All in a Folklorist’s Day

Noureen Sultana Indo American weddings

On occasion, I get out of the office to visit with, observe, and interview people carrying on traditional arts practices around the state. This time of year, it’s often to meet with craftspeople who will be demonstrating in the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival. This was the case several weeks ago when my intern, Nora Martinez-Proctor, and I met with mehndi artist Noureen Sultana and her husband Waheed Khan. The couple, originally from Hyderabad, India, settled in the Metro Boston area in 2002. Noureen has built up a thriving henna business, providing beautification to approximately 85 brides per year.

At the end of our interview, Noureen kindly offered to apply a unique henna design to each of us.

  Noureen Sultana and Nora Martinez-Proctor  Noureen Sultana painting henna

A few weeks later, I headed to Lowell, Massachusetts, with several stops on the agenda. The first was to interview luthier Chris Pantazelos at his shop, Spartan Instruments. Adam Schutzman, who had asked if he could shadow me doing some fieldwork, met me there. A musician with many years of experience working with audio-visual archives and folkloric materials, Adam was right at home as we walked into Chris’ shop. So I put him to work.

Adam Schutman recording ChrisPantazelos being interviewed

Chris opened Spartan Strings last year, after having spent 30 years working with National Heritage Fellow Peter Kyvelos at Unique Strings in Belmont. Chris currently has several building projects underway. He recently finished this highly ornamented jazz guitar.

Pantazelos holding jazz guitar  detail of Pantazelos inlay

In addition to interviewing Chris about his work in building and repairing stringed instruments, we talked about ideas for demonstrating at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival craft area. Wouldn’t it be great to have a musician there to demonstrate the sound of various guitars, bouzoukis, and ouds?

It was around noon when we left Spartan Instruments. I invited Adam to join me for a stopover at Ruben Arroco’s home. Ruben will also be demonstrating fruit carving in the folk craft area this summer. Back in 2013, Phil Lupsiewicz and I had interviewed Ruben in his kitchen, while he demonstrated his expert skills in carving fruit and vegetables. (Phil edited a short video, which you can find here.) Ever since, Ruben gave us a standing offer to come back for coffee and dessert. A treat that was hard to resist . . .

Ruben Arroco serving guests

We arrived at Ruben’s home around 12:14 p.m.. He welcomed us in and we made our way into the dining area. Ever the consummate host, Ruben brought out fresh brewed coffee and two plated desserts for us. The decadent mousse and cream  cake was topped with fresh mint and surrounded by colorful cut fruit, including dragon fruit looking like wee dice. We talked about the growth of Ruben’s business, Culinary Arts, Inc, including his recent work in servicing local Cambodian weddings. We also learned that Ruben plays electric guitar and is a big Pink Floyd fan.

The last stop of the day was serendipitous. I had read that Yary Livan was going to be opening the wood fire kiln, which he and his students had fired a few days before. It takes a good 30 hours for the ware inside to cool down. When I arrived around 1:30 p.m., Yary was operating the wood splitter. (OMG, be careful with those hands . . . ) Several students and fellow ceramicists were helping out carrying and stacking wood.

Yary at splitter

By 1:45 p.m., it was time to open the kiln. Diane peeled away the plastered paper and others took turns pulling out the bricks on the face of the kiln opening.

Diane unpapering kiln Removing bricks

Kneeling beside the kiln, Yary carefully examined a teapot, and the glaze on a vase and a teapot.

  Yary holding teapot Yary holding vase
But the prize piece of the day was Yary’s naga, which he cradled in his arms.

Yary holding naga

Not bad for a day in the life of a public folklorist.

Yary and Maggie

 

Joe Cormier (1927-2016)

Joe Cormier at home

This memorial honoring Cape Breton fiddler Joe Cormier was written by friend and fellow musician John Mark Garrison.

Joe Cormier, one of the greatest of the Cape Breton fiddlers, passed away Sunday, January 31st at the age of 88. Born March 19, 1927 in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, Joe took to the fiddle at an early age. Cheticamp at that time was a small fishing village in the French-speaking area of Cape Breton which had originally been settled by French Acadians in the 18th century. The nearest railroad was in Inverness, 45 miles away. (Joe said he remembered when flour got scarce in winter it would be brought in from Inverness by horse and sleigh — a round trip of 90 miles.)

Two of Joe’s biggest musical influences were Angus Chisholm and Winston Fitzgerald, two of the greatest Cape Breton fiddlers who used to visit his house when he was growing up. From them and others, Joe learned the old Scottish repertoire and style that is the heart of Cape Breton fiddle music. By the time he was a teenager, he was already playing regularly for dances throughout Cape Breton.

Joe Cormier fiddling

In 1962, Joe moved with his wife Norma, and their children to Waltham, Massachusetts. He worked as an electrician and was a force in the local music scene. He played regularly at the Saturday night dances held at the French American Victory Club in Waltham and at the Canadian American Club in Watertown.

During the 1970s, Joe performed from time to time with the “Cape Breton Symphony,” a group of four or five traditional fiddlers that appeared on the weekly “John Allen Cameron Show” on Canadian television. In 1974, Mark Wilson recorded an influential LP album of Joe’s music for Rounder Records. Although several LPs of Cape Breton fiddling had been available in Canada, these were mostly reissues of earlier 78s. Joe’s record exposed the music to a wider audience and played a significant part in reviving this beautiful and ancient tradition.

Joe continued to play regularly and record, doing three more solo CDs for Rounder as well as several recordings with other fiddlers such as Jerry Robichaud and his nephew J. P. Cormier.

In 1984, Joe was awarded a prestigious National Heritage Award Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was also one of only six traditional fiddlers chosen to participate in the “Masters of the Folk Violin” tour produced by the National Council for Traditional Arts. In 2006, Joe was awarded an Artist Fellowship in the Traditional Arts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

I was lucky to know Joe for the past 20 years. In spite of his immense talent, he was very modest about his music and encouraging to other players. Every Wednesday evening, he invited a small group of younger players to his house to share tunes and stories.

Joe loved the old style of playing he learned from Angus, Winston, and the other great fiddlers he grew up listening to. At the same time, he had his own unique ‘touch’ which imparted a wonderful lilt and swing to his playing.

He is survived by his wife Norma, his six children as well as numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews. He touched many people with his music and his warm and generous spirit.

Interested in applying for a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship?

Kieran Jordan and Emerald Rae Dimitrios Klitsas at his workbench Ivelisse Pabon de Landron with apprentice John Kristensen and Jesse Marsolais Karol Lindquist and Timalyne Frazier Qianshen Bai and Mei Hung William Cumpiano with apprentice Isidro Acosta David Hawthorne teaching bowmaking

Apprenticeships are a time-honored method by which an individual learns skills, techniques, and artistry under the guidance of a recognized master. Since its founding in 2001, the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s  Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program has funded nearly 100 artists in a vast array of traditions, both old and new to Massachusetts. Applications are now available.

Recent apprenticeships funded by MCC’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program include mentorships in Madhubani painting, Irish uilleann piping, urban sign painting and gold leaf, Chinese seal carving and calligraphy, Carnatic singing, and European architectural and ornamental woodcarving, to name a few. The deadline for applying is April 12, 2016.

MCC Awards 2016 Fellows & Finalists in the Traditional Arts

FELLOWS:

Portrait of Shannon Heaton

Shannon Heaton, Irish flute playing, singing, & composition

No matter how well any of us play, our Irish cred lies in
how tightly we can play with others. Irish music is social.

Shannon Heaton is highly regarded in Irish traditional music circles for her beautifully expressing playing, composing, and dedication to teaching and promoting the music. She was fortunate to learn firsthand from musicians in Chicago’s rich traditional Irish music scene and later in repeated trips to County Clare, Ireland. For National Heritage Fellow, Seamus Connolly, Shannon’s playing encapsulates the tradition, “In it I hear so many elements of the old styles, such as the playing of Kevin Henry from County Sligo, Ireland, who lived in Chicago and whose music goes back to another time.”

Shannon co-founded the Boston Celtic Music Festival in 2001, a festival that continues to bring Irish musicians together with other Celtic styles. “Live Ireland,” an Irish music radio show broadcasting from Dublin, nominated Shannon “Female Musician of the Year” twice. In addition to performing regularly, Shannon is a sought after teacher, not only of tunes and technique, but also of the tradition’s social and musical customs, e.g., the importance of session etiquette.

 

Dimitrios Klitsas at his workbench
Dimitrios Klitsas, architectural and ornamental woodcarving

Both students and seasoned wood carvers come from around the country to study with master woodcarver Dimitrios Klitsas in his studio in Hampden. Like the architects and designers who seek out his impeccably carved ornamental work for fine homes and churches, these students are inspired by Dimitrios’s ability to shape slabs of walnut, mahogany, or oak into breathtaking architectural and figurative works. Guided by his deep knowledge of the fundamentals of classical European design, Dimitrios patiently creates carvings that exemplify both his unique talent and his devotion to the tradition of his craft.

Dimitrios began his training in classical carving at age 13 at the Ioannina Technical School near his home in the foothills of northwestern Greece. After graduation, he served a five-year apprenticeship and then ran his own woodcarving shop in Athens for another five years, before coming to Massachusetts nearly four decades ago. His work here has been recognized nationally with commendations including the Arthur Ross Award for Artisanship from the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. Many of Dimitrios’s students have gone on to professional carving careers, including his son, Spiro.

FINALISTS:

Delft redware by Stephen Earp

Stephen Earp, redware pottery

Stephen Earp works within the redware tradition, the common name for a variety of domestic, leadglazed
pottery made in New England between the 17th and 19th centuries. Originally, redware was produced to meet the daily needs of food storage, preparation, and serving such as plates, platters, and pitchers. On occasion, redware served commemorative and decorative purposes. Stephen has perfected the functional forms and sgrafitto of Colonial redware, and more recently found his way to his own heritage through making Dutch Delftware.

Most of Earp’s pottery is thrown on a wheel that he designed and built. He uses local materials including clay from a family owned pottery in Sheffield, Massachusetts, which mines clay from a local seam. His glazes include locally dug clay, as well as ashes from the hay of a nearby farmer. In 2007, Stephen was included in Early American Life Magazine Directory of Traditional Crafts. Stephen was named an MCC Finalist in the Traditional Arts category in 2008. He writes an engaging and informative blog, This Day in Potter History.

Soumya Rajaram

Soumya Rajaram, Bharatanatyam dancer

Soumya Rajaram performs and teaches Bharatanatyam dance, a South Indian classical tradition with strong spiritual connections to Hindu religion and mythology. Although originally a hereditary tradition, the teaching of Bharatanatyam has become institutionalized. Indeed, Soumya came up within a deep lineage of dance teachers trained at the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, India. In addition to her years of dedicated training in the technique and expressive elements of Bharatanatyam, she has extensive training in Carnatic music, which is integral to Bharatanatyam dance.

Known for her exacting standards, Soumya is skilled in nritta (abstract dance) and abhinaya (emotive aspect). She performs regularly at festivals and concerts and is thought of highly by senior dance teachers who first brought Bharatanatyam to southern New England. Soumya is an active contributor to the India arts community in Greater Boston. She continues to enhance her learning under the mentorship of Sheejith Krishna, spending a few months a year at his studio and home in Chennai.

Lutchinha

Maria Neves Leite, Cape Verdean singer

Known in the performing world as  “Lutchinha,” Maria Neves Leite is a singer of Cape Verdean songs. She was born into a singing family on the island of Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands, part of an archipelago off the coast of West Africa. She began singing at age seven, first with her father and later with family friends who would come to the house. Luchinha’s first solo CD Castanhinha bears the title of a mourna that her father wrote for her mother. She went on to become one of the winners at the Todo Munco Canta singing competition, representing her island of Sao Vicente. Engagements in the Soviet Union and in Portugal soon followed.

Lutchinha enjoyed a successful performing career in Europe before she joined her parents in immigrating to the United States. The family settled in Brockton. Lutchinha sang out in the local region, performing for Cape Verdean weddings, Noite Caboverdiana, and other community events. Her repertoire continued to draw from the deep well of traditional Cape Verdean song including the morna, coladeira, batuku,and funana Only recently, with her own children grown, Lutchina has returned to performing outside of the Cape Verdean community, including appearances at major festivals like the 2014 American Folk Festival in Bangor, ME. and the 2015 National Folk Festival in Greensboro, NC where she was backed by an all-star band of Cape Verdean musicians from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

  Textile with hole to be repaired Invisible reweaving

Toni Columbo, invisible reweaving

When is a traditional art at its best when it can’t be seen? Toni Columbo excels at invisible reweaving, French weaving, over weaving, and reknitting; all are traditional ways of repairing holes and damages by hand as imperceptibly as possible in woven and knitted fabrics. Threads or a frayed piece of fabric are harvested from an inconspicuous spot on a jacket, pants, coat, or sweater, and rewoven thread by thread, into the damaged area, rendering it virtually invisible.

Toni learned needle arts from her mother, who in turn, learned from her mother. Toni was born and raised in Boston’s North End, and she maintains a vital connection to this Italian American community. She is highly regarded by customers and by high end retail stores for her excellent skill in mending cherished items of clothing. Using the skills passed down through her family, Toni repairs and restores suits, sweaters, coats, couches, tapestries, and uniforms (including Babe Ruth’s 1926 New York Yankees baseball jersey). In addition to working on heirlooms, Toni keeps up with the new weaves and fibers used in today’s textiles. To work on these micro fabrics, some containing between 100-125 threads per inch, Toni uses a high powered surgeon’s loupe.

Apply for an Artist Fellowship

Guidelines and application forms for our next upcoming Artist Fellowships in the traditional arts have just been posted!

Recent recipients include craft artists, dancers, and musicians:

Yary holding brown bowl
Yary Livan, Artist Fellow 2012
Elizabeth James Perry with Wampanoag weavings
Elizabeth James Perry, Artist Fellow, 2014
Jimmy Noonan at Boston College Jan 23 2014. Photo: Paul Wells
Jimmy Noonan, Artist Fellow, 2014
Kieran Jordan Irish sean nos dancer
Keiren Jordan, Artist Fellow, 2008

To see a complete list of past fellows in the Traditional Arts category, see here.

Through the eyes of an apprentice

Every once in awhile, the Folk Arts & Heritage Program welcomes an intern. It’s a win-win situation. The intern gets exposed to the work of a public folklorist (doing fieldwork, managing grants, and archiving field collected materials). The public folklorist gets help with transcribing recorded interviews and the opportunity to mentor the next generation. This spring, that intern has been Hampshire College sophomore and fiddler extraordinaire, Tatiana Hargreaves.

Tatiana HargreavesHere is her guest blog post about her experience:

I started my internship after returning from the Dosti Music Project in March. As preparation, I read Maggie’s book Keepers of Tradition and was immediately struck by the vast array of traditions documented in it. I had no idea Massachusetts held so much culture and so many traditions. Everything in the book fascinated me, but knowing I would be leaving for tour in May, we decided to focus on the three music apprenticeships: South Indian mridangam, Carnatic vocals, and Irish Uilleann piping. I was especially excited about the two South Indian apprenticeships as a way to follow up my experience at Dosti. Our role was to document the progress of the apprenticeships by conducting site visits to observe a lesson and ask follow-up questions about the apprenticeship.

Our first site visit was with mridangam player Gaurish Chandrashekhar at his house in South Grafton.

Gaurish Chandrashekhar teaching mridangum. Photo by Jennifer Atwood.

We all crammed into a small room with Gaurish and his apprentice Kaasinath Balagurunath in the middle, and Kaasinath’s dad scrunched in the corner filming on his iPhone. Having grown up with Western classical and oldtime music, I expected the lesson to start similarly, that is, with a warm-up. However, as soon as Kaasinath sat down for the lesson, they started at full speed, right where they left off at the last week: how to subdivide a 10-beat phrase into a 16-beat cycle. The lesson kept a very fast pace, with Gaurish having Kaasinath figure out multiple ways to put the 10-beats into the sixteen.

Gaurish and Kaasinath

Towards the end of the lesson, we were free to ask questions.  I led the interview, but Maggie’s last question got the most powerful answer. She asked Gaurish what role music played in his life, to which he responded, “People have immigrated from India and here and now they are Americans. . . your heritage, your culture, the grass, the roots are somewhere else. Right? So how do you keep that connection going? So a natural aspect is music or dance or food, right? Those are the three things that we have. Or clothes, obviously. So music has become a very significant part of it, and dance even more so, because it tells a story.  So you have to learn about the stories. . .  so you can bring out the correct expression. The same thing with musical instruments. You’re lyrically expressing what happened at a period of time . . . You’re not just presenting what is taught you.”

Hearing Gaurish say this made me think about all of the kids learning western classical music in schools. How do they connect with the story and history of that music? Or do they at all? At 13, Kaasinath is not only learning music, but a whole history. When I was learning western classical music at that age, no one stressed the importance of the history and culture of the music we were playing. As a result, I wasn’t interested in where it came from or why it was played. So where did the importance of history and culture go in western music education?

Tara Bangalore (right) and Pratik Bharadwaj. Photo by Jennifer Atwood.

Our next site visit was with Tara Bangalore and her vocal apprentice Pratik Bharadwaj. Tara also teaches Carnatic violin, so Maggie and I (both fiddlers) came an hour early to get an introduction to Carnatic violin playing. Although Maggie and I both have a lot of training in other musical traditions, we were complete beginners with Tara. During Pratik’s lesson, Tara taught him the beginning of a new piece by ear, going over it phrase by phrase, and then had him perform a pallavi for us. Pallavi is one of the most complex song performances in Carnatic music as it features several different ways of improvising, from alapane, a slow improvised section, to tanam a rhythmic improvised section, to pallavi, a melodic refrain that has extremely complex improvisation rules. Pratik went through each section, only hesitating once during the pallavi, which he learned at the last lesson.

After the lesson, we asked Tara and Pratik some questions and Tara said many things that could apply to any musician, but one thing she said particularly jumped out at me as something a student in any area should consider. “When you’re. . . building yourself into a musician, you have to pay attention to balance. Is your music balanced? Is it too stormy? Does it have enough melody? Does it have all [the] technical stuff?”

“There’s a lot of music out there in the world today, a lot of interpretations, a lot of brilliance, no question, but sometimes in the middle of all that, the simple melody, the simple music that made Carnatic music what it was, that gave it the classicism, it  always runs the danger of slipping out somewhere.”

Maggie and Tati  working on a sound file. Photo by Artsake

So where am I going with all of this? As a musician, this work is eye-opening and inspiring. As a human being, it teaches you about other human beings and the world we live in. Having the chance to go out into the world and learn about people and the art they make and why they do it, it teaches you so much more than just the how or why. It gets you questioning deeper into your own music, your own life, your own culture, and your own story.

Tibetan musician Penpa Tsering to perform in Boston

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

Scenes from a Gubernatorial Inauguration Celebration

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

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

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 guitar Kenny 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