Massachusetts Folk Art: New Immigrants Redefine Tradition

By Holtzberg, Maggie | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Massachusetts Folk Art: New Immigrants Redefine Tradition


Holtzberg, Maggie, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


HJM is pleased to present "Editor's Choice " - a new feature appearing in each issue where we highlight selections from recent works on Massachusetts history that we feel are especially noteworthy and thought-provoking.

Maggie Holtzberg, Manager of the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, is the state folklorist. This selection is excerpted from her introduction to Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts (2008), a beautifully illustrated volume that celebrates the work of a wide array of living folk artists. Traditional art, passed down from person to person within both long-settled and new immigrant communities, involves the shaping of deeply held cultural values into meaningful artistic forms. Keepers of Tradition presents material drawn from eight years of intensive field research by folklorists at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. HJM is pleased to be able to share their innovative work with our readers.

I attended the annual Boston Caribbean Carnival for the first time in 2003. Four years later, enormous crowds gather along Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury, braving the hot and humid August weather in anticipation of a spectacle. Multiple sound systems on flatbed trucks blast calypso music, and the smell of jerk chicken is in the air. Vendors sell flags and trinkets from Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, and a number of other West Indian islands. No one seems to care that the parade rolls out two to three hours past the time advertised.

What the gathering crowd awaits is a succession of mas (masquerading) bands from competing clubs that dance their way down the twenty-one-block parade route. A king and queen lead each band, adorned in dazzling handmade costumes of bent wire, steel frames, fabric, feathers, sequins, and glitter. Junior king, junior queen, individuals, and sections of dancing masqueraders complete each club's entourage. The final stop on the parade route is a street stage, where Trinidadian judges observe the celebrants from a viewing station.

Many in the Caribbean cultural community live for carnival. "This is something that people do out of their hearts. It is a cultural thing from where we came from," says Henry Antoine, executive director of the Caribbean Cultural Festivities Association. More than 600,000 attended Boston's 2007 carnival. Yet outside the participating community, most Bostoniane are completely unaware that a festival of this magnitude in pageantry, beauty, and spirit takes place in their own city.

Bandleaders tell me it takes considerable time and substantial resources to participate in carnival. Preparations begin in late May and lead right up to the week of carnival. Lacking roomier facilities, most local clubs do the work of conceptualizing, designing, and constructing costumes in basements and backyards. . . . From the street it would be difficult to know that inside the basement of this house fabulous carnival costumes are constructed every year.

Similarly hidden is the Canadian-American Club in Watertown. Known by insiders as the "Can-Am," the club is housed in a nondescript brick and glass-tiled building on Arlington Street. Each month the club hosts dances, seisiüns (music jam sessions), and concerts where an older crowd goes to socialize, listen to music, and dance. Smoking is still allowed downstairs. There is a cash bar but one can also find "tea" (really more a meal of sandwiches and cake) for sale in a room adjacent to the dance hall. You never know who might drop in from "down home."1

Aside from a small sign outside the Canadian- American Club building, there is nothing to let you know what goes on inside. But if you happen by on a Saturday night and the door is open, you will hear the driving sounds of Cape Breton strathspeys and reels played on fiddle, guitar, accordion, and piano. "You hear the feet. The building practically pulses," says Marcia Palmater, host of Boston radio station WUMB.

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