Adding new life to an old tradition

Every Monday and Thursday evening, you can find crowds of contra dancers twirling and stomping to the beat of live music at the Concord Scout House on Walden Street.  New England contra dance music finds it roots in English, Celtic, and French Canadian traditions brought to America by early settlers. After a lull in popularity, there was a revival of interest in the 1970s, which continues today.

But when does a revival end and become its own tradition? With new choreography and compositions, contra dance has evolved into a tradition in its own right. So-called “old chestnuts” are performed and danced side by side with modern creations.

Recently in July, veteran caller Linda Leslie called contemporary dances such as “Happy as a Cold Pig in Warm Mud,” “A Good Feeling,” and “Snow in July.” She also chose a more traditional “double contra” dance in which two couples travel through the dance together as a set.


The Monday crowd tends to be a bit older, but when the hot-shot band of Perpetual e-Motion, (made up of Ed Howe on 5-string electronic violin, and John Cote on synthesized electric guitar, didgeridoo and foot percussion) played, the room had the feel of a disco. Strings of lights draped the darkened room, young couples were flapping their elbows and jiving the wave among eighty-something regulars.  The tempo moved at a frenetic rate. At the end of swings, young men dipped their partners.

With roots going back to early America, over the last 50 years, contra dancing has evolved into a fresh, contemporary style.

photos and blog by Lesley Ham

Lowell Folk Festival Highlights

We had great fun at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival, where artisans demonstrated the folk art of head and foot gear. Who knew there were so many ways to adorn the head and protect the feet?


Luidgi Felix and Nicole Scott from the Trinidad and Tobago Social Club brought several Caribbean Carnival headdresses to show. These handmade costumes are worn by dancers in Boston’s annual Caribbean Carnival.

Here Nicole Scott shows off one of their creations. Months of work go into constructing these costumes made of wire, steel, feathers, sequins, and glitter.

Jonas Stundzia brought the tradition of Lithuanian Midsummer celebration to Lowell. Under a huge double-horsehead gate, to the sound of Lithuanian folk songs, he created head garlands out of oak leaves and wild flowers. Visitors joined in, making garlands for themselves. 

Angel Sánchez Ortiz  brought his Puerto Rican vejigante masks used for carnival celebrations.  His striking, fantastical masks of boldly painted papier mâché depict animals, legendary people, and sometimes spirits and monsters that are imbued with cultural meaning.

Qamaria Amatul-Wudud designs and sews fashionable clothing for Islamic women who choose to dress modestly. She brought some of her elegant dresses and showed visitors how to wrap headscarves.


Eniko Farkas brought her Hungarian beaded maiden crowns worn by unmarried girls after confirmation. Before marriage, they would ritually replace them with a married woman’s headdress. Eniko also talked with visitors about the traditional Hungarian art of embroidery.

Our own J. Arthur Poitras from Lowell seemed to have brought his entire cobbler’s shop with him. There were pliers, knives, creams, and even a hanging shoe last.


The infamous “Hat Ladies” of Gloucester, Amy and Robyn Clayton amazed people with their whimsical hats. Here, Amy hands out pamphlets about the Saint Peter’s Fiesta next to their handmade statue of Saint Peter. 

The “Hat Ladies” make a new hat every year for the Saint Peter’s Fiesta, featuring local sights in miniature. For the Lowell Folk Festival, they even brought a life-size cut out of Saint Peter for visitors to pose with.

Theodore Green entranced visitors as he constructed hand built shoes out of leather. If you looked down, you may have noticed his own glittering gold shoes!

Samuel Brown and his custom made hats were a big hit. It was all he could do to keep the ladies from walking off with his hats on their heads.

Faith Izevbijie demonstrated how to tie gele, Nigerian headwraps.


And, last but not least, there were tomatoes, lots of tomatoes. Eleni Zohdi was one of five cooks demonstrating recipes using tomatoes. Here she explains how to make a Greek dish called Kayiana, with Lowell NHP Chief of Cultural Resoruces David Blackburn looking on.

We all had a good time and hope you did too. If you missed it, there’s always next year!

Photos and blog by Lesley Ham


Festival Food a Family Tradition

Music isn’t the only draw of the Lowell Folk Festival. Unique to the festival are the ethnic food booths run by local churches, temples, and non-profit organizations. Festival-goers come to sample the variety of international food, handmade by volunteers. These food booths are often family affairs, with young children and teenagers working side by side with their parents.

During the festival, ethnic food booths line French Street behind Boarding House Park. Near the corner of Kirk and French, the Filipino food booth is always one of the most popular, with infamously long lines every weekend. Profits benefit Iskwelahang Pilipino, a cultural and language school in Bedford, and many families who attend the school volunteer to help cook and run the booth. Small children play in the alley behind the tents, young girls serve fried rice and noodles, men barbeque beef, and women roll turon (banana fritters).

Although he’s only 18, Joseph Umali has been volunteering for ten years. “I used to be one of the kids hanging out back,” he said. He started out by serving food, and now is in charge of the cash register and running beef from the truck to the grill. Last year he was one of three young volunteers awarded scholarships from the Lowell Festival Foundation for their service at the various food booths. Working at the festival is something he looks forward to every year, calling it “such a blast.” People from different food booths help each other. “It’s all one big community,” he said.

Both his parents are originally from the Manila area and his family is actively involved in the school and the festival. According to their website, one of goals of Iskwelahang Pilipino is to “develop in Filipino-American children a strong positive ethnic identity and instill pride in the students’ cultural heritage.” Joseph hopes to visit the Philippines either as an exchange student or after graduating from college.

Several booths down from the Filipino booth, facing Boarding House Park, the Parekh family is busy serving Jamaican beef patties, Indian vegetable curry and samosas. Edith Parekh first ran a food booth for the 1986 Regatta Festival to benefit the Celebration of Life non-profit organization, now called Seed. Along with her husband Nalin, and later her four children, Anissa, Natasha, Noah, and Naomi, she has participated in every Lowell Festival. Former Lowell State Senator Dan Leahy, whom Edith calls the “spirit of the organization,”  founded Celebration of Life to help benefit the Mustard Seed orphanages in Jamaica after he saw the plight of poor children in Kingston. There he met Father Gregory Ramkissoon, a priest from India, who founded the orphanages 1978. Naomi spent one year in Jamaica as a Fulbright scholar working with Father Gregory helping orphans stigmatized by HIV. This year’s profits from the Seed booth will go to help both Lowell charities as well as Jamaican orphanages. Any leftovers will be donated to a homeless shelter.

Edith’s mother immigrated from Jamaica to Canada as a young girl. Nalim came to the U.S. from India for university. Together they prepare both Jamaican and Indian food for the festival.  Before the festival, they chopped 15 pounds of red peppers and175 pounds of boneless chicken and cooked a couple of 100 pound bags of rice. The Jamaican beef patties, wrapped in pastry, sell out every year. This year Naomi added her own recipe for rum cupcakes.

For Edith “the real essence of the festival is the last few hours of the festival when vendors all start eating each other’s food.” The Filipinos eat watermelon from the Seed stand, Naomi eats beef on a stick from the Filipino right in front of her mother’s food booth. “Ethnic camaraderie what it’s all about” said Edith.

Next to them, Emma Phachansiry serves fried noodles at the booth benefiting Wat Lao temple in Lowell while Suvana Phomma makes spicy papaya salad with fish sauce, chili pepper, shrimp paste, lime, and tomatoes. Nearby in Boarding House Park, Nana and Dan Dunn from Gloucester enjoy plates of Filipino beef barbeque, fried rice, and spring rolls while waiting for the music to start. They have come to almost every festival since 1988 and come as much for the food as for the music and art. “It’s wonderful to see real people making food,” said Nana, noting that the festival is a major fundraiser for the ethnic groups. She said the food is “prepared with love,” and represents the diversity of cultures. Nana said at the festival you can find out about cultures you don’t know about and “food adds a dimension to that experience.”

Photos and blog by Lesley Ham

Polish rosettes for a crowd

Early on the morning of July 25, just days before this year’s Lowell Folk Festival, members and friends of the Lowell Polish Cultural Committee were at the Dom Polski  hall on Lakeview Avenue busy preparing rosettes, deep fried cookies in the shape of flowers. At five cooking stations, volunteers stood over electric fry pans, dipping hot irons covered in sweet batter into hot, 420 degree, oil. The Polish group plans to make 700 cookies before the weekend.

This is the fourth year Marcia (Kosik) McGrail has helped. She’s the official batter maker, joking that when she first started frying, “maybe I wasn’t doing it right, and I don’t mind doing batter, next thing I know, I was put on batter.” The rosettes are made from eggs, milk, flour, sugar, and salt, with a touch of rum. Marcia said that when her grandmother made them, she used brandy instead of rum. 

Frank Makarewicz, a relative newcomer, got advice from the “master rosette maker,” Eva Kalish. His crumpled soggy rosettes were soon replaced by perfectly formed crispy brown cookies. “I need a rhythm,” he commented. He will be in charge of making kielbasa sandwiches at this weekend’s festival.


Rosettes only take a few seconds of frying on each side before they’re done. When the iron covered in batter is first dipped into the hot oil, the cookies explode into flowers. 

 The volunteers used two shapes of irons for a variety of rosettes.

Jane (Markiewicz) Duffley has cooked for a festival every year but one since 1974, first for the Regatta Festival, then the Lowell Folk Festival. She even worked two weeks before her wedding. Both her sisters are helping with the festival this year. I’m “older than Moses” doing this, she said, as she scurried around, picking up the fresh, crispy cookies from each station and carefully lining them row by row into large boxes.


The Polish group expected to sell out of rosettes as usual this year. The money raised from the festival will help fund Dom Polski scholarships and other worthy causes.

photos and blog by Lesley Ham