“Hiding in Plain Sight” Concert Brings the World to Rockport

Despite gale force winds and rain on Mothers’ Day, the show went on. And what a show it was! We were delighted to have the opportunity to showcase a sampling of our state’s traditional artists to perform at one of the country’s most stunning concert halls — the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. Performers were either past or current recipients of an Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship or Traditional Arts Apprenticeship. We’re happy to share some images shot by photographer Brendan Mercure.

No fewer that 20 members of Lawrence’s Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts opened the show by processioning from the back of the hall, down the aisles and up onto the stage.

Mass Cultural Council executive director Anita Walker gave a warm welcome to all in attendance, pointing out the richness of hidden treasures we have in the Commonwealth, many of whom have come here as immigrants.

 

I followed her by introducing our South Indian Carnatic musicians, which included two master artists, Tara Anand Bangalore and Gaurish Chandrashekhar, and three apprentices, Sudarshan Thirumalai, Pratik Bharadwadj, and Kaasinath Balagurunath. A purely musical segment was followed by Bharatanatyam dancer Sridevi Thirumalai.

The second half of the show opened with a beautiful set of Irish music by Joey Abarta, Matt and Shannon Heaton, and sean nos dancer Kieran Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We closed the concert with West African music and dance led by virtuoso balafon player Balla Kouyaté and master drummer/dancer Sidi “Joh” Camara. Both are considered hereditary artists, meaning they were born into the tradition.

  

Joining them on the stage was the next generation — Tiemoko Camara and Jossira and Sekou Balla Kouyaté — all of whom show great promise in carrying the traditions forward.

 

Balla stood up to invite audience members to join them on stage to dance.

Jossira helped by stepping down off the stage and reaching out her hand, encouraging people to join her. It worked – even 18-month old Maiya Camara got into the act.

Then it was time for a final bow. One of the magical things that happens when you bring musicians together from different world traditions is that they soon find common ground. This often happens back stage, behind the scenes. As one of our stage managers Sara Glidden pointed out, “All of you in the audience missed one of the highlights – the Indian musicians in the green room, jamming along to the video/audio feed of the Irish musicians on stage.”

Postscript: This email from leader of the Dominican masqueraders Stelvyn Mirabal gets to the heart of what our work as folklorists is all about. “I was received like a hero at my work on Monday. My Human Resources boss was at the show on Sunday and she didn’t know I was involved in the event until she saw me there. She took some pictures and posted in the company website. Then everyone was congratulating me for the show. She loved it!! Thanks again for thinking of us for your show.”

Talk about “hiding in plain sight”!

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Mass Cultural Council.

 

 

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.