This year’s Folk Festival features performances from:
King Sunny Adé & His African Beats – Nigerian jùjú
Born into Yoruba royalty in Nigeria, King Sunny Adé has spent the last 45 years defining and transforming the Nigerian music known as jújù, bringing that sound of traditional Yoruba praise music and talking drums overlaid with guitar and keyboard to audiences worldwide. That ambassadorial work comes not only from his myriad albums (he has produced dozens), but also from his live performances, which transport the energy and traditions of Nigeria to his countless fans. Over the past half century, King Sunny has lived up to his noble beginnings, a musical icon adored across the globe as one of the most recognizable names in African music. “I’ve been given flowers, been given handshakes, standing ovations. Those things, even money cannot buy it. It’s love,” Adé told NPR in 2009.
Jújù itself is the syncretic product of Western and Nigerian traditions: from church hymns to Yoruban traditional music, from sea shanties to ballads sung by musicians traveling the Nigerian countryside. Born in the early 1900s, jújù imported the sounds of ukulele, banjo, and guitar into Yoruban percussion. By the 1960s practitioners had added in lead, rhythm, and bass guitars, as well as ganga, conga, clave, sekere, and agogo. In the following decade still more came in: synthesizer, steel guitar, and vibraphone.
King Sunny Adé emerged on the Lagos scene in the 1960s as a member of Moses Olaiya’s Rhythm Dandies. Before the decade was out he had founded his own group, the Green Spots. The 1970s saw him fronting the African Beats, an enormous group including singers, percussionists, dancers, and guitarists, featuring the addition of the distinctive tone of Hawaiian steel guitar, the musical innovation that would win him the greatest accolades worldwide. Today he remains a towering figure in African music, re-emerging from a hiatus to tour internationally to great acclaim.
The festival performances of King Sunny Adé & His African Beats are presented in collaboration with the Nigerian Association of the Merrimack Valley.
Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy – Cape Breton and Ontario fiddling
Nova Scotia and Ontario, Canada
If Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, has a musical ambassador, it might be Natalie MacMaster, whose virtuosic fiddling and energetic step dancing have brought the island’s music international acclaim. Cape Breton boasts a complex, beautiful style of fiddling brought to Canada by early 19th-century Scottish immigrants. For two-plus centuries, Cape Breton players have staunchly preserved and nurtured this style, known for closely hewing to its Scottish roots. “It is very family oriented,” says MacMaster, “and passed down from generation to generation. It is in the very community, and very much a way of life.” The music, she says, “is part of how you live.”
MacMaster began playing at age nine, absorbing the music from her uncle Buddy MacMaster, a legendary Cape Breton fiddler. “I had already been singing—‘jigging’ them as we call it—and step dancing,” MacMaster explains, describing the tradition common on Cape Breton of singing syllables to imitate fiddle tunes. “At every family and community function I went to there were fiddle tunes.” She was soon playing throughout Cape Breton. Her first album appeared when she was 16; she now has eleven, and has played 100 shows a year for the last 15 years.
In 2002 MacMaster married master fiddler Donnell Leahy; the couple often performs together. They have six children, aged 10 to 1. All are immersed in the tradition, and the older four jig, fiddle, and step dance. “I work really hard trying to carry on a tradition for them by keeping my tradition going,” she says. “I want to pass that down to them.”
MacMaster is quick to explain she has adapted Cape Breton traditions during her time on stage. Cape Breton fiddlers sit when they play at social dances and other events; Natalie has subtly tweaked that tradition, standing and sometimes dancing when she plays, yet always giving a performance infused by her Cape Breton heritage. Her award-winning work—including a Grammy®-winning performance with Yo-Yo Ma—always honors her roots.
Lurrie Bell’s Chicago Blues Band – Chicago blues
Known for his rough and tumble blues sound, punctuated by elegant yet blistering guitar and gravelly, growling vocals, Lurie Bell was raised up with blues and nurtured by the blues.
Lurrie’s father was famed harmonica virtuoso Carey Bell, who played with Muddy Waters and other post-World War II Chicago blues greats. The younger Bell recalls that their Chicago home was filled with “musicians around … all the time,” including legends like Big Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim and Eddie Clearwater. “One day I picked up one of his guitars and I taught myself how to play,” Lurrie explains. “I learned by ear. Something inside of me told me: this what you have to do in your life.”
As a child, Bell was sent to live in Mississippi and Alabama with his grandparents. They were devoted churchgoers. “I listened to a lot of choirs and quartets,” says Bell. Gospel informed his early music impressions.
Back in Chicago in the 1970s he began recording with his father, and backing established stars, such as Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor. But his prodigal promise briefly flickered; personal demons knocked him off stage for a decade. Even in the depths, “the blues was there for me,” he says. In the mid-1990s, Bell re-emerged with a succession of four highly acclaimed records.
In 2007 Bell launched his own label, Aria B.G. Records. Triumphs followed. Living Blues Magazine’s Critics’ Poll has three times named Bell Most Outstanding Guitar Player and Male Blues Artist of the Year. He was a 2009 Grammy nominee for Best Traditional Blues Recording and won a 2013 Prix du Blues award from the prestigious French L’Academie du Jazz. His latest album, Blues in My Soul, is an homage to the roots of Chicago-style traditional guitar blues. He has, to date, appeared on more than 50 recordings, and toured the globe.
Savoy Family Cajun Band – Cajun
The sound of the Savoy Family Cajun Band begins with accordion, fiddle, guitar, and piano; it’s sung in Cajun French and performed by two generations of a family that joyfully lives their culture.
Cajun music is rooted in musical traditions French-speaking Acadians carried to southwest Louisiana after they were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755. There they settled alongside Native Americans, Spanish, Germans, and French Creoles of African descent, and a distinctive Cajun culture emerged. The Savoy family has been incubators, stewards, and evangelists for this culture for generations.
Each member is an award-winning instrumentalist. Marc Savoy, a National Heritage Fellow, was born on a rice farm outside Eunice, Louisiana, raised French speaking, surrounded by music; his grandfather played fiddle and legendary Cajun musician Dennis McGee was a family friend. Marc picked up the accordion at age 12; by 20 he had taught himself to build them.
Ann Savoy married into the tradition and then developed such a keen ear and voice for Cajun life she became both practitioner and chronicler, authoring Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People, Vol. 1. Marc and Ann immediately began throwing old-time boucherie parties—or pig roasts—punctuated by music. “We were … young people playing traditional Cajun music in a pretty traditional way,” recalls Ann. A founding member of the all-female Magnolia Sisters, she plays guitar, accordion, and fiddle.
Son Joel, a renowned fiddler, launched Valcour Records, an award-winning Cajun and Creole label, and has devoted himself to preserving, presenting, and playing traditional music. He headlines the Cajun Country Revival band with Jesse Lége. His brother, Wilson, a star on fiddle, accordion, and piano, fronts the Pine Leaf Boys and plays with Band Courtbouillon. Both Joel and Wilson have been nominated for multiple Grammy® awards.
The Savoy’s dedication to their roots remains all-encompassing. “We’re not performers,” says Marc Savoy. “We need people to live the Cajun culture and be Cajuns.”
Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY – traditional Sri Lankan dance
Staten Island, New York
In recent years, Staten Island’s Tompkinsville neighborhood has earned the moniker “Little Sri Lanka,” in honor of the vibrant immigrant community that has developed in this New York City borough since the first Sri Lankan family arrived in the late 1960s. Now numbering about 5,000 people, this is believed to be the largest Sri Lankan enclave in the country, known for its excellent restaurants and, more recently, for introducing American audiences to traditional Kandyan dance through the work of the Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY.
Classically trained in the Kandyan tradition, Tanya DeSilva started a dance school for young girls in her Staten Island attic in 1992, shortly after emigrating from Sri Lanka. From these modest beginnings grew the Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY, which today trains approximately 50 students in Kandyan dance and drumming traditions. Kandyan dance, one of three national dances of Sri Lanka, is a centuries-old tradition in the central hill region of Kandy. The dance developed out of a healing ritual called kohomba kankariya, which according to legend was used to rid a king of a mysterious illness. The Kandyan style is characterized by a calm, central core; intricate footwork, flowing arms, and acrobatic leaps; and a percussive, stomping beat accentuated by the jingle of the silambu on dancers’ ankles. Originally performed only by men, female dancers and teachers became integral to the tradition starting in the 1940s.
Dilhan Pinnagoda is the troupe’s current director and master choreographer. The performing troupe consists of experienced dancers ranging from 15 – 25 years old, accompanied on drums by their teachers, Dilhan Pinnagoda and the master drummer Uthpala Eroshan. “Although we were born and raised here, we’re still connected to our roots,” explains Sachindara Navinna, 18, who has been with the troupe since she began imitating her older sister at 4 years old. “Dancing has built me into a different person—it is about being humble, down to earth, disciplined.”
Rahim AlHaj – Iraqi oud
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A 5,000-year-old musical tradition from the heart of Mesopotamia lives on in Albuquerque with renowned Iraqi oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj. A former Iraqi political prisoner who made a harrowing escape from Baghdad in 2000, AlHaj’s music evokes the experience of exile and new beginnings. “The music contains the drive for the message of peace and compassion and love,” says AlHaj, a 2015 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
The short-necked, fretless, Arabian lute called the oud is central to Iraqi music. Traditional Iraqi music is organized into a series of maqamat, or modes. Each maqam has a distinctive scale made up of several pitches and specific melodic formulae, often associated with a certain mood or season. Unlike western music, which is based on whole and half tones (12 semitones altogether), Iraqi music is based on 24 quarter tones.
Studying under the legendary Munir Bashir and Salim Abdul Kareen at Baghdad’s Conservatory of Fine Arts from the age of nine, Rahim emerged as one of the world’s foremost oudists. But AlHaj’s refusal to write music in praise of Saddam Hussein got him into trouble. His composition entitled “Why,” based on a poem by a friend who was wounded in the Iran-Iraq War, landed him in prison. He was tortured and beaten. Rahim’s mother sold almost all of her belongings to fund his escape.
In 2000, AlHaj was granted political asylum in the United States, landing in Albuquerque, where he got a job as a $6-an-hour security guard. Missing his world, AlHaj rented a music hall and organized his first U.S. solo concert. It was a sell out. Today, AlHaj’s artistry receives worldwide attention. He has collaborated with the likes of guitarist Bill Frisell, sarod player Amjad Ali Khan, and indie-rockers REM. His solo work has won two Grammy® awards.
An interview with Rahim AlHaj:
Deacon John’s Jump Blues – jump blues
New Orleans, Louisiana
Deacon John Moore has spent more than a half century as one of the Crescent City’s most talented, adaptive, and beloved performers and bandleaders. Yet this New Orleans institution hasn’t ventured far beyond the Big Easy. NPR’s Scott Simon dubbed him “one of New Orleans’s best-kept musical secrets.” Moore performs everything from classic rhythm and blues and rock and roll to jazz and gospel. His great love is jump blues—an up-tempo, hard-swinging music prominently featuring a horn section that presaged R&B and rock and roll.
Moore grew up in New Orleans’s 8th Ward; his mother played piano and a grandfather played banjo. His twelve brothers and sisters played guitar, drums, trombone and viola. Church was music, but singing came from home. “My mother taught me how to sing because she said I had the loudest voice when I cried,” Deacon recalls. “She took me under a fig tree and cut my nails when I was an infant. According to Creole tradition, if you cut a baby’s nails under a fig tree, the child will grow up to become a singer.”
Deacon started singing with an R&B band in the seventh grade. In high school, he learned guitar by ear and started playing professionally. Later, Moore played in the house band of the legendary Dew Drop Inn, and then as a session guitarist in Cosimo Matassa’s storied French Quarter studio, working with celebrated producer Allen Toussaint. Deacon backed some of the major R&B stars of the day.
Today Moore fronts his own band, Deacon John & the Ivories. He was recently inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and was the first African American elected president of the New Orleans Musicians Union, Local #174-496.
“I never had a hit record,” Deacon John recently told NPR, “and I never been on tour…. I’m just one of the guys who stayed around here and made a living playing music.”
Gibson Brothers – bluegrass
Upstate New York
When you hear the Gibson Brothers—that twang of brotherly harmony, the interplay of banjo and guitar—you might think this bluegrass group gestated south of the Mason-Dixon line. But their sound is distinctly Yankee, born of a tradition that includes Joe Val, Don Stover, and others who imbued the music with a New Englander’s unique perspective. “I’m from as far north as you can be from,” says Leigh Gibson, who was born mere miles from the Québec border. “There has always been great bluegrass out of New England.”
Leigh and his brother, Eric, were born on a New York State family dairy farm, passed from father to son since the Civil War. The industry was struggling by the 1970s and the boys were not encouraged to stay. Leigh says their music is infused with “that torn guilt of not wanting to leave [our] parents, and the farm, and the birthright.” A discovered tape of Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall was a revelation; traditional bluegrass themes resonated with their experiences.
The brothers began on banjo and guitar in middle school, influenced first by country, folk, the nearby Québécois countryside, and church. “The Scotch Irish who settled Appalachia also settled Ontario,” explains Leigh. French television stations broadcast into their living room out of the Maritimes; they attended jams in Québec. Sundays were for a Wesleyan church. “The music in those churches came from the old hymnal,” Leigh recalls. It became their first stage, where their minister advised, “think about singing because words are important here.”
“Being removed from the rest of the population of [bluegrass] musicians—there was an individual sound created as a result,” Leigh says. Nine albums later, bluegrass fans have embraced this sound. They have been called “bluegrass superstars” by the New York Times, and the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) has awarded the brothers Entertainer of the Year award (twice), song of the year, and album of the year.
Debashish Bhattacharya & Family – Indian slide guitar
Both traditionalist and innovator, Debashish Bhattacharya is a virtuoso of the Indian slide guitar. He performs deeply meditative ragas as well as lighting-fast, intricate slide work on the family of guitars he invented.
Born into a family of accomplished devotional singers in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, at three years old Debashish discovered a lap-steel guitar in his parents’ house, a relic from the 1930s-era Hawaiian music craze that swept through Kolkata. “It was,” he says “love at first touch.”
Debashish began studying classical singing as well as traditional instruments including the sitar, immersing himself in the tradition of raga, the melodic frameworks for improvisation upon which classical Indian music is based. But that slide guitar drew him back; at 20, he became the first slide guitarist to win the President of India Award. Then he began a decade of study with Brij Bhushan Khabra, a pioneer in the use of guitar in Indian classical music, and the eminent vocalist Ajoy Chakraborty. At 40, Debashish was granted the honorific title of pandit (master).
Bhattacharya has created a family of slide guitars that incorporate characteristics of Indian instruments. He calls his three favorites his Trinity: the 14-string Gandharvi, the tiny Anandi (slide ukulele), and Debashish’s primary instrument, the Chaturangui. This 22-string guitar, whose name means “four attributes,” incorporates timbres of violin, sitar, sarod, and veena through the addition of both sympathetic and drone strings. The raga tradition is the departure point for his far-flung musical excursions. “My tradition is my foundation as it represents my roots,” he explains. “It enables me to be wild in terms of innovation, without losing control … to be able to play with fire in the musical sense, to live dangerously and come out unscathed.”
He will be performing with his younger brother, Subhasis, a master tabla player, as well as his daughter, Anandi, an accomplished singer and tamboura player.
Jason D. Williams – rockabilly
When Jason D. Williams sits down at the piano and pounds the keys—with his fingers, and elbows and boots—hollering about hillbillies, holy rollers, and drinking sweet wine, he declares that the 60-year-old tradition of rockabilly is alive and kicking. In the mid-1950s, young musicians from small southern towns combined blues, gospel, and hillbilly music into a mixture called rockabilly, marked by swaggering vocals and aggressive, rocking guitar and piano. With swiveling hips and outrageous stage antics, these groundbreaking artists shocked, rocked, and changed American music forever.
Jason D. Williams was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1959, at the end of rockabilly’s golden era. He started playing piano at age two, and at 16 quit high school to join rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef’s band. From LaBeef he learned hundreds of songs from blues, gospel, country, R&B, and beyond, and how they could be transmuted into revved-up rockabilly.
Williams then got a gig at Mallard’s, a bar in Memphis’s legendary Peabody Hotel named after the ducks that parade through the lobby daily. Memphis, of course, is where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison recorded classic rockabilly records at Sun Studio. And it was in Sun Studio, surrounded by the same perforated white acoustic tiles, that Williams has recorded two albums.
Though clearly influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis, Williams’s inspirations and appreciation for rockabilly’s roots run deeper. “I got some of my energetic moves from Jerry Lee,” he says, “and he’s one of our greatest entertainers. I don’t mind the comparison … because I’d mimic the way people were playing more than what they were playing. I’d watch Hee Haw and see Moon Mullican put his foot up on the piano, so I’d do that. Of course, once you do that, the comparisons to Jerry Lee come right in. But truly, it was Moon Mullican who did that first.” Now it is Williams who keeps the flame of rockabilly’s irrepressible spirit.
Plena Es – bomba y plena
In the Cuban-rich region of South Florida, Plena Es has carved a space for Puerto Rican music by emphasizing the island’s distinctive bomba y plena musical traditions, percussion-driven sounds that reflect the island’s African heritage. Founded by Pierre Ramos in 2004, the band—featuring percussion, trombones, piano, and bass—stirs up a high-energy Latin dance music that is a touchstone for Puerto Rican identity.
Bomba is the 17th-century music created by West African slaves on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations. Plena mixed bomba with indigenous Taíno Indian music, jibaro music of the island’s mountain farmers, chamber music of the Spanish colonizers and the rhyming verse of urban satirists. The result was often called “el periódico cantado” (“the sung newspaper”), due to the prominence of political commentary and day-to-day news in the lyrics. Backed by the rhythms of the panderos (hand drums), plena focuses on the story, often improvised, sung by a lead singer and chorus.
“The bomba was traditionally played in backyards and private parties,” Ramos explains. “These rhythms were considered to be low-class. The plena then went from being played in the streets, to the town plaza, and finally among high-class Puerto Rican people.”
Ramos was inspired upon hearing Los Pleneros del Quinto Olivo as a young boy; he picked up the pandero and found that plena moved him. Shortly after founding Plena Es, Ramos, who also sings, was joined by David Lucca, a conga player originally from Ponce, the region many see as the birthplace of plena. Lucca is now Ramos’s partner in the band. The mission of these pleneros is to get audiences dancing and smiling.
“The music is so up-beat and dynamic that it will move anyone that listens to it,” Ramos claims. “The singer’s interpretation and the lyrics telling those amazing stories are nowhere else to be found. The essence of the instruments, when well-performed, creates such a powerful force that it doesn’t matter where you are from, I bet you will move.”
HistoryMiami Heritage Spotlight Series:
Dennis Polisky & the Maestro’s Men – Polish polka
As they enter their third decade together, Dennis Polisky & the Maestro’s Men are regarded as one of the nation’s premier polka ensembles. The group plays a unique blend of East Coast and Chicago styles of Polish polka; members of the Maestro’s Men have extensive experience with both. Faithful to tradition, their vocals are in Polish, or translated from Polish.
Polka originated from peasant dances in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century. As Eastern Europeans immigrated to the American Midwest, Polish-American polka split into two regional styles: Chicago and East Coast. Chicago polka emerged in the 1950s, with more of a rock and roll sound and slower tempos than East Coast polka. The latter developed a decade earlier, when big bands were prevalent. Instrumentation also differed; East Coast polka boasted a larger reed or horn section. Chicago polka typically had no reed instrument.
Polisky, the group’s founder, leader, and clarinet and saxophone player, is a third-generation polka musician. “My grandfather was self-taught; he passed that to my dad who passed it to me,” recalls Polisky. “It was a family tradition in my house to have the polka program on on Saturday and Sundays.” His grandfather, a coal miner from Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, played with the Kreuger Brothers; his father played with the Menko Orchestra. Dennis got his start with Menko, then spent eight years with the Ray Henry Band before forming the Maestro’s Men, named as an homage to Mr. Henry.
The band hews closely to traditional instrumenation. “I don’t like to break away from instrumentation that I grew up with … clarinet, accordion, trumpets,” explains Polisky, eschewing electric guitar trends. Sax, bass, concertina, and drums round out the instrumentation.
The Maestro’s Men have recorded eight albums, with their ninth, Decade Two, released in 2016, commemorating their 20th anniversary. They have a Grammy® nomination to their credit, and have won the International Polka Association award for “Favorite Instrumental Group” twelve consecutive years.
Old Bay Ceili Band – Irish
Baltimore’s Old Bay Ceili Band is one of the best traditional dance bands that have been mainstays of Irish-American music in the cities of the East Coast and Great Lakes. Céilí bands reinvented traditional Irish music as lively dance music, with piano and drums anchoring the beat. The word céilí (KAY-lee) itself refers to just such a dance, gatherings where Irish set dancing—with couples dancing within groups of various formations, similar to square or contra dance—is common. Nowhere have these dances been as spirited as in Maryland.
In the wake of the folk revival, many baby-boomer Irish-Americans went looking for their own music roots and found them in kitchen “seisuns” and parish-hall dances of their parents’ generation. Maryland gave birth to two of the best baby-boomer groups: the Irish Tradition and Celtic Thunder. Now a third generation of Irish-Americans have formed the Old Bay Ceili Band, led by Sean McComiskey, playing the button accordion just like his father, the Irish Tradition’s legendary Billy McComiskey.
“It transcends generations,” claims the younger McComiskey. “If I play a tune that I learned from my dad that he learned from Sean McGlynn that Sean learned from Paddy O’Brien, it’s amazing to me that it has remained the same over generations. So many things—pop music, clothes, cars—are here for a few months or years and then they’re gone. To know that something endures is priceless.”
The band is filled out by more of Billy’s protégés: fiddlers Jim Eagan and Danny Noveck, flutists Laura Byrne and Brendan Bell, banjoist Bob Smith, pianist Matt Mulqueen and drummer Josh Dukes. The group’s name is a pun not only on the famous New York group, the Kips Bay Ceili Band, but also on the Chesapeake’s famous spice, Old Bay Seasoning.
Accompanying the band will be noted Irish dancer and teacher Rebecca McGowan of Lexington, Massachusetts. Rebecca will be joined by frequent collaborator Jackie Riley, plus several students, and also call céilí dances.
Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company – Peking Opera
Woodhaven, New York
Qi Shu Fang is still famous in China as a pioneering woman who broke the gender barrier in traditional Peking (Beijing) Opera. Though it is just one of over 300 operatic styles in China, Peking Opera is likely the best known and most widely practiced theatrical tradition in the world. Dating to at least the 1600s, it started as an exclusively masculine art form. But after 1949 women began to emerge as performers, and Qi was central in that movement. Even as a teenager in the 1950s, she was renowned not only for her powerful soprano but also for her muscular execution of the required acrobatics and martial arts. Such an unusual combination of talents was necessary, for Peking Opera, unlike its European namesake, relies as much on athletic fight scenes and dance numbers as on singing and acting.
“It’s different from European opera, because it originated as more of a folk form, a popular entertainment for all classes,” says Daniel Youd, the company’s English translator when he’s not teaching Chinese at Beloit College. “In the late 18th century, these performing troupes came to Peking to perform for the emperor and his mother, and the royalty liked it so much that they asked the performers to stay in the capital. That’s how it got its name.”
At 18, Qi was chosen by Madame Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s wife, as the female lead in Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the eight national “model opera” films produced during the violent upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Overnight she became a nationwide star, eventually awarded the title of “National Treasure of China.”
Qi and her husband (and longtime director) Ding Meikui moved to Queens in 1988 to establish the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company, which mounts new productions, trains young performers, and educates Westerners about Peking Opera. Qi was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 2001.
Spencer Taylor & the Highway QC’s – gospel
For over 70 years, the Highway QC’s have been one of the top gospel groups in the classic “quartet” tradition that married the older a cappella sound of jubilee singers to the hard-driving rhythm sections of 1940s African American gospel. The QC’s launched the careers of Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor before each crossed over into the secular realm to become R&B stars. But the group kept going without them, and recorded groundbreaking male-harmony records for Vee-Jay, Savoy, Duke-Peacock, Gospel Jubilee and A&M, discs that are landmarks in religious music as much as the hits by Rawls and Taylor are in pop music.
Cooke co-founded the group in Chicago as a teenager in 1945. When he left in 1951, he was replaced by Rawls. When Rawls left in 1953, he was replaced by Taylor. When Taylor left in 1957, he was replaced by Spencer Taylor (no relation). When Spencer Taylor left … well, he never left. Fifty-nine years later, he’s still belting out raspy-edged lead vocals over the smooth four-part harmony of his bandmates. He’s been asked to cross over to R&B but has refused.
“We’re not going,” he says, “not as long as I live…. I don’t have any hang-ups about no music. We’ve worked with everybody that has a name. We were the first group that worked with the [Edwin] Hawkins Singers. We were on Broadway in ‘Gospel at Colonus.’ We were one of the groups that worked with Mahalia Jackson. If they sing, then we’ve been with them.”
When the group nears the end of a hymn, if the spirit is on him, Spencer Taylor will signal the band to bring the volume down to a rhythmic vamp so he can improvise on the written lyrics, adding his own preaching, whoops, grunts and hollers. Against the silky background of his backing singers (now including two of his sons), Taylor will work the song until the audience reaches the same fevered pitch he has already attained.
Tarniriik – Inuit throat singing
When you hear Tarniriik, you can’t believe these two young girls are creating an astonishing array of sounds with only their voices, breathing life into a centuries-old Inuit throat-singing technique known as katajjaq. Manipulating their mouth and larynx, 12-year-old Samantha Piujuq Kigutaq and 11-year-old Cailyn Nanauq DeGrandpre produce two different tones: a huffing, lower foundation and a whistling, higher melody. The result is mesmerizing.
Though Tarniriik is based in Ottawa, the Inuit originated along the Arctic Sea. When men would depart on long hunting trips, women and children entertained themselves by competing in a throat-singing game. Two singers stand face to face, grasping each other’s arms, and engage in a friendly competition as one takes the lead and the other follows. During the playful exchange, the voiced sounds and breath of each singer combine to form rhythmic melodies that imitate sounds from nature, and the singer who stops or laughs first loses the competition. This two-tone singing tradition is practiced almost exclusively by women. In 2014, Québec designated katajjaq as its first recognized example of intangible cultural heritage.
Samantha and Cailyn met during after-school throat-singing classes at the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre. Fast friends, they began performing together, becoming an Internet sensation in Canada after demonstrating Inuit throat-singing during Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in ceremony as Canadian prime minster. They now perform as Tarniriik, the Inuit word for “two souls.”
“It was pretty scary at first,” confesses Kigutaq, who lost the first round in front of Prime Minister Trudeau, “but as soon as I realized that my best friend was with me I wasn’t really nervous…. I just go with the flow and I can barely hear Cailyn, so it makes it that much easier to throat sing.”
Despite the recent attention, the two young girls remain focused on carrying on the tradition. “When we throat sing,” says Cailyn, “I like how we’re bringing our culture back and up.”
Charlie Walden – Missouri old-time fiddle
Charlie “Possum” Walden is proof that regional fiddle styles still flourish in the United States. Both virtuoso performer and advocate for the Missouri style, Walden hails from tiny Hallsville in central Missouri. He was 14 when he heard the great old-time fiddler Taylor McBaine playing at a nearby gas station. The teenager got hold of a fiddle and started learning as much as he could from McBaine and the older man’s peers, such as Cyril Stinnett and Pete McMahan.
“Missouri fiddlers bow a lot when they play,” Walden explains. “There is a lot of alternate bowing or saw stroke employed, which makes the notes sound separated and makes the music sound lively and energetic…. Missouri fiddlers want to hear every note come out clearly and in tune.”
Slowly but surely Walden mastered this idiosyncratic style. He learned how to articulate each note distinctly, so the melody could be heard even at tempos fast enough to push the dancers around the floor. He learned the Missouri repertoire, which was heavy on Scotch-Irish jigs and reels but also included more waltzes than other regions. Soon Walden was playing house parties, dances, and fiddle contests, winning his fair share of the latter.
Just before he died in 1984, McBaine said of Walden, “You know, he’s nearly perfect.” As more of the old-timers died off, Walden became the dean of his home state’s fiddlers. He worked tirelessly to keep the style alive, playing with pianist Patt Plunkett as the duo Patt & Possum. Walden took on many students, wrote articles and gave talks, all to help Missouri fiddling keep its own identity. “I feel fortunate that I was able to experience the tail-end of an era of fiddle playing and old-time dancing which … is fading fast.”
Walden played the first National Folk Festival in Lowell in 1987. He’s back this year for the 30th anniversary—accompanied by Mike Miller, who has been calling square dances across the Upper Midwest and Northeast for 25 years.
Oi Pontoi – Pontic Greek
Tewksbury, Massachusetts and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Oi Pontoi features three young Greek American musicians who are keeping rarely heard, centuries-old sounds from isolated villages in northeastern Greece alive in America’s Greek diaspora. Diaspora communities are, ironically, sometimes the best keepers of tradition. Far from the homeland, heritage becomes more precious; maintaining traditions sustains and nurtures the spirit of family, community, and cultural identity.
The band’s members—Kostas Fetfatsidis, Evan Karapanagiotides, and Vasili Ikonomou—trace their heritage to Pontus, a region in present-day Turkey near the Black Sea. Pontian traditional music has a Near Eastern flavor, a reminder of centuries of cultural domination by the Ottoman Empire, and the connections that bridge long-contested political boundaries between Greece and Turkey and Albania. This music strikes Western ears as haunting and mysterious, recalling its remote origins.
Tewksbury’s Kostas Fetfatsidis grew up in a large Pontic Greek community in South Boston. His grandfather and father played kemenche, the Pontian lyra, while his mother’s family maintained an ornamented singing tradition called epitrapezio (“you sing it around the table”). Kostas began playing kemenche at 14. Later, he picked up the tulum—a double-reed bagpipe made from a sheep’s belly—after hearing it at dances at Boston’s Pontian cultural societies, and in Greece.
Evan Karapanagiotides and Vasili Ikonomou hail from a close-knit Greek diaspora community in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Evan learned to sing in the Laiko style, popularized in the 20th century by Stelios Kazantzidis, whose records played frequently in his parents’ home. Evan also plays guitar. Vasili’s immigrant parents instilled in him deep pride in his Pontian heritage. Surrounded by music in the community, he taught himself to play the Pontian daouli (drum). “Whenever I play,” Vasili explains, “I feel like Pontian culture flows through me and through its listeners and thus, has made me who I am today.”
Playing at weddings, christenings, parties, and events at Pontian cultural societies, Kostas, Evan, and Vasili are leaders in their diaspora communities, encouraging the next generation to maintain Pontian traditions.
Ana Laíns – fado
Ana Laíns is one of the brightest stars in Portugal’s centuries-old tradition of fado singing. She brings a bell-like clarity to this genre of minor-key laments about the hardships of life at sea, the pressures of urban poverty, and, above all, the heartbreak of romance. Like all the legendary fadistas (female fado singers), Lains aims for the experience of saudade, the feeling that one has been overcome by fate and carried away like a stick caught in the water’s current.
Often described as the soul of the Portuguese people, fado is arguably the world’s oldest urban folk music, having emerged from the bustling cafes and side streets of old Lisbon in the early 19th century. A true fadista embodies the soulfulness of this musical tradition, delivering lyrics with barely controlled raw emotion.
“People think of it as a sad music, full of sentiment, sang by nostalgic women,” Laíns says. “And that is true, but there is more to it than that. It was first sung by sailors and other men in the 19th century. Most of the times, traditional fado has no melody, and it is part of a good fado singer’s job, to improvise and create his or her own style.”
Laíns grew up in the rural Portuguese region of Ribatejo, but at the age of 19 she moved to Lisbon to become a professional singer. There she honed her skills in the traditional fado houses—small, darkened taverns where locals listen to fado over wine. She had her breakthrough when she won Lisbon’s “Grande Noite de Fado” (“Grand Night of the Fado”), the country’s top fado competition. This led to her 2006 debut album, Sentidos, which expanded the scope of fado to include international influences.
“Fado—like jazz, flamenco or tango—cannot stand still, because time doesn’t stop,” Laíns explains. “I want to keep … singing in my language of Portuguese, because I feel blessed to have been born in such an amazing country.”
The festival performances of Ana Laíns are made possible with the support of the Saab Family, and in collaboration with the Portuguese/American Cultural Exchange.
Angkor Dance Troupe – traditional Cambodian dance
In Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge holocaust of the mid-1970s, more than 90% of the country’s artists perished or fled. Dance and its associated narrative dramas, rituals, and beliefs became a way for Cambodians to reconstruct a sense of community and culture, particularly for refugees who resettled in other countries. Many came to the United States, to places like Lowell, Massachusetts and metropolitan Washington, D.C., determined to maintain their Cambodian cultural heritage.
The Angkor Dance Troupe was formed in Lowell in 1986 by Tim Chan Thou, Angkor’s founding program director, along with a small group of dancers who learned traditional Cambodian dance in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. They brought with them a strong desire to practice and perform Cambodian dance and a passion to teach others, establishing a regular schedule to rehearse the correct postures and movements.
Classical or court dance is central to Cambodian national and cultural identity, a source of pride that represents the beauty and spirituality of Cambodian people. The dance is particularly meaningful for postwar Cambodians as they work to reclaim and rebuild a treasured heritage. Many first practiced or saw the dance drama in refugee camps. For children born and raised in the camps or in other countries, it is a connection to the past and a way to experience revered ancient traditions. Folk dances, meanwhile, enable displaced Cambodians to remember their homeland and teach their children about the regional, agricultural, and social forces that shape the lives of Cambodia’s rural population. As Cambodia struggles to emerge from decades of war and poverty, traditional dance stands as a testimony to the endurance of Khmer culture.
The Angkor Dance Troupe will be accompanied by an all-star ensemble of Cambodian musicians from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland. The ensemble is led by master musicians Song Heng and Chum Ngek, a 2004 recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Aqua String Band – Philadelphia Mummers’ parade
If you’re standing along Philadelphia’s Broad Street on New Year’s Day, alternately shivering and cheering the Mummers’ Parade as it passes by for hours, Aqua String Band is sure to catch your attention. Known for originality and creativity, Aqua epitomizes the combination of grandeur and whimsy for which mummers are known. They wear outsized costumes of bright blocks of color outlined in sequins, often with giant feather plumes spouting from their shoulders. First come the dancers, repeating their elaborate, high-stepping moves—the famed Mummers’ Strut—block after block. Then come the musicians, providing the jubilant, rhythmic tunes from a massed battalion of accordions, saxophones, fiddles, banjos, and more.
Only an experience this bizarre and joyful would justify standing outdoors for hours in the dead of winter—or the year-long rehearsals and costume preparations required of band members. “The Aqua String Band is like a family,” says Captain Ken Maminski. “We work all year toward New Year’s Day, but like I always say, ‘New Year’s is one day a year, but it’s the other 364 days that make us a string band.’” For Maminski, the sense of family is quite literal: he joined as a 10 year old in 1980 after enviously watching his father in the Mummers’ Parade. Now Ken’s two young sons have joined the Aqua String Band.
Considered by many to be the oldest folk festival in the United States, the Mummers’ Parade is based on the tradition in many European countries of dressing in outlandish costumes and making excessive noise on New Year’s Day to scare away local demons for the rest of the year. The tradition took hold in South Philadelphia’s immigrant neighborhoods in the late 19th century, and the city government finally recognized it as an official event in 1901. Each year local clubs design elaborate new costumes based on a theme and compete against each other. The prize-winning Aqua String Band has been marching since 1920.
Hung Gar Kung Fu & Lion Dance – Chinese lion dance
Dating back over two thousand years, the lion dance is one of China’s most important traditions. Now associated with Chinese New Year celebrations, the dance spreads joy and prosperity. It also appears at auspicious social events like restaurant openings and weddings, where it is believed to chase away evil spirits and summon luck and fortune.
Lowell’s Hung Gar Kung Fu & Lion Dance is one of several Massachusetts-based branches of Chiu Mo Kwoon, a school founded by Grandmaster Winchell Woo, a revered figure in Boston known for teaching unforgettable lion dance performances. The school’s style originated in southern China.
Supposedly possessing mystical properties, everything about the lion’s presence is symbolic. The costume’s five colors—yellow, black, green, red, and white—represent the five cardinal directions (east, west, north, south and center) important in Chinese aesthetics. The lion walks in a zigzag path to confuse evil spirits, which the Chinese believe move in straight lines.
The lion is enacted by two dancers. One handles the head; the other plays the body and tail. The two dancers demonstrate energetic movements combined with strong kung fu stances to make the lions come alive. The head dancer moves the lion’s facial features to express moods. Three musicians accompany the lion, playing a large drum, cymbals and a gong.
“The story involves overcoming some obstacle,” explains Christopher Yee, now head instructor at the Lowell branch. “Harmony is essential for a successful lion dance—harmony between dancers in each lion, harmony between the lions … and harmony also between the musicians and the lions. There are times where the drum tells the lions what to do and then there are times the lion tells the drum what to play. The drum is the heart of the lion dance, and the cymbals and gong need to match the drum.”
At the festival, students from Lowell will be joined by students from the school’s other branches in Boston, Springfield, and Mansfield.