World of Food at the Lowell Folk Festival


The 24th Lowell Folk Festival will feature cooking demonstrations in the Folk Craft and Foodways area of Lucy Larcom Park and a chance to buy a variety of ethnic cuisine at three performance stage areas.

This year “Foodways” looks at how beans are prepared in several cultures. Often called the “poor man’s meat,” beans are rich in protein and have long been the traditional Saturday night supper in New England. Native Americans introduced slowly cooked beans to early settlers, and like many foodways, recipes were adopted and transformed by immigrants who added their own traditions and ingredients. Folklorists Millie Rahn and Maggie Holtzberg have connected with five cultural representatives, who will share their insights with the audience. Festival visitors are invited to sit down and watch how this simple legume can take on such different flavors. Ask questions. And be sure to sample the beans made by our various cooks —

 12:00  Faith Izevbijie, Nigerian beans

1:00    Guida Ponte, Portuguese beans

2:00    Sellou Diaite, Senegalese bean fritters

3:00    Jeanette Rodriquez-Cumpiano, Puerto Rican beans

4:00    Kurt Levasseur, Franco-American beans

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

Fishermen and Farmers Find Common Ground at Working Waterfront Festival

Great weather and great programming! We suggest heading down to New Bedford this weekend for the Working Waterfront Festival. If you haven’t guessed, this year’s theme is surf and turf. In promoting the festival, organizers point out that “Fishermen and farmers share a deep knowledge of, reverence for and dependence upon the natural world. Both groups pass traditional skills and knowledge from one generation to the next, often incorporating new technologies alongside traditional practices. And both communities face many of the same economic, environmental and political challenges.”

In addition to live maritime and ethnic music, there will be an open air market featuring local produce and fresh seafood and cooking demonstrations, occupational demonstrations of fishing and farming skills, tours of fishing boats, author readings, and kid’s activities.

Banjo and Fiddle Contest in its 30th year

This Saturday, September 12 marks the 30th Lowell Banjo and Fiddle Contest at Lowell National Historic Park. Whether you are an accomplished musician planning on entering the competition, or you come to experience the music-making as an observer, this annual event promises to be entertaining. In addition to the performing contestants, some great music will undoubtedly take place in informal practice/jam sessions behind the stage and along the perimeter of Boarding House Park. Cash prizes and trophies will be awarded but contestants must follow these rules.

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!

Get out the sunscreen . . . and your camera

Festival season is in high gear. Massachusetts abounds with the movements, colors, and sounds of traditional music, dance, and festive celebrations. Cultural pride is on display. Our two interns, Signe Porteshawver and Ellen Arnstein have been attending and documenting festivals throughout the Commonwealth since June. We are processing their fieldwork and adding content to the Celebrations theme of our website. New entries include the Albanian Festival in Worcester, the Lowell African Festival, Saint Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, and HONK! We are also mining past fieldwork and adding festivals previously documented to the site. Below are some images attesting to the enormous amount of energy, resources, and artistry people devote to sharing their culture with insiders and outsiders alike.

Interns help document Massachusetts festivals

I’m delighted to have two energetic interns working with me this summer. Ellen Arnstein is on the verge of completing the BFA program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Signe Porteshawver is entering her junior year at Tufts University. Since late May they have been researching and working on compiling a comprehensive list of ethnic, folk, and agricultural festivals in Massachusetts. In addition to attending and documenting selected festivals, they are also adding their fieldwork findings to the “Celebrations” theme of our website. Below is their first guest blog post:

Every other year, St. Mary’s Assumption Albanian Orthodox Church in Worcester hosts one of the area’s largest Albanian festivals. Over a three-day weekend in mid June, St. Mary’s welcomed many of the areas 15,000 plus Albanian residents, as well as many other visitors from within and beyond the state. As interns for the Folk Arts and Heritage program, we came across the Albanian Festival in our research of Massachusetts’ public celebrations. We had the pleasure of attending this year’s festival as both visitors and fieldworkers, along with over 20,000 other attendees, taking in various aspects of Albanian culture. Along with other festival-goers, we enjoyed homemade traditional Albanian food – including some delicious leek pie and some smoky lamb kebab – while listening to traditional and contemporary Albanian music spun by recent Albanian immigrants, DJ Andrea and DJ JT.

One of the most exciting parts of the day was watching the folklore dance troupe, comprised solely of young congregation members, who choreograph traditional Albanian dances to perform at the festival every other year. The festivities all took place outside of the beautiful St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, whose walls are covered in magnificent icons written by Albanian iconographer Dhmitiri Cika.

We’re excited to be working with Maggie Holtzberg and everyone else at the MCC, and look forward to occasionally sharing our work as guest bloggers on this blog. When we’re not attending festivals around the state, we’re researching and compiling an annotated list of all public celebrations in MA that we can find, working towards a comprehensive festival listing for the state, and to add to the MCC and MOTT’s Worldfest. Please check out our ever- updated Google Calendar – and be sure to let us know what we’re missing!

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: or 617-973-8509

What a cool tradition!

About 500 people took part in the annual South Boston tradition of plunging half-naked into the freezing waters of Dorchester Bay to ring in the New Year. The L Street Brownies is one of the oldest polar bear swims in the country. This year, the temperature was only 13 degrees; factor in the windchill and it’s hard to imagine how people do it. Swimmers were given extra courage by a bagpipe band made up of players from the local firefighters and engineers unions.