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As the folklorist on staff at Mass Cultural Council, it is my job to discover, document, and support traditional arts being practiced in ethnic communities and geographic regions across the state. I’m talking about forms of expressive culture that are locally valued, practiced, and passed on. Once identified, we support artists and communities via direct grants (artist fellowships and traditional arts apprenticeships), maintaining an archive of field research, and populating our folk arts website.
One of the highlights of the job is being able to connect traditional artists with opportunities to perform or demonstrate at concert venues, museums, and festivals, or institutions of higher education. Some of the more gratifying experiences of the job is programming the folk craft area of the annual Lowell Folk Festival, producing or brokering performances at high profile venues (e.g., the Shalin Liu Performance Center, national folk festivals, the Kennedy Center, and the Library of Congress), and successfully nominating individuals for National Heritage Fellowships. Sometimes, opportunities occur at institutions of higher education.
Last fall, several Harvard Music faculty reached out to me to brainstorm a music course in which students would engage with musicians from local communities of color who have recently migrated to the United States. The idea was for students to learn directly from selected musicians from Boston’s immigrant communities, while providing tangible support to these musicians. The proposed seminar would give students an intellectual grounding in the historical circumstances, economic and political realities, and community needs of the musicians.
They already had two musicians in mind but were looking to identify two more. I suggested two individuals who had been recipients of our Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants — Shyam Nepali, a mentor Nepalese sarangi player and Sixto “Tito” Ayala, a mentor Puerto Rican percussionist.
The course, “Social Engagement Through Music: Histories, Economies, Communities, was team-taught by Kay Shelemay, Carol Oja, Michael Uy, and Mathew Leslie Santana and supported by the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship.
It was wonderful to see the interaction between the musicians and the students.
The artists benefited from the student’s skills with technology, recording, and writing –promotional material was created, and artist websites are in the process of being developed.
The students benefited from the one-on-one time with artists represented ethnic and cultural traditions of China, Puerto Rico, Ethiopia and Nepal. They did an excellent job of presenting the artists at a culminating concert.
And what an impressive concert it was – the production levels were high, the students did such a great job introducing the artists, and the performances were dazzling.
What an uplifting example of what collaboration can bring.
This blog post originally appeared on our Keepers of Tradition blog on October 7, 2014.