Thursday, July 25, 2013

Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Endangered Language Speakers Just Want to Have Fun.

Yiddish fiddler and folklorist Michael Alpert described participating in the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival as  being in "Bob Heaven" and he wasn't far off the mark. Aside from the Hungarian folk tradition focus, the festival also featured areas on Black American dress and adornment in "The Will to Adorn" theme area, and on endangered language groups in the "One World, Many Voices" focus of the festival. Having worked with language revival linguistics for many years, it was an amazing experience to wake up and have breakfast with some of the last 20 speakers of Bolivian Kallawaya languge,
Kallawaya women
or with a dozen of the speakers of Passamaquoddy, a Wabanaki language from Maine, while comparing breakfast choices among several groups of native peoples from Columbia (they like fruit for breakfast) and the Transylvanians (who decided that the low fat skinless turkey sausages were "breakfast mici.") Istvan Jambor "Dumnezo" and Dezso neni often shared a table with me (yes, he is the fiddler who inspired the name of this blog.
The original "Dumnezo"
It means "The Lord" in Romanian, and aptly describes his job as bandleader in Szaszcsavas: he tells you what to do, and you do it.) Then everybody heads out to the air conditioned shuttle buses to get to the festival site on the national Mall. Washington DC was in the midst of a heat wave, which meant nothing to the Waayu indians from Columbia, who were always dressed for the heat.
How to beat the heat, Waayu style.
The Hungarians tended to wilt a bit in the heat, not surprising given that many were dressed in heavy embroidery or even wool shepherds cloaks, but luckily the festival set out iced water and huge fans backstage in most of the participant areas. In one program, the Will To Adorn area sent over a designer of African American ladies' hats to discuss fashion. Her talk was as much a carefully honed sales pitch as folkloric event: "Ladies, this hat is called a fascinator... you can wear it anywhere... to church, to a social... it works fabulously in any color... wear it everywhere and everyone will take notice!" to which her panel companion, a maker of Hungarian shepherd hats balanced the discussion with "I make hats. My father made hats. My Uncle makes hats. My Grandfather made hats..."
Not actually a fascinator.
Among the groups I found the most engaging were the Garifuna, also known as the Black Caribs. Two emigrant groups of Garifuna from the Bronx and from LA took part in the festival. The Garifuna are the descendants of Africans who were either shipwrecked or escaped to the Island of Saint Vincent in the 1600s, merging with the indigenous Carib people and adopting much of their language and culture, while retaining elements of African culture, such drumming and religion.
Garifuna drummers.
They were transported by the British in the late 1780s to the coast of Central America where they have settlements in Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala, from whence they have emigrated to North American cities for work. Most are trilingual in Garifuna, English, and Spanish, and being on the bus with these guys was a blast: imagine being on a bus full of Jamaicans who suddenly speak Arawak (Garifuna is a mixed language with a predominance of Arawak vocabulary, since Carib was the men's language and Arawak the women's. Ruben Reyes, a Garifuna language activist, spent a lot of time with the Columbian Arhuacos making comparative Arawak word lists and even gave me a lesson in basic Garifuna verb morphology.
Garifuna party band.
Like I said: Bob heaven.) Among the endangered language groups who were represented at the festival were native American groups like the Wabanaki, represented by mostly Passamaquoddy people from Sipayik (Pleasant Point, Maine.) Passamaquoddy was at the point where the language was still spoken by the older generation but was not being learned by children, until a project was begun to introduce immersion schooling and produce a Wabanaki dictionary. The language is now beginning to produce new competent speakers among the younger generation who will  have the opportunity to learn from those who actually grew up in the language.
Blanche Sockbasin, Passamaquody speaker and basket weaver.
While I have done a lot of reading on Eastern Algonkian languages, until I sat on a bus surrounded by the Passamaquoddy I had never heard it spoken. Another language presented was the Siletz Dee-ni language of Oregon and northern California. When the Siletz tribe's reservation and federal Indian status was terminated by the US government, members of the community worked to preserve what they could of its language and culture. With recognition by the BIA, they began a language revival program which is beginning to produce a new generation of competent speakers.
Siletz Dee-ni members
Since there was no generation of older speakers to mentor them, however, the younger users of Siletz Dee-ni found new contexts in which to communicate in their language: they begin to send text messages to each other in it. Closer to (my) home, Yiddish language and culture was represented by the An-Ski Ensemble from New York, consisting of my good friends Rete Rushevsky, Ethel Raim (both of the New York Center for Traditional Music and Dance) Michael Alpert and Jake Shulman-Ment, presenting an older klezmer tradition alongside Yiddish song.
An-Sky Ensemble
I did one concert with them as a cross-program with the Hungarian program, but this is a group that needs to record a CD as soon as possible. you rarely hear Yiddish music done as well in an informal context, and with such verve and such yikhes (look it up) as this. Possibly the most successful case of language renewal among american indigenous people is that of the Hawaiians. Hawaiian suffered greatly during the 20th century, until a generation ago it was barely spoken in the home by any but the older generation, and the only place still raising children in the Hawaiian language was on the restricted island of Ni'ihau and nearby Kaua'i.
Hawaiian party at the hotel
By setting up language nest immersion schools while there were still young speakers, Hawaiian language activists have managed to arrest the loss of the language for at least another generation, but, as educator and musician Kalehua Krug told me "there are only about 50 households in all that speak Hawaiian every day all the time. That's not much." Among other things, Krug was able to show me a few tips on how to play slack key guitar riffs on the ukulele.
Kalehua Krug
By early evening everybody headed back to the hotel and the daily after party that began at 9 and ran until... dawn in most cases. The Hungarians tended to open the evenings with a dance house, which often brought local Hungarians and folkies along to dance and chat.
Pubi and Florin play Palatka
The Folk Music society of Washington DC sponsored the parties, offering free snacks and cheap beer - much welcome in a Marriott hotel with hotel priced beer. On the second day, while the Hungarians were winding down, the Garifuna showed up, borrowed a drum from the Mexican Zapotecs, and set the room on fire with a long set of drumming and singing. It drew the Hungarians in to dance with the African Maroons from Palenque, had the Zapotec flute players jamming along, and sure enough the ultimate party hounds - the Kalmyk Mongol women - joined in doing their birdlike dancing to the beat.
Palenque meets Garifuna


Des said...

That was great to read, Bob, you lucky sod! Bob Heaven sounds like a fun, fascinating place!

David Marjanović said...

That... sounds... awesome.

Anonymous said...

Well unfortunately the Hungarian musicians were nowhere near winding down when the drumming overtook the ballroom. The musicians, including the entire Heveder band, Kiscsipas and Szalonna were in the middle of an awesome Kalotaszegi set when they were abruptly stopped by the drummers. Then they packed up their instruments and left the room. Granted, Hungarian folk musicians could easily play till 4 AM and other participants in the event wanted to party too, but the drummers could have easily waited another 10 minutes, instead of barging in in the middle of the set. That seemed rude to me.

The saddest part was the very last night of the festival, when musicians such as Kiscsipas and Kodoba Florin had to play outside in the hallway, as the main room was once again taken over by drumming. At least this time, hotel security did not order them to stop like they have before:)

Alina Tudoriu said...

Finally, now I understand why you call yourself Dumneazu!
I always wondered about that...

- Sorry, for the off topic comment (I'm just too excited, to finaly decipher the biggest mystery of your bloggland).

It's a misunderstanding:
"The Lord" in Romanian, is actually "Domn", or Domnul (the literary form), and the regional Transylvanian form is Domnu'.
And the modern meaning of the word "Domn", is Mister (as in Mr. Bob), not lord or ruler, as in the Medieval period.

The word "Dumnezo", is actually the Transylvanian form of the literary word "Dumnezeu"!
And "Dumnezeu" is the Romanian word for God! (the equivalent of Yahweh, Allah, etc).
Dumnezo and Domnu, sound similar, but have very different meanings (but again, some people refer to God as "The Lord", adding to the confusion...)!

I'm not religious, and avoid reading religious stuff; but your blog is not religious, (and I read it regularly); yet you are calling yourself, and naming the blog , with the most religious word in the Romanian vocabulary...
Very confusing (for me)!
Sorry for the off topic comment.

Alina Tudoriu
(a faithful Romanian reader from Transylvania).

Anonymous said...

A little clarification on Jambor Istvan's nickname: It came from his father, who was nicknamed "Dumnezeu" in HIS day, simply because he was a able to do everything, not just musically. The nickname stuck.

One of my favorite musicians for sure,

Ludasi Karcsi said...

I had already gotten the Dumnezeu-connection, but now I get the meaning - I thought it was tongue-in-cheek. And the situation reminded me of a folk festival in my own home town near the North Sea, in the late-eighties, when Hasur Janos, the rest of Vizöntö and bands from Egypt, Brazil, Poland and elsewhere were waiting for a parade which never happened because of the rain - instead it turned into the most ear-piercing, multilingual musical jam ever.

Alina Tudoriu said...

Ludasi Karcsi, everybody who knows Romanian, will instantly recognize the Dumneazu->Dumnezeu connection (and probably assume a misspelling or mispronunciation of our word for God)!
No mystery here.
The real question is the motivation behind such an unusual statement (I'm God Almighty).
Honestly, the tongue-in-cheek explanation never occurred to me.
Religious nutjobs are unfortunately a common site around here, and my tendency is to assume the worst (wannabe cult leader, egomaniac, psychiatric case); but he seemed like such a nice guy (secular, funny, smart, talented... etc).
Very confusing contradiction for me!
Alina Tudoriu.

Chara said...