All in the Family: Learning from Master Musicians

It’s that time of year when the MCC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeships are wrapping up for the year. As part of the grant program, recipients are required to share what they have learned in a public presentation. This coming Sunday, May 19th, two master/apprentice teams will perform musical selections and share some of the joys and challenges of transmitting musical heritage. The free presentation takes place at Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center theater, 246 Market Street and will begin at 2:30 p.m.

Two continents. Two ancient percussive traditions. And two young people with the good fortune to be born into musical familes headed by master musicians. Balla Kouyaté is a virtuoso player of the balafon, the ancient West African ancester of the xylophone and marimba. Above, you see him teaching his son Sekou the balafon.

Sixto “Tito” Ayala comes from a legendary music and dance institution in Puerto Rico – the Ayala family. He is pictured here teaching a conga rhythm to his daughter Estefany Navarro.

Come see and hear how West African djeli music and Puerto Rican bomba & plena are being passed on from one generation to the next.





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

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