July 24, 2008

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World of folk in Lowell
Weekend fest brings 25 bands plus art and food
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

The Lowell Folk Festival isn’t like your typical folk festival found in the United States. Sometimes it might not even seem like a folk festival. It might sound like a world music festival. And it might taste one like one too.

Twenty-five bands are scheduled to play at the three-day festival that starts Friday, July 25, and ends Sunday, July 27. It’s billed as the largest free folk festival in the country, and there will be 15 different food vendors serving a variety of ethnic food, from Thai to Lao to Middle Eastern to soul food, all served on biodegradable plates. Add to the music and food traditional craft demonstrations, family activities and an art show.

While it’s a free folk festival to the public, it’s far from a free event.

“It costs about a million dollars to put the extravaganza on,” said Art Sutcliffe of the Lowell Festival Foundation. “It’s a job every year to get the money for this.”

And they do make the money up in a variety of ways, some entertaining, like the Bucket Brigade. These are folks who walk around with buckets with Mardi Gras-style beads to give to the public in exchange for donations, and organizers hope to bring in at least $30,000 in donations over the weekend. “We have 22,000 beads,” said Barry Pearson, who heads the Bucket Brigade division of the folk festival.

But most people show up for the music. At a media event last week, the organizers, which include the Lowell Festival Foundation, the Lowell National Historical Park, the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau and the City of Lowell, a sample CD was distributed. Each track has completely different music, and the musicians are from all over the world. The purpose of the Lowell Folk Festival is to bring traditional arts to the people, which means bringing artists who are not in the mainstream but are quality musicians nonetheless.

While many folk festivals, like the Newport Folk Festival and the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, tend to focus on the folk traditions in United States from the 1950s and ’60s with a focus on singer-songwriters, the Lowell Folk Festival is much different.

“Traditional arts is what we’re showcasing,” said John Marciano, who works for the National Park Service and is in charge of programming the music for the festival. “It gives folks things to see that they normally wouldn’t be able to see.”

The musical acts will play on six stages in the downtown Lowell area. On Friday, the music starts as the parade ends at 7 p.m., and it finishes at 10:15 that night. On Saturday, music commences at noon and runs to 10 p.m., and on Sunday, music starts at noon and concludes at 6 p.m. Each act is completely different from the next one. Biographies and sample sounds are online at www.lowellfolkfestival.org.

The Jerry Grcevich Tamburitza Orchestra brings the native music of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and other areas of the former Yugoslavia. The Tamburitza is a string instrument that Jerry Grcevich, who was born in the United States, learned from his father and uncle, who were composers and studied in Yugoslavia with Janika Balaz, a famous tamburitza player.

Balla Kouyaté plays the balafon, the West African ancestor of the marimba, xylophone and the vibes, among others. Since Kouyaté moved from the West African country of Mali in 1996, he’s toured heavily in the United States.

The Réveillons! bring the traditional sound of the French Canadians, sounding similar to the Cajun music of their relatives in New Orleans. The band is headed by brothers David and JeanFrançois Berthiaume, who have carried the family tradition for music. It’s a dancing music, and David sings and serves as a dance caller.

Puerto Platas, now based in Denver, brings the music of the Dominican Republic. At 84 years old, he stills sounds young, singing and playing guitar as he learned from his family, keeping the tradition alive when the music was repressed in the Dominican Republic under the 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Last year, he released the critically acclaimed album Jujer de Caberet.

One of the better-known of the bands is the Skatalites, one of the early founders of ska music in Jamaica.

There will also be traditional Americana music, from the likes of Henry Gray, a blues and boogie-woogie pianist, and Sam McClain, who brings the blues. The Whitetop Mountain Band is an old-time string band from Virginia. The Redd Volkaert Band with Cindy Cashdollar will be here from Austin, Texas; Volkaert is called the “telecaster guru,” and Cashdollar the “First Lady” of the steel guitar. And there will be polka music, traditional Tibetan music and Greek dance music.

And it’s all free. For us at least.

Art in the Courtyard
Art in the Courtyard, yet another piece of the large and intricate web of the Lowell Folk Festival, brings in a variety of artists in many media. It’s the third year for the Art in the Courtyard. There are 25 artists who will exhibit their work at the shady courtyard of Market Mills and Dutton Street Dance Pavilion starting Friday night and showing through Sunday. Among them will be jewelers, photographers, illustrators and painters. There will be face painters — but it’s a different kind of face painting than one might find at a regular festival, according to organizer Eileen Byrne. “It’s like painting a mask,” she said.

Brush Art Gallery and Studios and Arts League of Lowell are helping to produce Art in the Courtyard.

Traditional crafts
There is a traditional crafts component to the Lowell Folk Festival. All the craftspeople are from Massachusetts, and all the artists were profiled in the recent book Keepers of the Tradition, an eight-year study of the traditional crafts produced inside Massachusetts.

“Some do hand work that dates back hundreds of years, while other use cutting-edge technology to envision or make the final product,” according to a press release.

Carlos Santiago Arroyo, a caver from Amherst, Mass., will show small word carvings that demonstrate the classical style of Puerto Rican santo carving, which was popular in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Harold Burnham demonstrates the world of boat building — he is an 11th-generation wooden boat builder. His ancestors arrived into Essex, Mass., in 1635. Essex had 15 shipyards during the mid 1800s.

Jeanne Fallier will demonstrate her work hooking rugs, a trade that her grandmother passed to her. She not only has produced countless rugs, but also designs patterns, and writes and lectures about rug hooking.


Family activities
From noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, a family activity area will be open on Shattuck Street. The city’s parks and recreation department, along with the Revolving Museum, will offer “inspiring” and “unique” activities and exhibits. There should be the world’s biggest pencil, after the Revolving Museum found itself with 30,000 pencils. “What do you do with 30,000 pencils?” asked Jerry Beck of the Museum. He posed the question to the kids. “Their answer: the world’s biggest pencil.”

There will also be a ball-toss carnival game, a doll sculpture area and various other projects.

Ethnic food
All the food sold at the festival is made by nonprofit groups that have worked at the festival for years, and the money made from the food goes back to help fund projects by those groups. There are 15 different food vendors this year, offering Middle Eastern, Portuguese, Polish, Lao, Asian, Thai, Greek, Jamaican, Philippine, American and soul food at various locations in the festival.

Volunteer
It’s not like volunteering for this festival will get you in for free, since it’s free already. But there is always a need for volunteers to help out, and the festival will gladly take same-day volunteers — though if you call in advance, they might love you even more. Call (978) 275-1740, or e-mail lowell_NHP_volunteers@nps.gov.

General information
The party kicks off with a parade starting at 6:40 p.m. on Friday, and music starts at 7 and runs to 10:15 p.m. Friday night. Saturday, music runs from noon to 10 p.m., and on Sunday, noon until 6 p.m. Some stages shut down earlier than others.

The parking garages in Lowell are charging $10 to park for the day. There is also public transportation, but it’s difficult to access without taking a circuitous route. The festival encompasses downtown Lowell. Follow the signs to the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, 246 Market St., Lowell, and you’ll arrive at the festival area. There is lots of info on the Web site, www.lowellfolkfestival.org, or you can call (978) 970-5200.