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Musical Connections Podcast: A Virtual Trip Around the World

Maggie Holtzberg, Folklorist

Johnny Nichols, Jr.
Johnny Nichols, Jr. performing as part of the Revels’ Musical Connections series

Over the last year Mass Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program collaborated with Revels on Musical Connections, a salon concert and companion podcast featuring six tradition bearers.

With Revels’ Spring 2020 season cancelled, producing virtual programming was a way for them to stay connected to audiences, while supporting performing artists. My role was to help select six tradition bearers and host the podcast.

It was a virtual trip around the world, with local musicians as my guide. A cross-cultural music lesson in tuning systems (western scales, Arabic maqam, and South Asian ragas) on which all melodies are built. And an opportunity to explore the cultures in which these music traditions arose and continue to evolve.

Listen to the podcast – episodes touch on traditions such as:

Beth Cohen playing Turkish Tambur
Beth Bahia Cohen playing Turkish Tambur. Kathy Neustadt, a folklorist contracted by Mass Cultural Council to do fieldwork, interviewed podcast guest Beth Bahia Cohen 20 years ago. Re-reading the transcription of that interview was great preparation for my conversation with her. Photo: Kathy Neustadt, 2001.

The series offers an insider’s view of the kind of situations in which traditional music is shared within families and close-knit communities — the soirees and kitchen parties of Franco-Americans, the weddings and bar mitzvahs of Syrian Jewish family gatherings, and the baby naming ceremonies led by West African Djelis.

I knew most of the featured performers through previous field research, our grant making via Artist Fellowships and Traditional Arts Apprenticeships, producing concerts, and emceeing at the Lowell Folk Festival. But I also learned new things: I got tips on how to get an auditorium of 7th graders to pay attention to a musician performing unfamiliar music, wearing unconventional dress; why it would not be cool to show up at an Irish music session with a large piano accordion, like Tom Pixton’s Guerrini; and how players of microtonal music in Middle Eastern and Asian traditions have a lot more colors in their crayon boxes to play with than in western traditions.

Working on the podcast was a lifeline, especially during a pandemic year, when travel was prohibited, and in-person interviews were not possible. It was also uplifting to see performances being professionally filmed and artists and production staff paid during a time when performing in public had essentially stopped.

It has been a treat partnering with Revels on their Musical Connections podcast series. The collaboration enabled us both to further our missions where they intersect – identifying, documenting, and promoting traditional artists and the cultural communities to which they belong – connecting diverse cultures and communities through the arts.


Johnny Nichols Jr

Spirituals and Stories with Johnny Nichols, Jr.

Josée Vachon

Josée Vachon: The Traditions of Quebec and Acadia

Karim Nagi

Karim Nagi: Arab Future Folklore

Balla Kouyaté

Balla Kouyaté: The Legacy of the Balafon

Tom Pixton

Tom Pixton: A Short History of the Accordion

Beth Bahia Cohen

Beth Bahia Cohen: A Life Story Through Strings


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