This past Saturday afternoon, a capacity audience enthusiastically welcomed the Brooklyn Arts Council’s HALF THE SKY Festival: “The Sweetest Song: Women’s Traditional Song Sampler.”
And what a sweet and soulful songfest it was!
BAC’s events, expertly curated by Folk Arts Direct Kay Turner, are always a vibrant trip through the incredible diversity that is our beloved Borough of Brooklyn.
Saturdays’ all-women’s a cappella vocal concert
was emceed by noted singer and folk music scholar Ethel Raim, co-founder and Artistic Director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance (DTMD), one of the nation’s preeminent traditional arts organizations serving New York City for the past four decades.
The concert included love songs, wedding songs and lullabies – indigenous and folksongs – Balkan, Taino/Dominican, Jewish Yemeni, Yiddish (Jewish), Hindu, Indian and Palestinian music – all sung beautifully by American and foreign born women; artists, mothers, daughters – who in addition to being active members of their communities, devote their lives to learning and preserving their traditions. And we lucky New Yorkers had the pleasure of experiencing a nutritious taste of the beauty and depth of their cultures.
The receptive audience at the Brooklyn Central Library’s Stevan A. Dweck Center
was focused and especially attentive, in part because we shared the excitement of a live recording – but much more so because each one of the singers grabbed us by our kishkas (guts) with her passion and authenticity.
As you can see from my photos, performers in the afternoon event donned brightly colored, often traditional, garb – which pleased the eye (and inspired me to rush home after the concert to add even more beads and creative style to my colorfully wrapped hairdo).
Appearances aside, it was each performers passionate dedication to her particular culture that came through and affected me profoundly.
Bringing us Balkan Song, Eva Salina Primack the first performer, set the tone of intensity for the afternoon, singing two Bulgarian tunes, immediately plunging the audience into the group-felt realization that we were indeed collectively involved in a deep and meaningful cultural experience.
I could feel Taino/Dominican singer, storyteller and folk music collector Irka Mateo’s determination and strength as her powerful voice literally vibrated through her small frame and out into the capacity filled auditorium. Irka performed a popular religious song – a mix of Catholic and West African Traditions – accompanying herself on the Balsie, a drum that women play. The other song was a work song performed a cappella sung by women in Agricultural endeavors.
Muna Abdelaziz from El Bireh Palestine and her accompanist sang zeffah – a procession of singing, clapping, percussion and sometimes dance, which traditionally accompanies a bride from her house to that of the groom and on to the festive wedding party.
As the audience joined in the hand clapping, there came a point where we wondered if the song was going to end … but it went on and on and on … and, there came a moment where something shifted. The energy in the air changed – there was laughter – a transformation in group-consciousness.
We began to get a sense of what it would be like to be there in that procession, where time slows down to the “now” of experience and we were freed to truly participate – handclapping and joyous laughter filled the air as we imagined ourselves walking, dancing and clapping as celebrants.
When I heard Muna Abdelaziz sing the low-slow field work song – I couldn’t help but wonder and marvel at what it would be like to live in a culture where I actually sang while I worked – how different from NYC life that life would be!
Shoshana Tubi accompanied herself a frame drum, with her daughter playing the tin plate, alternately slapped with her hand and tapped with a spoon. Sounds as familiar as my pots and pans clanking together in my kitchen.
Of course, during the lullabies there was no need to understand words. It was easy to slip into the soft, soothing care of mothers’ voice singing across cultures to their beloved babies, rocking them gently to sleep.
The Yiddish lullaby sun by Amanda (Miryem-Khaye) Seigel was a fun, upbeat tune accompanied with pantomime to illustrate areas of the babies’ body. I recognized only a few words, including “kepeleh” (head). But the sound of that single word sent me flying back in time to my own mother’s soothing.
My mother would hold me when I was injured and with a sing-song rocking motion, she’d intone: “bubeleh shayna, my zeesa tayda, my little shayna medela – She has a pain, she has a pain in her poor little kepeleh.” (Little grandmother or little doll, beautiful girl, sweet thank you, or gift – she has a pain in her head.”) Substituting the proper injured body part to fit the my bump or bruise.
When I grew older, I sang that song again and again to my lovers, drawing out the Yiddish words and exaggerating them, making up my own sing-song melody.
For those of you who regret missing a wonderful afternoon, never fear – lovers of beautiful heartfelt, traditional music – music that is grounded in the earth and the heart – the “BAC HALF THE SKY – Brooklyn Women in Traditional performance Festival” continues, thankfully, into the second week of June.
For future attendees and for those women in the Sweetest Song audience who wished we’d all gotten up out of our auditorium seats and on our feet to dance in the wedding procession, be forewarned – the closing party will be Bachelorette Bash!
Hosted by Ayla Bakkalli the Bachelorette Bash will take place on Sunday, June 10, 2:30 – 5 pm. It’s a party and workshop for women that will explore wedding traditions practiced by various immigrant cultures in Brooklyn.
The evening will include learning about wedding arts such as Guyanese kweh-kweh songs and marital instruction with Rose October and Verna Walcott-White, Yemeni wedding songs with Shoshana Tubi, Algerian wedding dress traditions with Naima Ammi and Crimean Tatar songs and comedic pre-wedding skits with Uriye Kermencikli and her daughter Dinara. Henna artists Omneah Hamdi and Suhair Mohammed will create designs for participants, and wedding food specialties will be served.
I’m sure if the energy is right and the audience is ready – we’ll get up and dance – I know I will! So I urge you to come and join in!
The Brooklyn Arts Councils Traditional Arts program provides an incredible opportunity for New Yorkers to witness and intimately interact with a variety of cultures. We have a unique opportunity to experience celebratory rituals, haunting melodies, complex polyrhythms, and inspiring words. And most importantly – to learn from and celebrate with our fellow and sister Brooklynites.
By attending these BAC sponsored events, we have the unique opportunity to feel the women of the worlds’ cultural offerings in our very bones. BAC presents the beauty, the struggle, the daily lives of those cultures that surround us interpreted by the strong women at the center who dedicate themselves to preserving what is essential to their identities. This is the tapestry that makes Brooklyn such a fascinating and vibrant place to live – brought to us by the Brooklyn Arts Council for our education, connection and enjoyment.
All who appreciate the traditional arts, and those interested in experiencing a true multi-cultural sampling of worldwide women’s culture, check this festival out! I’m sure that the HALF THE SKY FESTIVAL will continue to be a fascinating beautiful and rewarding experience!
And as an added attraction – all BAC Festival events are free or very low-cost … We’ve really no excuse to miss these great offerings … I’ll look forward to seeing you there!
Judith Z. Miller
Artist Soul Speaks