History of the Festival
click on the links above to jump to each page
MUSIC & DANCE
The Great Lakes Folk Festival celebrates the rich traditional folk, ethnic and tribal music and dances of the people of Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and the United States. The nation’s earliest immigrants and settlers brought the performing arts of their countries of origin with them to their new homeland, where they encountered the land’s First Nations. Each of these peoples worked to maintain their unique traditions while at the same time adapting to new conditions and a rich confluence of cultures. Those musical traditions which we think of as quintessentially “American”—jazz, blues, gospel, bluegrass, old-time, Tex-Mex, Cajun, zydeco, cowboy, and others—spring from the interaction and intertwining of these varied cultural roots. Today, renewed emigration from a wide range of nations brings new sounds and performance traditions to enrich our American cultural landscape.
The Great Lakes Folk Festival celebrates this musical legacy through performances by masters who learned their skills within distinct communities and who remain rooted in their communities. Their exposure to their performance skills is usually at an early age, learned firsthand (often within their own families), and what they perform is an integral part of their particular culture. The music program is sponsored by the City of East Lansing.
The Great Lakes Folk Festival features “Traditions Showcases,” comparative sessions on the fiddle, accordion, percussion, and French influences in traditional musical cultures represented at this year’s event. These showcases illustrate not only cultural similarities and differences, but also the process of change in musical traditions.
Howard Armstrong Trio
Boston, Massachusetts, and Detroit and East Lansing, Michigan
African-American old-time string band and blues fiddle musician
Howard Armstrong, born 1910, is one of the last practitioners of the over 200-year-old Southern string band musical tradition that has been credited with influencing the development of ragtime, jazz, and blues. Southern string bands in the 1920s and 1930s prided themselves on being able to play a wide variety of musical styles and Armstrong upholds this tradition today. His extraordinary repertoire seems endless and diverse beyond description and covers the entire spectrum of American music, including traditional “southern” style blues, Tin Pan Alley standards, old-time country ditties, folk songs from 19th century Europe, religious hymns, vaudeville, popular songs, jazz and Appalachian dance tunes.
The son of a Tennessee miner and part-time preacher, Armstrong grew up listening to the hymns and spirituals his mother played and would practice along with her adding his own blues notes. He began playing mandolin and guitar at the age of nine and formed his first string band while still a teenager. With his partner Carl Martin, Armstrong played southern coal camps and medicine shows during the 1920s. However, racism in the South prevented groups like Armstrong’s Tennessee Chocolate Drops from participating in string-band competitions or recording studio sessions. In the 1930s, Armstrong, Martin, his brother L.C., and guitarist Ted Bogan formed a new string band called The Four Keys. They moved to Chicago at the end of the decade, mingling with other blues greats of the era, making several recordings, and occasionally traveling into Michigan to play juke joints and restaurants.
After Army service in World War II, Armstrong moved to Detroit where he lived for fifty years and largely gave up performing. In 1972 he reunited with his old partners, Martin and Bogan. The group performed widely in clubs and on the folk festival circuit, including the Knoxville World’s Fair, the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife, and the Festival of Michigan Folklife. Both Bogan and Martin have now passed away but Howard continues to play with new partners, the bass virtuoso and his son Ralphe Armstrong of Detroit and swing guitarist Ray Kamalay of East Lansing.
In 1985 Armstrong’s extraordinary life and musical career were documented in the critically acclaimed film Louie Bluie, the name under which Armstrong recorded some of his albums. In 1989 Armstrong was awarded a Michigan Heritage Award, in 1990 he was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship Award, and in 1995 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Detroit Blues Society.
Rush, New York
African-American sacred steel guitar
The Campbell Brothers present “sacred steel,” a rare music tradition rooted for over sixty years in the African-American Holiness-Pentecostal church, commonly known as the House of God Keith Dominion Church. Combining African-American gospel music with electric steel guitar and vocal, this music has now begun to move from sanctuary to concert hall—including the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Symphony Space—and secular audiences are now able to appreciate a performance both devoted and rocking. The Campbell Brothers present a compelling, rich variety of material from the African-American Holiness-Pentecostal repertoire with a new twist: growling, wailing, shouting, singing and swinging voice of the steel guitar, played as you have never heard it played before.
The steel guitar was introduced into church services in the late 1930s by Willie Eason. His single string passages that imitated African-American singing and shouting voices remain the signature sound of the Keith Dominion steel guitar style. The goal of a good steel player in the church is to mimic voices, sing lines of the hymns, and provide praise music that pushes the congregation closer to feeling the Holy Spirit. The Campbells masterfully drive church services, drawing from their diverse background in other musical genres.
Pedal steel guitarist Chuck Campbell and his lap steel-playing brother Darick are two of the finest in this tradition; Chuck had been playing since 1971 when he heard pedal steel guitar for the first time. Rounding out the band is a high-energy rhythm section featuring brother Phil Campbell on electric guitar and his son Carlton on drums. Cousin Denise Brown’s smooth vocals and Katie Jackson’s classic, gutsy voice bring the ensemble to a level of energy and expression that defies description.
When they are not on the road bringing their musical ministry to audiences across the country and sometimes sharing the stage with fellow sacred steel guitar virtuoso Calvin Cook of Detroit, the Campbell Brothers perform regularly at the House of God Church in Rush, New York.
Irish fiddler and songwriter
Chicago native Liz Carroll was only 19 years old in 1975 when she astounded the Celtic music world by winning the Senior All-Ireland Championship. Since then, Liz and her fiddle have been amazing audiences around the globe. Her many recordings and appearances both live and on television and radio have established Liz as one of traditional music’s most sought after performers. P. J. Curtis of the Irish American says that Liz “conjures up a dizzying mixture of the sweetest tones, the fastest runs, and the most dazzling display of musicianship imaginable.” In 1994, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Liz a National Heritage Fellowship for her great influence on Irish music in America as a performer and a composer
Liz Carroll was born in Visitation Parish on the south side of Chicago in 1956. Her mother came from Ballyhahill, West Limerick, and he father from near Tullamore, County Offaly. Her mother’s father was a fiddler while her father, Kevin, played the accordion in the old push-and-draw style. Liz started to learn violin at the age of nine. In the resurgent Irish music and dancing scene in the Chicago of the 1960s she would hear accordion player Joe Cooley, Kevin Keegan and Eleanor Neary at local sessions. Other early influences she cites as Martin Byrne, accordion, from Mayo, Joe Shannon, born in Mayo, and fiddler Johnny McGreevy, born in Chicago. In 1974 she was second to Frankie Gavin of De Danann in the All-Ireland Under 18 fiddle championship. When, the following year, she won the senior title, fellow Irish fiddle virtuoso and National Heritage Fellowship awardee Mick Moloney observed, “I couldn’t believe anyone could be so good so young.”
Another important influence in her development has been the dance classes she attended in south Chicago from age eight to 16. While her elders enjoyed the social occasion of the session, a regular core of musicians developed around the dance classes, including Liz and flute player Michael Flatley, now of Riverdance fame.
Liz’s solo recordings have been greatly praised. The Liz Carroll album on the Green Linnet label was chosen as a select record of American folk music by the Library of Congress. That same recording was called “a milestone achievement in the career of a fiddler reaching beyond herself” by noted critic and radio host Earl Hitchner.
While Liz continues to play with Irish musicians and for Irish events in the Chicago area where she lives with her husband and two children, she is in constant demand as a performer and often teams up with such well-known Celtic musicians as Eileen Ivers, Natalie McMaster, Winnifred Horan, and Seamus Eagan around the world.
Irish traditional vocalist
In Irish singing, major song types typically fall under four categories: historic lays, fictional ballads, documentary “come-all-ye” ballads, or lyric songs (sean-nós). As singers no longer learn songs mainly from their own regions, distinctions in regional singing styles, such as syllabic stress, tone and pitch position, or amount of melodic ornamentation, have become blurred. One of the most important characteristics of Irish singing, however, is expressiveness, creating a shared feeling between the singer and the listeners, which is more important than a mechanically perfect rendition of a song. Karan Casey, among the most recognized, alluring, and original voices in Irish music, is distinctive in her expressive style in performing traditional Irish songs.
Born in the tiny town of Ballyduff Lower, County Waterford, in Ireland, Karan was, as long as she can remember, surrounded by music and encouraged to sing. Both grandmothers sang and Karan sang at home, in her church choir, and in school where she was involved in the GAA Scor na nóg competitions and then in Slógadh. She was taught classical technique by Lupeta Sheehan, and virtually adopted by the folk-singing Foran family, who encouraged her to enter local music competitions. Moving to Dublin in 1987 she studied piano and voice and in 1993 Karan immigrated to New York.
While making the rounds of the sessions of New York she was asked to join the group Atlantic Bridge and later Solas. The band recorded three albums in just four years, and won NAIRD/AFIM indie awards for each. Her five years with the Irish Solas earned her the sort of praise normally only given to venerable, long-established stars.
In 1997 Karan recorded her first solo album, Songlines, which received universal critical acclaim. Other recording projects have included: Paul Winter’s Grammy award–winning Celtic Solstice; the PBS documentary (and Rykodisc album) Africans in America with Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Bernice Reagan Johnson; Michael McGoldrick’s Fused album; the album from the TV series Tacsi; Siol, a benefit album for the Irish Seedsavers Association; and The Seal Maiden, a children’s album for the Music for Little People label.
West African kora music
Mamadou Diabate was born in 1975 in Kita, a Malian city long known as a center for the arts and culture of the Mandingo people of West Africa. Mamadou comes from a family of dyeli, traditional professional musicians who use music and sometimes oratory to preserve and sustain memories of the past. As the stories are important to many in Mali, Guinea, Gambia, and Senegal, dyelis play an important role and are highly regarded in West African communities.
The kora, a 19- or 21-string harp-lute, plays an important role in this musical form. It is distinctive to the Mandingo people, used as an instrument at court, and often played to accompany women’s and men’s singing of historical songs and praise songs. While the kora has been introduced into Malian urban-pop music, Diabate remains faithful to the traditional repertoire in which the kora is prominent. Mandingo culture retains the tradition of craft groups, or castes, who have ritual responsibilities and professional obligations, and musicians are known as griots—lending to Diabate’s nickname, Djelika Djan, or “tall griot,” also referencing his impressive physical stature.
At the age of four, Diabate began learning to play the kora from his father, Djelimory Diabate, who played in the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali. At age 15, Diabate won first prize for his kora playing in a regional competition, which led him to pursue study with his cousin, Toumani Diabate, a famous kora musician, the following year. Backing singers at neighborhood weddings, baptisms, and at performances in the local Amitié Hotel, Diabate immersed himself in this traditional instrument and the genre it accompanies.
In 1996, a touring group from the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali offered Diabate the chance to travel to the United States with a group of Mandingo musicians and cultural authorities. Following a successful tour, Mamadou decided to continue his work in the United States, and since then, he’s made his home in and around New York. Diabate gets frequent invitations to perform with visiting Malian musicians and has performed at the United Nations and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and continues to expand his abilities and repertoire.
Arab-American musician and nay maker
In the dynamic musical community of Arab Detroit, Nadim Dlaikan is highly respected as a talented and conservative defender of traditional Arab musical genres. His primary instrument, the nay (a single reed wind instrument) is difficult to master, but Nadim is an virtuoso on it.
When growing up in Lebanon, Nadim became interested in the nay at an early age when his brother brought one home. His family discouraged him from playing it, but Nadim persisted and before long made his own nay and taught himself to play it. His family eventually acknowledged his talent, and Nadim attended the Lebanese Conservatory to improve and strengthen his musical education under the tutelage of highly acclaimed musicians. When he graduated from high school and the conservatory, he moved from his village, Aley, to Beirut where he performed as a professional musician and frequently accompanied Lebanon’s best folk music and dance troupes throughout the Middle East.
In 1970 at the age of 30, Nadim immigrated to the United States and worked several years as a musician in New York City and around the country. He settled in Detroit which has the largest and highest concentration of Lebanese in the United States. After years of work, Nadim realized his dream when he quit his job, and today devotes himself completely to his music. His hobby is now his livelihood, and he plays throughout the United States as well as locally. Nadim explained, “I love the nay. It is a sensitive instrument, and I have to be sensitive to it, to play with feeling.”
In addition to making music, Nadim is the only nay maker in the United States. He grows bamboo in his back yard and makes a variety of Arab flutes. Musicians from around the United States order his instruments and send theirs to him for fine tuning and repair.
Nadim is committed to teaching people about Arabic music and reaching new audiences. He also explores ways in which Arab folk music can blend with world music and encourages local Arab musicians to use music to teach others about their culture and to expand their vision of themselves as musicians. He often is in a position of leadership, bringing together musicians for a performance. In recognition of his mastery and dedication, Nadim has been honored with a 2002 National Heritage Fellowship, a prestigious award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
At this year’s Great Lakes Folk Festival, Nadim is joined by Johnny Sarwah (qanun), Abdul Karim Badr (oud), and Suheil Warha (drums), an ensemble of some of the finest Arab musicians in the country.
David “Honeyboy” Edwards
Mississippi Delta-style blues musician
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, born 1915 in Shaw, Mississippi, is one of the few remaining original practitioners of the pre-war era, acoustic Delta-style blues. With a career that spans over seven decades, Honeyboy Edwards, along with Homesick James and Robert Lockwood Jr., carry on a musical tradition that has been called “the pure root of American music.” To cite Smithsonian Folkways, “Honeyboy Edwards embodies the continuity from blues’ Mississippi Delta roots to electric Chicago blues. Honeyboy’s string-snapping guitar riffs and soulful voice harken back to his friends and teachers Charley Patton, Big Joe Williams, Tommy Johnson, and Robert Johnson, who first forged the blues in Delta jooks and at country suppers during the Depression.”
Edwards gained his introduction to music at home and in his community. He learned the basics of guitar from boyhood friends, Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway, and from his father, Henry Edwards. “Yeah, we come from a musical family in the country. See, my father played guitar and violin and mother used to play harp. My father was a sharecropper and so that’s the only kind of music we had, guitars and mandolins and violins and things.”
At the age of fourteen, Edwards set out on the road under the tutelage of guitar wizard Big Joe Williams. During the mid-thirties Edwards worked street corners, river boats, brothels, house parties and delta juke joints with legendary blues artists, such as, Tommy McClennan, Homesick James, Big Walter Horton, Yank Rachell, Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Robert Petway and Robert Johnson. He moved to Memphis, where he played with many other blues musicians regularly in Handy Park. Edwards started his recording career in 1942 when he cut fifteen sides for Alan Lomax (Library of Congress) at Stovall’s Plantation. He then recorded for various labels in Texas and for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis.
Edwards moved to Chicago in 1953 where he recorded for Chess records and built a reputation as one of the city’s finest slide guitarists and has subsequently toured worldwide and recorded for over a dozen labels. Though he still resides in Chicago, Edwards’ style still remains firmly rooted in the Mississippi Delta. His most recent recording,” Delta Bluesman,” a retrospective of his sixty-year repertoire and career, is available on the Earwig record label.
Georgia Sea Island Singers
St. Simons Island, Georgia
Gullah music, dance, and stories
The Georgia Sea Island Singers, featuring Frankie Sullivan Quimby and Douglas Quimby with Thomas Merrell and Van Merrell, continue the rich African-American performance traditions forged among former slaves on the islands off the coast of Georgia.
Through songs, dances, and stories, the Georgia Sea Island Singers describe the world of their slave ancestors; like their slave forbears who were not allowed to have musical instruments, they sing a cappella or with only the accompaniment of rhythm instruments like the tambourine. Old spirituals and songs spoke of storms and other events in the lives of the slaves and were used as codes for meeting times and places and as messages for freedom.
The Sea Island Singers also perpetuate the Gullah language. A mixture of English and African dialects, Gullah is a language of cadence and accents, words and intonations and is unique to this region. Because slave owners wanted to know what the slaves were saying at all times, slaves were forbidden to use their native language. When their owners wanted them to speak English, they disguised it by speaking Gullah. The Gullah “shout” is a rhythmic translation of forbidden drums and the oldest of plantation melodies.
Frankie Sullivan Quimby was born and raised on the Georgia Sea Islands during the Great Depression. The oldest of 13 children, Frankie is descended from slaves on the Hopeton and Altama Plantations in Glynn County. Many of her relatives still live in the Brunswick area and on St. Simons Island. Her family, who took the name Sullivan after the Emancipation, is one of the few sea island families who can trace their ancestry back to a specific town in Africa, Kianah, District of Temourah, Kingdom of Massina, on the Niger River.
Douglas Quimby was born in Baconton, Georgia in 1936, where his family were sharecroppers earning as little as $9.25 for an entire year of work. He began singing at the age of four and in 1963 joined the Sensational Friendly Stars, a well-known gospel group. Six years later he became a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers.
Supported in part by Ten Pound Fiddle.
Lawrence “Teddy Boy” Houle
Lake Manitoba, Manitoba, Canada
Teddy Boy (as he has been known since childhood), is Ojibwe from the Ebb and Flow Reserve at Lake Manitoba, Manitoba, Canada, a community composed mostly of Ojibwe people, but also of Icelanders, French, and Ukrainians. He learned fiddle mainly by watching his stepfather Walter (who had learned from a very old Icelander), his uncles Charlie and Roderick, and neighbor Willie Mousseau. As a boy, he would sneak the fiddle from its hiding place while his parents were away since his father had forbidden his children to touch the instrument, which was a rare and valuable possession in their community. Despite his professional status, Teddy Boy says he will never play as well as his dad did. On the other hand, he believes everyone should have his or her own approach.
Teddy Boy knows over five hundred tunes, a repertoire that includes old Indian fiddle tunes and those of Icelandic origin. Much of the Indian repertoire dates from the fur-trade and logging-camp era and is greatly influenced by Scottish, French-Canadian, American and Anglo-Canadian music. His style, however, is distinctive to Native and Métis (mixed blood) fiddlers. Like many Native and French-Canadian fiddlers in Canada, Teddy Boy plays while clogging rhythmic patterns. Teddy Boy prefers the old-time way of playing of his own community. He is fairly well known throughout the prairies, plays regularly for dances in many communities, and works with traditional dance groups in the communities of Hollow Water and the Cody Reserve. Along with folklorist Anne Lederman, he spent two summers recording and learning tunes from old-time fiddlers, and has released his own album of tunes learned from his father. In addition to his skills as a fiddler, Teddy Boy is a respected healer and often speaks on Native culture and tradition.
Although this is music primarily for dancing, in recent years Teddy Boy has been featured at a number of folk festivals across Canada and the United States and at the Folk Masters concert series at Carnegie Hall in 1990. He has participated on several recordings and is one of the featured fiddlers in Medicine Fiddle, a film by Marquette, Michigan-based filmmaker, Michael Loukinen.
Supported in part by MSU Native American Institute.
French-Canadian music and dance
Matapat presents a lively assortment of French-Canadian music, from ballads to jigs, reels, quadrilles, and rondeaux, which can be heard in Quebecois homes, dance halls, and community centers. Polished, heartfelt and spirited, Benoit Bourque, Gaston Bernard, and Simon Lepage, play, dance and sing with humor and energy and are well known for their charismatic and engaging performances and their beautifully harmonized voices The three musicians introduce their songs in English but sing in French.
Benoit Bourque, one of Canada’s finest step dancers, holds an audience spellbound. Benoit also plays accordion, providing the percussive underpinnings of the band through his virtuoso bones and spoons playing and his incredible dancing feet. Benoit recorded La Gigue, a cassette and book for learning French-Canadian step dancing. Since 1980, Benoit has been the artistic director of Les Éclusiers de Lachine, a folkdance group that has gained international acclaim. He is also one of the founders of Le Carrefour Mondial de l’Accordeon, an international accordion festival where he is artistic adviser, master of ceremonies, and performer.
Gaston Bernard, a Montrealer born of Acadian parents, Gaston Bernard grew up in a large family where musical gatherings were commonplace. His earliest musical memories are of his grandmother playing reels on the harmonica while foot tapping in time. His first instrument is the mandolin, but he is equally adept on the fiddle, guitar and bouzouki and often accompanies Benoit’s dances with the traditional Quebecois style of tapping percussion while seated in a chair.
Born in Quebec City, composer/arranger Simon Lepage adds his diverse background in world music, jazz and classical as a rich compliment to the band’s unique presence on the stage. Simon’s goal, as a musician, is to familiarize audiences with Quebec’s unique culture and, in the process, pave the way for other ambassadors of traditional Quebecois folklore.
Benoit and Gaston are former members of the renowned band Ad Vielle Que Pourra and were 1990 JUNO Award Finalists. Together with Simon they will win your heart as they transport you to a Quebec kitchen party!
Supported in part by Maison Quebec and Center for Great Lakes Culture.
The Meisner name is synonymous with excellence in polka music. Steve Meisner, like his father, famed polka accordionist Verne Meisner, is a master of Cleveland-style polka which has its roots in Slovenian folk music. Since so many Slovenians immigrated to Cleveland to find work in the steel and other heavy industries, it is no wonder that this style of music has flourished in the Great Lakes area.
The Meisners are credited with influencing many bands in the upper Midwest and inspiring new generations of polka musicians. While they often play gigs together during the week as “Meisner Magic,” on weekends father and son usually play with their own separate bands.
Steve Meisner began playing the piano accordion at age five, performing soon after on stage with his father. By age 6, Steve was winning local talent contests and, by age 15, he was performing full-time with the Verne Meisner Orchestra and the New Frontier Dance Group. When he was thirteen he switched to the button accordion and began his recording career, playing on his father’s recording of “Autumn Leaves.”
The Steve Meisner Band, organized in 1978 when Steve was 17, consists of original members, cousins Carl and Rick Hartmann and Larry Sokolowski. Together, they have traveled from one end of the country to the other performing at clubs and festivals, large and small, and are currently averaging 200 engagements per year. Steve has performed with dozens of entertainers from Frankie Yankovic to Myron Floren. He has numerous recording and production credits in audio, video, and television, and has many awards for his work.
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas
Nathan Williams, leader of the Zydeco Cha-Chas, has become one of the most admired players on the zydeco scene. Born in 1963, the youngest of seven children, Nathan grew up in St. Martinville, Louisiana, deep in zydeco country. After his father’s death when Nathan was only seven, Nathan looked to and admired as a role model his uncle Harry Hypolite, who is best known as a guitarist with Clifton Chenier. Chenier was his childhood idol—Nathan used to watch Clifton play through the windows of clubs because he was too young to be admitted. Even at a young age, more than anything, Nathan wanted to play music.
Later he moved to Lafayette to live with his brother Sid. Buckwheat Zydeco, a major influence on Nathan’s career, lived across the street from Sid’s One-Stop (the grocery store Nathan’s brother owned, and where Nathan worked as a teenager). Sid bought Nathan’s first accordion from Buckwheat and Buck taught Nathan to play. All the while, he practiced the accordion in private so no one would hear him. With the aid of a friend, Buckwheat Zydeco’s Stanley Dural, and much long, hard, and dedicated practice on his accordion, Nathan was soon ready to perform publicly. Just five years after graduating from high school, he was recording 45s on his brother’s indie record label El Sid O. Nathan got his lucky break when Buckwheat recommended him to Rounder Records when Buckwheat left Rounder for Island Records. Nathan joined Rounder and his career soared.
Nathan founded his band in 1985 and the name “Zydeco Cha Chas” comes from a Clifton Chenier instrumental. His first recording, a 45, was Clifton Chenier’s Sa m’appel fou (“They call me crazy”). Of his mentors, Nathan has this to say, “You know, I’m never going to be better at doing what Clifton did, because Clifton created that, or better than Buck, because Buck created himself. But nobody is ever going to be better than me at doing my music, because I created that.” Following in the gigantic footsteps of Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan’s piano accordion styling is not to be missed.
The current members of the Zydeco Cha Chas are Nathan Williams (leader, accordion, vocals), Dennis Paul Williams (Nathan’s brother—guitarist, percussion, backing vocals), Mark “Chucky” Anthony Williams (Nathan’s cousin—frottoir), Keith “Onelove” Sonnier (drummer), and Robert LeBlanc (bass guitarist). Family is very important to Nathan—his brother Sid “El Sid O” Williams is his manager (working out of his grocery store), and his brother-in-law Clarence “Big” Calais is his road manager.
Nassau, Grand Bahama, Bahamas
Described as “a bit of Mardi Gras, Mummer’s Parade, and ancient African tribal ritual,” junkanoo draws thousands of Bahamians into the streets in the middle of the night for eight hours of music, dancing, and procession. The country’s largest junkanoo parade sweeps through the capital city of Nassau along Bay Street.
This form of celebration was brought to the Bahamas in the 16th and 17th centuries by African slaves. More exact origins are unknown, but the most popular belief is that John Canoe (pronounced jun-kanoo), a beneficent plantation owner, allowed his slaves time off to celebrate on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Thus the slaves named the celebration in his honor. Junkanoo went into decline after slavery was abolished and became all but extinct in areas of the Caribbean where it once flourished. The Bahamas alone kept the tradition alive and is now the only country to reenact it in an annual festival of national significance.
One of the most well-known junkanoo groups in the Bahamas, One Family, broke away from the Saxon Superstars in early 1993, because the group needed to expose and express its talents and creativity. In the same year One Family participated in the Boxing Day Parade. One Family is set apart from other junkanoo groups by its desire to bring people together and build community. The group regards junkanoo as a 365-day-a-year commitment, a guiding philosophy, a vehicle for economic and social change. One of the leaders of One Family, Jackson Burnside III, explained, “The spirit of junkanoo has remained constant as an abandonment of emotional restraints, a free expression of self, time to get together to celebrate our way of life and to release a whole year’s frustration. Therein lies the strong link to our African heritage.”
The music has changed little since the early days, with goatskin leather drums, cowbells and whistles, and improvised homemade instruments such as bicycle horns, wheel rims and conch shells. Traditionally, the drums were wooden barrels cut in half with goatskin stretched across one half. Nowadays they are made of metal, but the leather must still be “tuned” by burning paper or candles under the tightly stretched skin until the sound is right. In recent years, a brass section has been added, bringing junkanoo more in line with Mardi Gras and carnival. While singing is no longer part of the celebration, a number of Junkanoo songs have survived, including “A Rushin’ Through The Crowd”, “Do a ‘Nanny” and “Spare Me Another Year, O Lord.”
Supported in part by the Center for Great Lakes Culture and the Ministry of Culture, Bahamas.
Orquesta La Inspiracion
Salsa and Jazz
Established in 2000 by long-time Detroit area musician and community activist Osvaldo “Ozzie” Rivera, Orquesta La Inspiracion brings together local veterans of Latin Caribbean jazz and salsa and specializes in music derived from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and a mix of Yoruban, Congolese, and Dahomaen elements. Caribbean cha-cha, salsa, mambo, jazz, and merengue are some of the musical styles La Inspiracion performs.
Hailing from a musical family, bandleader Ozzie has been playing percussion, especially bongos and congas, on and off for over 30 years. He also currently presents Latin-Caribbean music as a program producer and host of Caribe Serenade, on Detroit’s WDTR 90.9 FM public radio station. Lead singer and percussionist Mickey Figueroa has had a distinguished career in Puerto Rico, Chicago, and Detroit, singing in Latin Caribbean bands and salsa and merengue. Musical director and pianist Bill Meyer has also led his own dance band in Detroit. Vocalists Duce Checkler and Angel Williams approach the band’s repertoire in the coro style, responding to improvised verses and choruses by el sonoro, Figuerora. Bass player Steve Backus has been performing Latin music since the 1970s. The horn section is comprised of trumpet player Bob Mojica and saxophone player Chris Kaercher, who both lend decades of experience to the band. Percussion is an essential element of traditional salsa, especially the congas and timbales, which consists o f two tom-tom drums with at least two attached bells. Conga player Dennis Schinzel has performed in a number of Detroit-based Latin and jazz bands, timbales player and percussionist Javier M. Barrios started his performance career at the age of six, and studies under Paul Rekow and Karl Perazzo, the current lineup for Carlos Santana.
Orquesta La Inspiracion, with ten members, is smaller than a more typical salsa band that has up to sixteen members, including an additional three to six horns.
The Stevens Sisters
Beth and April Stevens grew up in Hampton, Tennessee, a town of about 2,000 not far from the Appalachian Trail. Their parents, Douglas and Betty, introduced them to bluegrass and country at an early age. Douglas played in local band that often performed at the Stevens’s home. According to Betty, “There were a lot of the old traditional-style people around our house that the girls would play with, like E. C. Miller and Benny Sims. The girls got to meet them and learn from their experience.” Adds Douglas, “All the time, these girls were watching and interested. We never forced them, we just let them do it. We encouraged them.”
Beth started playing the piano at age eight and at 12, began to play banjo. Within a few weeks, she was playing the banjo standard “Cripple Creek” and within a few months made her stage debut with her father. Hazel Dickens and Emmylou Harris influenced her in songwriting and her first original song, “In The City,” was written when she was only 12 years old. Today it remains part of the Stevens Sisters’ standards.
April, six years younger than Beth, began studying mandolin at age eight. She began learning to play fiddle at age ten at which time she told her father she planned to learn a new instrument every year. In addition to playing mandolin, fiddle, piano, guitar, bass, banjo and autoharp, she also “flat foots” or clogs.
Both sisters were members of the renowned East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Band. Beth has recorded with Jack Tottle, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey and Tim Stafford (all members of Allison Krauss’ band Union Station) and has played in a band with Kenny Chesney. In 1994 and 1995 Beth was a nominee for Female Vocalist at Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) and in 1994 the Stevens Sisters won SPBGMA Gospel Group of the Year.
Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico
Arpa jarocha music
In Nahautl, one of the indigenous languages of Mexico, Tlen-Huicani (pronounced wee-KAH-nee) means “the singers,” and Tlen-Huicani sing in full-voiced harmonies, with plenty of the falsetto, common to Mexican folk song. But the centerpiece of their music is the beautiful arpa jarocha, a large wooden folk harp with 32–36 strings tuned diatonically over five octaves. Cascades of notes, quick and glistening, typify the son jarocha music tradition. Other instruments typical of this music are guitars, such as the jarana, a ten- to twelve-string guitar that ranges in size, the requinto,a four-string, narrow-bodied guitar, and the six-string Spanish guitar. Other instruments that are not as common but show the variation and ingenuity of jarocho musicians are the pandero (tambourine) and the quijada (a mule or horse jawbone). Though son jarocho is based largely around 80 individual sones, or regional genres, improvisation in rhythm, melody, and text often occurs. More than any other son tradition, son jarocho ties to West African or African-Cuban rhythmic-choral patterns, which is particularly evidenced by the style and degree of interaction between musicians, dancers, and the audience. The dance aspect of the son jarocho is also a defining characteristic of the tradition, with zapateado footwork providing a rhythmic complement to the instrumental and vocal accompaniment.
Carrying on a tradition that is over 200 years old, Tlen-Huicani was founded and is led by world famous harper, Alberto de la Rosa, who has actively continued and preserved son jarocho music through performance and the establishment of gatherings such as the annual AGI harp conference in Veracruz. Despite the commercial interpretations by other musicians, Tlen-Huicani’s repertoire represents songs played in the home regions of Tlen-Huicani’s musicians and other folk musicians of southern Veracruz, who carry on the tradition but remain unknown.
With the celebration of their 25th anniversary in 1999, Tlen-Huicani remains one of the most faithful interpreters of the traditional folk music of Veracruz. Since 1973, their music and international achievements have earned them the honor of ‘Best Folk Group in Mexico’ by the Union of Music and Theater Critics.