and  All-Ireland champion stepdancer Jaclyn O’Riley.

Adjaratou Tapani Demba brings us the West African traditional art of praise singing. In her native Mali, she is known as a djeli – a kind of oral historian, peacemaker, and performer who is born into the responsibility of keeping alive and celebrating the history of the Mandé people of Mali, Guinea, and other West African countries. In addition to concerts, Tapani performs at weddings, baptisms, and other domestic ceremonies within the West African immigrant communities of Boston, New York City, and beyond. She will be accompanied by Balla Kouyaté on balaphon (forerunner of the xylophone) and Moussa Diabaté on ngoni (forerunner of the banjo).

The evening’s singing, music, and dance pay tribute to the rich musical heritage of Lowell’s Irish and African communities. The program is part of the recently launched Lowell Folklife Series sponsored by   Lowell National Historical Park.

Changes Afoot …

  

As the Folk Arts and Heritage Program begins its 12th year at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, we are excited to tell you about some changes. Through a unique partnership with Lowell National Historical Park (LNHP), state folklorist Maggie Holtzberg has been temporarily assigned to the Park to support the development and expansion of traditional arts programming serving the public. We will continue our work in running a vital state folk arts program — doing field research, maintaining an archive, database, and website, and providing grants to individual artists. This new endeavor is an exciting opportunity to explore cross-cultural understanding within in the context of a National Park based on ethnic heritage, occupational folklore, immigration, and industrial history.  

  

The goal is to engage visitors and more of the region’s immigrant and ethnic populations by offering a robust variety of culturally-relevant public programs at the Park year-round. Though the MCC Folk Arts and Heritage Program has worked with the Lowell Folk Festival for over a decade (providing potential crafts artists and musicians, emceeing on stages, etc.) we will be more actively involved in the planning and presentation of folk arts than ever before. This summer, look for “Folk Craft and Foodways” in Lucy Larcom Park where we will showcase some of the extra-musical aspects of traditional folk culture.

The plan is to build on the energy of the festival — the high-quality, traditional arts performances that are the hallmark of the Lowell Folk Festival — and offer similar experiences throughout the year. Special exhibits and interactive presentations of craft, foodways, performing, and expressive traditions will be developed based on both previous and new folklife field research within the region’s many diverse communities. There is even the possibility of re-establishing a folklife center at the Park.

 Keep your eye on this blog for further postings from Lowell . . .