Why not launch your day with a waking ukulele workshop? then waltz on sessions on the English bell hand ringing and South African choral music before hitting a Balkan dance part.
This year’s New England Folk Festival (April 24-26 at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School) features over 200 dance and music events over the course of a 25-hour marathon. The majority like English and Scottish dances, Italian tavern tunes, and Yiddish songs are participatory. All ages are welcome, and no expertise is needed, says Janet Yeracaris, president of the New England nonprofit Folk Festival Association. “The main objective is to actively preserve popular traditions and culture alive, bringing people together to build a common sense of community through them. “
There are loads of lively fiddling musicians, banjoists and accordionists among them. They wedge together, accompany dances, and play impromptu concerts on the lawn. Enthusiastic singers also attend NEFFA sessions on American folk classics from the 50s and 60s, Shaker songs, ballads, hymns and more. “People sing all the time,” says Yeracaris. “Anyone can join in singalongs,” and many of the dance and music activities are specially geared for beginners. (NEFFA also has weekend events and its regular Thursday Contras sessions in Concord, Massachusetts, with introductory classes before the dances.)
At the festival it is also possible to just watch. Among the dozens of performances are the popular Morris and Rapper-Sword teams. A rambunctious group, Yeracaris explains, they usually dance outside, “and heckling is encouraged.” Morris dance, dating from the 15th century, in England, typically features costumed white members sporting hats, shin bells, flowers and ribbons that perform traditional melodies. Teams of rappers and swords have emerged in the coal mining region of northeast England: five dancers in percussion shoes hold foldable ‘swords’ at both ends and move around in clever, military setups , often accompanied by a violin and a drum.
About 3000 people attend the party, most drawn to the large contra dances (similar to square dancing) and international folk dancing. Balkan music and dancing is Yeracaris’ particular passion, but popular, too, are dances from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and elsewhere.
NEFFA’s first festival was held in 1944, as an extension of the weekly square dances at the YWCA in Boston, in part as a means of alleviating wartime duress and fostering cross-cultural understanding. A fiftieth anniversary story records 24 dance performances, including those reflecting local and regional ethnic communities linked to Ireland, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden, many of which still attend NEFFA today.
This year Yeracaris will teach Bulgarian village dances and an introduction to international folk dance. She also sings with Zdravets, a Boston-area Bulgarian band whose repertoire includes songs taken from field recordings. The haunting polyphonic sounds exemplified by followers of old traditions, like Trio Bulgarka, have a haunting purr quality coupled with harmonic intervals unfamiliar to many Western listeners. He projects an inistent immediacy that “hits to the heart,” says Yeracaris. “I can’t explain what – it is that resonates in the human ear that feels like it resonates in the human soul. “
For those who enjoy rhythmic and familiarly rhythmic American music with the violin, NEFFA’s many counter-dance sessions are the center of attention. The dances originate from 17th-century English, Scottish, and French styles: appellants lead couples in patterned movements – do-si-do, butterfly whirlpool, promenade, in fixed formations – without prescribed footwork.
folk dance, Yeracaris declares, is a natural, safe and joyful form of human contact. “Bringing people together to play music, dance and sing – participate, hold hands, be face to face – these ‘old’ traditions keep something primitive alive and bind us together in powerful ways,” she says. “And that seems to be an antidote to much of what is seclusion and digital about the world we live in. ”