Balla goes to Washington

Last time we heard balafon master Balla Kouyaté performing it was at a baby shower in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

From the domestic to the national scene, Balla and his band, World Vision, are being presented by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress April 28 as part of their noontime “Homegrown Concert Series”. We will be there with him, introducing this virtuoso balafon player to a DC audience. If you are in the vicinity, come on by. And if you miss the 12:00 o’clock performance, you can catch them at the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage from 6:00-7:00 p.m.

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 . . .

Welcoming a newborn baby, Djeli style

 

Baby Sira was born just over one month ago. Her family invited friends and relatives for a celebration at their home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Her father, Habib Saccoh recently befriended balafon player Balla Kouyaté, who in addition to performing with his band, World Vision, carries on his family’s tradition of performing for domestic ceremonies within the local Mandinka community. (The Mandinka are one of the largest ethnic groups found across much of West Africa.) “Even though Habib is from Sierra Leone,” Balla explains to me,  “he is still of the Mandinka people.” For such a momentous occasion, Habib and his wife, who is American, wanted to celebrate like he would, were he home in Sierra Leone.

Dropping by the all-day party was an opportunity for me to witness the role of a djeli (a.k.a. griot) in the context of his own culture. Djelis are the oral historians, praise singers, and musicians who are born into the responsibility of keeping alive and celebrating the history of the Mandinka people. Balla Kouyaté’s family lineage goes back over 800 years to Balla Faséké, the first of an unbroken line of djelis in the Kouyaté clan. Indeed, his family is regarded as the original praise-singers of the Mandinka people. To have him present at a celebration such as this, is a way of bringing together a community far from home, reminding them where they came from, holding the culture together.

And what a party it was. Although I had parked my car several houses away, I could hear Balla’s music from the street.

 

 

Stepping inside the spacious Victorian foyer, I immediately spotted where the action was. A large parlor room off to the right was alive with colorfully dressed men and women dancing to the music.

  

The music was cranked up really loud and some little people were not pleased.

Servings of African cuisine, fresh fruit, nuts, and beverages were plentiful in the kitchen.

Occasionally, people would offer cash to the musicians, in appreciation of their dance music and praises being offered, which went on for over six hours.

No question, this is a rich cultural heritage in which to grow up.

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg

Traditional Artists win MCC Fellowships

At first glance, this year’s two fellowships in the traditional arts seem a study in contrasts. One represents an age-old Yankee craft; the other, an ancient West African musical tradition.  Yet wooden boat builder Harold A. Burnham and Malian balaphon player Balla Kouyaté share something in common. Each individual is carrying on a traditional art form passed on through his own family lineage. Harold A. Burnham’s boat building ancestors arrived in Essex, Massachusetts nearly 400 years ago. Balla Kouyaté, who came to the United States just a decade ago, was born into a musical family whose artistic lineage dates back 800 years. And their traditions are stronger for it.

In addition to performing in concert halls and clubs, Balla is ever present playing at weddings, baptisms, and other domestic ceremonies within the West African immigrant communities of Boston, New York City, and beyond. As for Harold Burnham, he has essentially revived a once dormant shipbuilding technique, and in doing so, has reconnected a town to its own shipbuilding heritage. More than a revivalist serving a small market of weathy buyers who romanticize the past, he is an innovative craftsman working fully within the local wooden boatbuilding tradition.

The MCC has also granted finalist awards in the traditional arts to the following individuals:

Sunanda Sahay specializes in a style of folk painting originating in the Madhubani region of North India.

Sophia Bilides is a master performer of Smyneika, a heartfelt and highly ornamented singing style of Greek Asia Minor heritage.

Ivelisse Pabon de Landron makes traditional Puerto Rican black dolls as a way of honoring her ancestors — Puerto Rican women of African descent and their contribution to cultural history.

Sridevi Ajai Thirumalai is an acclaimed Bharathanatyam dancer and founder of the Natyamani School of Dance.

The next deadline for Artist Fellowships in the Traditional Arts will be Fall 2011.

MCC Supports the Preservation of Traditional Arts in Massachusetts

We are delighted to announce this year’s Apprenticeships. The following five Master Artists will work with their apprentices in a variety of music and craft traditions.

Monotype Typecasting and Letterpress Printing John Kristensen of Firefly Press, Master Artist, and Jesse Marsolais, Apprentice

Piobaireachd, Great Highland Bagpipe Nancy C. Tunnicliffe of Lanesboro, Master Artist, and Sean Humphries of Millville, Apprentice

Mridangam: Carnatic South Indian Drumming Pravin Sitaram of Shrewsbury, Master Artist, and Ullas Rao of Westwood, Apprentice

Cambodian Dance Samnang Hor of Lowell, Master Artist, and Sopaul Hem of Melrose, Apprentice

Tabla: North Indian Drumming Chritstopher Pereji of South Attleboro, Master Artist, and Nisha Purushotham of Roxbury, Apprentice

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

Brighton school kids mix it up with Kristin Andreassen

Brian O’Donovan, who hosts A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH, let us know about this wonderul new video by Boston based Kristin Andreassen, Crayola.

Lowell Folk Festival is the place to be next weekend

Photo by Marianne Nika, 2008
Photo by Marianne Nika, 2008

This year’s Lowell Folk Festival promises to be a blast. You may already know that this event is one of the best curated folk festivals in the country — and it is free! On the last weekend in July, the whole city of Lowell morphs into one large celebration of top quality traditional music, folk craft, ethnic cuisine, and community spirit.

Among the music and dance traditions you will experience are Irish polkas and slides, Western Swing, Klezmer, Brazilian capoeira, an a capella gospel quartet, Quebecois dance tunes, Zydeco, Puerto Rican jibaro music, Tuvan throat singing, and a New Orleans brass band. Massachusetts performers include Boston Banghra, Grupo Canela, ekonting player Sana Ndiaye, the Eddie Forman Orchestera, and Branches Steel Orchestra. Fourteen Bay state artists will be demonstrating in the heritage crafts area, the majority of which were featured in Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts.

Hope to see you there!

Worldfest – the place to locate summer cultural/ethnic festivals in Massachusetts

Massachusetts WorldFest is back, and we want you to participate!

For the second straight year, the MCC and Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT) have launched Worldfest, a comprehensive online listing of the rich and diverse array of ethnic and cultural festivals across Massachusetts from June through September. We again plan a summer marketing campaign to drive visitors from across New England to these events.

Worldfest includes festivals large and small, in cities and towns from Boston to the Berkshires, from Cape Ann to Cape Cod. The website includes a search engine that allows visitors to search by region, name of event and/or date.

Worldfest‘s only criteria are that participating festivals represent communities or groups of communities within Massachusetts that share a common ethnic or artistic heritage or way of life. Massachusetts is home to a host of such groups, ranging from longstanding communities from Native America and Europe to newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Each of these, and many others, showcase vital cultural traditions through their public fairs and festivals, which deserve recognition and support.

If you would like your festival to be included, please submit this form. These listings are provided at no cost.

For more information, please contact John Alzapiedi at MOTT: john.alzapiedi@state.ma.us or 617-973-8509

Concert footage of “Keepers of Tradition” now on You Tube

Film footage from the October 4 concert at the National Heritage Museum is now posted on MCC’s very own channel on You Tube. You can watch a Scottish bagpiper, Puerto Rican family band, Cambodian dance troupe, Fado singer, auctioneer, and Franco-American fiddle and stepdance. Thanks to Mathew Ferrel for filming and editing the segments. We hope to add footage from our June 7 concert in the near future.

Music and Food are inextricably linked at Family Restaurant

Ever since hearing Grupo Canela at the National Heritage Museum on October 4th and learning that they perform each weekend at their family restaurant in Westfield, I wanted to go. This past Friday, four of us drove out from Boston. We arrived around 5:30 and decided to walk around downtown before going into the restaurant. With its wide streets and empty storefronts scattered in amongst the businesses, Westfield has the feel of a town that has seen some hard economic times.

Upon entering the restaurant, I introduce myself to a young woman behind the counter who turns out to be Alexa Santiago, the oldest daughter of the Santiago family. Welcoming and astonishingly cheery, she ends up doing the lion’s share of waiting tables and serving on this evening. She takes peoples orders like she is hosting a family meal. If someone asks for the restroom, she tells them, “You have to go through the kitchen, just like you’re at home.” Alexa introduces me to Carmen Santiago, Ismael’s wife.

Born and raised in Corozal, Puerto Rico, Carmen and Ismael grew up and went to school together. Soon after graduating high school in 1967, they left Puerto Rico for Hartford, Connecticut in order to find work. After a few years, the Santiagos moved to Holyoke and eventually settled in Westfield. They have been running the restaurant in its current location since 1999. Like many immigrants, they had every intention of going home but with six children and seven grandchildren, they have built a life here. “We thought we’d go back home,” Carmen says, “but the family grows.”

The restaurant’s décor is festive and full of intriguing artifacts – like a Puerto Rican version of Cracker Barrel. Colored glass lanterns and hanging coconuts, guitars, congas, and cuatros, maps of Puerto Rico, vintage beer signs, knick-knacks and figurines, and framed photos of Puerto Rican baseball players. Like many of the storefronts along Elm Street, this one has a pressed tin ceiling. There are only ten tables. A few diners appear to be regulars. Some sit, others do take-out, including a local policeman on his beat.

The kitchen is visible from the dining room and the sounds and smells of cooking are enticing. Ismael has just taken a pork roast out of the oven, its fatty skin crisped to a golden brown. He lifts lids on giant skillets to reveal yellow rice and chicken fricassee. Ismael nods toward the later and inhales, “Ahh . . .that’s like dying and going to Heaven.”

By 6:45pm, Ismael is anxious to start playing. Beatriz grabs a microphone. Josúe is out back somewhere, so a customer from the audience steps up to play bongos. By the next number, Josúe arrives and takes up the congas. They play from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and then take a break. Listen to a live recording here.

This is the place to see this music. The food and music are inextricably linked. Everyone has a role – singing, playing percussion, taking orders, singing, preparing and serving food. The youngest of six, Marcos, is in his early twenties. He sings close harmony with his sister Beatriz, lovingly throws his arms around his mother’s neck, and helps out in the kitchen. Here you see him using a mortar and pestle to crush garlic, lime, and cooked plantain, which is served with a cold seafood salad. I ask Carmen about recipes – Beatriz answers, “They are more of our country, than just our family.”

Santiago’s Family Restaurant is located at 34 Franklin Street in Westfield, Massachusetts. The live music is only on Friday and Saturday evenings. Phone: 413.562.0210

Photographs by Maggie Holtzberg