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.

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.