July 23, 2009

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Food and folk
Lowell hosts nation’s largest free folk fest
By Katie Beth Ryan music@hippopress.com

It may seem ironic that Lowell, Mass., a city so closely associated with the gritty Industrial Revolution, has as its motto “Art is the handmaid of human good.” But art, industry and cultural diversity have made interesting bedfellows along the banks of the Merrimack, and together they form the centerpiece of the 23rd annual Lowell Folk Festival, to be held July 24 through July 26 and billed as the nation’s largest free folk celebration.

Contrary to what its name may suggest, the festival isn’t a guitar-and-banjo or Peter, Paul and Mary-esque affair. The city, the site of the 1987 National Folk Festival, takes a more holistic approach to the term “folk,” integrating the many different ethnicities that have settled in the city over the last century into the three-day festival. Besides the musicians traveling from Boston, New York and Louisiana to perform on the festival’s six stages, culinary delights and folk art representing many different ethnic traditions will be the star attractions. All told, the festival costs more than $1 million to produce, and the festival’s trustees depend greatly on the generosity of the local business community.

“Even with times being what they are economically, things are great,” said Art Sutcliffe, a Lowell native who serves as the chair of the Lowell Festival Foundation. With the help of the National Council of Traditional Arts, organizers were able to bring in a broad range of artists who will perform on six different stages downtown.

“The strength of their roots in traditional music, year after year, brings together a phenomenal lineup,” said Sue Andrews, director of communication and collaboration at Lowell National Historic Park. Highlights of this year’s festival will include New Orleans jazz master Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band; and the Lucky Stars, who specialize in Western swing and honky-tonk. Two separate parades will accompany the performances, a Friday night kickoff parade at 6:40 p.m. that will start in front of Lowell City Hall, and another on Saturday that will begin at 7:10 p.m. at the Ladd and Whitney Museum. A flag-raising will precede Friday night’s parade, with nations from Cameroon to Cambodia represented.

“We’re really looking forward to bringing as many as we can for a great ceremony,” said LZ Nunn, the executive director of Cultural Organization of Lowell (COoL). “We’re happy to have such a wealth of Lowell’s cultural representation in the festival.”

Over the past two decades, the festival has also become noteworthy for its culinary offerings. Pauline Golec, the festival’s ethnic chair, said that in 2008 alone, 16 vendors spent more than $89,000 and 14,000 hours preparing and serving food. More than 6,000 pierogi were sold by the Polish groups, the Greek community managed to sell 1,500-plus pieces of baklava, and the Lao United Church of Christ has on average sold 2,000 egg rolls per year. Golec said that the vendors are doing more than just serving delicious delicacies.“They’re also helping to preserve a culture, and that’s such a vital part of the festival,” she said.

Also contributing to the enhanced cultural life in the city are traditional artisans and craftspeople. They’ll have their own place to tell their stories with the Keepers of Tradition exhibit in the festival’s Heritage Crafts area. This year, the area will feature everyone from Cayoni Joseph Johns, believed to be the last Muskogee Indian wood carver in the country, to Dick Clarke, a retired union sheet metal worker from the Dorchester area of Boston. There will also be Art in the Courtyard, a farmers’ market of sorts for artists in the Market Mills courtyard. Millie Rahn, a longtime folklorist who serves as a curator for the festival, said that the Lowell Folk Festival is a model for other cities looking to highlight their cultural diversity.

“Everything comes together in Lowell, because Lowell is the hub of the universe in late July,” she said.

“Whether people were the first wave of immigrants to come here or the most recent, we try to represent everyone.”

But of all the cheerleaders for the festival, few are more prominent than Sutcliffe. Having worked on each festival since the national festival was held in Lowell, Sutcliffe has become somewhat of a goodwill ambassador between the festival and the greater public.

“I don’t get paid a dime for this, but I love it because it’s Lowell. Lowell is what makes the festival.”


Capoeira Luanda. See them at the Market Stage at noon and 1:45 p.m., St. Anne’s at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and the Boarding House Park at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday. Photo Michael G. Stewart.

2009 Lowell Folk Festival
When: July 24-26. Friday begins with a dance parade at 6 p.m., and concerts on two stages from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday performances are noon to 6 p.m. on six stages and 7 to 10 p.m. on two stages. Sunday performances are from noon to 7 p.m. on six stages. A family activity area on Shattuck Street is open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

Where: Follow “National Park Visitor Center” signs into downtown Lowell, Mass.

Admission: free (but bring money for food and merchandise); parking in all garages is $10 all day during the festival

Food: Look for Armenian, Asian, Jamaican, Indian, Greek, Filipino, Latin, Portuguese and Middle Eastern eats. A listing of food vendors with menus and locations is available at the festival’s Web site.

Info: 978-970-5200, www.lowellfolkfestival.org

On the schedule: Here is the schedule for some performances for the three-day event. Check the Web site for last-minute changes and a map.

• Friday, July 24
Boarding House Park: Parade with Glen David Andrews Band, 6:40 p.m.; Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars (klezmer)     7:15 p.m.; Sierra Hull & Highway 111 (bluegrass), 8:15 p.m.; Yomo Toro (Puerto Rican cuatro master), 9:15 p.m.

Dutton St. Dance Pavilion: Trudy Lynn (blues and soul), 7:15 p.m.

• Saturday, July 25
Boarding House Park: Niamh Ní Charra (Irish), noon; Yomo Toro (Puerto Rican cuatro master), 1 p.m.; Genticorum (Quebecois), 2 p.m.; Sierra Hull & Highway 111 (bluegrass), 3 p.m.; Dr. Michael White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band (Traditional New Orleans jazz), 4 p.m.;  Parade with Glen David Andrews Band (New Orleans R&B and brass band), 7:10 p.m.; Niamh Ní Charra (Irish), 7:30 p.m.; Dr. Michael White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band (traditional New Orleans jazz), 8:30 p.m.; Trudy Lynn (blues and soul), 9:30 p.m.

JFK Plaza: The Lucky Stars (western swing & honky tonk), 12:15 p.m.; Sierra Hull & Highway 111 (bluegrass), 1:15 p.m.; Forman Orchestra (Polish polka), 2:15 p.m.; Yomo Toro (Puerto Rican cuatro master), 3:15 p.m.; The Brotherhood Singers (African-American a cappella gospel), 4:15 p.m.; Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars (klezmer), 5:30 p.m.

Market Street Stage: Capoeira Luanda (Brazilian capoeira), noon; The Brotherhood Singers (African-American a cappella gospel), 12:45 p.m.; Luanda (Brazilian capoeira), 1:45 p.m.

Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars (klezmer), 2:30 p.m.;

Maeandros Ensemble (Greek), 3:45 p.m.; Picked Strings Traditions with Yomo Toro, Mavrothi Kontanis (Maeandros Ensemble), Sierra Hull & Clay Hess (Sierra Hull & Highway 111), Jeremy “JW” Wakefield (The Lucky Stars), 4:45 p.m.

Lee Street Stage: Genticorum (Quebecois), noon; Maeandros Ensemble (Greek), 1 p.m.; Sana Ndiaye (Senegalese ekonting) 2 p.m.; Two Fiddles & The Sugar River String Band (Old-time New England barn dances), 3 p.m.; Accordion Traditions with Niamh Ní Charra, Eddie Forman, and Patrick Farrell (Klezmer Brass All-Stars), 4 p.m.; Alash (Tuvan throat singing), 5 p.m.; Sana Ndiaye (Senegalese ekonting), 12:15 p.m.

St. Anne’s Churchyard: Alash (Tuvan throat singing) 1:15 pm.; Singing and Song Styles with Trudy Lynn, Alash, The Brotherhood Singers, and Sage Guyton (The Lucky Stars), 2:15 p.m.; Capoeira Luanda (Brazilian capoeira), 3:30 p.m.; Old-time New England Barn Dance with Two Fiddles & The Sugar River String Band, 4:15 p.m.

Dutton Street Dance Pavilion: Eddie Forman Orchestra (Polish polka), 12:15 p.m.; Glen David Andrews Band (New Orleans R&B and brass band), 1:30 p.m.; Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys (zydeco), 2:45 p.m.; Samba Ngo (Congolese), 4 p.m.; Trudy Lynn (blues and soul), 5 p.m.; The Lucky Stars (western swing & honky tonk), 7:15 p.m.; Samba Ngo (Congolese), 8:45 p.m.

Street Performances (John Street & Merrimack Street): Alex the Jester, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Capoeira Luanda (Brazilian capoeira), 1:15 p.m.; Niamh Ní Charra (Irish), 2 p.m.

• Sunday, July 26
Boarding House Park: Brotherhood Singers (African-American a cappella gospel), noon; Alash (Tuvan throat singing), 3:15 p.m.; Genticorum (Quebecois), 4 p.m.; Dr. Michael White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band (traditional New Orleans jazz), 5 p.m.

JFK Plaza: Dr. Michael White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band (traditional New Orleans jazz), 12:15 p.m.; Samba Ngo (Congolese), 1:30 p.m.; Brotherhood Singers (African-American a cappella gospel), 2:30 p.m.; Maeandros Ensemble (Greek), 3:30 p.m.; Glen David Andrews Band (New Orleans R&B and brass band), 4:30 p.m.; The Lucky Stars (western swing & honky tonk), 5:45 p.m.

Market Street Stage: Sana Ndiaye (Senegalese ekonting), noon; Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars (klezmer), 1 p.m.; Big Apple/Big Easy with Frank London, Glen David Andrews, and Dr. Michael White, 2:15 p.m.; Boston Bhangra (South Asian Punjabi dance), 3:30 p.m.; Niamh Ní Charra (Irish), 4:15 p.m.; Boston Bhangra (South Asian Punjabi dance), 5:15 p.m.

Lee Street Stage: Grupo Canela (Puerto Rican jíbaro), 12:15 p.m.; Sierra Hull & Highway 111 (bluegrass), 1:15 p.m.; Banjo Traditions with Detroit Brooks (Original Liberty Jazz Band), Sana Ndiaye, and Cory Walker (Sierra Hull & Highway 111), 2:30 p.m.; Sana Ndiaye (Senegalese ekonting), 3:45 p.m.; Alash (Tuvan throat singing), 4:45 p.m.

St. Anne’s Churchyard: Fiddle Traditions with Niamh Ní Charra, Megan Weeder (Maeandros Ensemble), Pascal Gemme (Genticorum), and Alash, noon; Maeandros Ensemble (Greek), 1:15 p.m.; Genticorum (Quebecois), 2:15 p.m.; Grupo Canela (Puerto Rican jíbaro), 3:15 p.m.; Old-time New England Barn Dance with Two Fiddles & The Sugar River String Band, 4:15 p.m.

Dutton Street Dance Pavilion: Old-time New England Barn Dance with Two Fiddles & The Sugar River String Band, 12:15 p.m.; Trudy Lynn (blues and soul), 1:30 p.m.; The Lucky Stars (western swing & honky tonk), 2:45 p.m.; Samba Ngo (Congolese), 5:15 p.m.

Street Performances: (John Street & Merrimack Street): Branches Steel Orchestra (steel pan orchestra), 12:45 and 3:15 p.m.