musings from boston

screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

The Haudenosaunee Tradition: Chris Thomas and His Smoke Dancers

Chris Thomas & His Smoke Dancers - all photos by J. Stoller

Chris Thomas & His Smoke Dancers – all photos by J. Stoller, except where noted

If you want to see what can happen when you let the Great Spirit move you, check out the The Smoke Dance of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nation. This dance is characterized by lightning fast footwork and it’s considered one of the most popular and dynamic competition dances at Northeastern pow-wows. Chris Thomas, one of the current masters of the smoke dance and one of its most celebrated ambassadors, uses his performance to teach people about Haudenosaunee history and culture.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as “People of the Longhouse”) comprises Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk and Tuscarora nations of central and upstate New York. “Iroquois” was actually the name they were given by French Jesuits. Thomas is a member of the Onondaga Nation Beaver Clan.

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Haudenosaunee ceremonial dances have spiritual significance, and as such, they are reserved for members of the tribal community. However, social dances like the Rabbit and Old Moccasin dances can be performed in public, and they’re seen in competitions. The smoke dance is a newer form that was developed in the last century. It may have roots in the War Dance, though some day it mimics clearing out smoke from the longhouse.

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The way one learns Haudenosaunee dancing is by watching and then participating, building one’s own style within the framework of the traditional dance, its costume and singing. Thomas learned in this way, attending shows and pow-wows, where he eventually became a competitive dancer.

His stepfather Bill Crouse, of the Seneca tribe, introduced him to dance and taught him to sing. Many of the songs Thomas presents are in the Seneca language, which is closely related to Onondaga. He regularly performs with his performing troupe, made up of members of the Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca Nations, as he teaches the public about the rich culture and history of the Haudenosaunee.

Chris Thomas - photographer unknown

Chris Thomas – photographer unknown

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Yamini Kalluri & the Carnatic Ensemble Bring Kuchipudi Dance to Western Audiences

Yamini Kalluri - all photos by J. Stoller

Yamini Kalluri – all photos by J. Stoller

For a cultural tradition in a diaspora community to not only survive but thrive, there must be dedicated artists who can not only entertain, but inspire. Acclaimed Kuchipudi dancer Yamini Kalluri is an amazing ambassador for this highly complex and nuanced art form.

Based in New York City, Kalluri began a collaboration with the Carnatic Ensemble. This trio of gifted musicians are of Tamil heritage, while Kalluri is of Telugu ancestry. This inter-generational ensemble combines two regional areas of South Indian tradition to create a mesmerizing performance that delights audiences, captivates the imagination and celebrates their Indian heritage.

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Yamini Kalluri and the Carnatic Ensemble of vocalist Shaaranya Pillai, mridangam player Bala Skandan (leader of Indian percussion ensemble Akshara) and violin master Parthiv Mohan.

Kuchipudi dance comes from a village of that name in the state of Andhra Pradesh, on India’s Southeastern coast. As one of nine classical dance forms in India, Kuchipudi is based on ancient Hindu dance-dramas known as yakshagana. For 300 years, Kuchipudi was an ensemble dance form with male dancers. However, nearly 100 years ago, modern Kuchipudi was introduced as a solo dance tradition that featured female dancers.

Elements unique to Kuchipudi are an emphasis on dexterity and vigor, with the final act danced upon the rim of a brass plate. It is a dance form that is devoted to graceful, theatrical storytelling, in a vibrant traditional costume, with close interplay between the dancer and the singer. In the telling of these traditional epic dramas, through emotional clarity and delicate nuances, the tradition is made instantly accessible to a modern audience.


Yamini Kalluri performing with Chandra Rao (vocal), Sai Kolanka (violin) and Sreedharachary (mridangam)

At the tender age of 21, Kalluri is already established as a highly accomplished Kuchipudi performer, choreographer and teacher. Though born in the U.S., she grew up in Hyderabad, India, and began studying Kuchipadi dance at age seven. She proved to be especially skilled at the dance’s heightened use of abhinaya (expression), and when she was 12, she became a teacher herself. Kalluri has since performed in India, England and North America.

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YaminiKalluri01

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Himalayan Heritage Band and Nepal’s Proud Gandharva Tradition

photo by J. Stoller

photo by J. Stoller

Bostonians more familiar with the indie rock scene may not be aware of this, but our city is home to a large Nepalese community. The Himalayan Heritage Cultural Academy is at the center of this growing community, founded by master Nepalese musicians who wanted to give the traditional music and arts of Nepal a formal presence in the Boston area. The academy is also home to the Himalayan Heritage Band, an ensemble of virtuoso musicians and educators whose collective mission is to keep this noble tradition alive.

Shyam Nepali, one of the founders of this wonderful band, came from an impressive musical pedigree — one of the most prominent musical families of Nepal’s centuries-old Gandharva musical caste. Throughout history, the family earned their living as traveling musicians, composing and performing songs that conveyed the day’s news to villagers who lived in the mountainous areas. Their music was also inspired by nature and by the rural landscape. Shyam’s father and grandfather are accomplished sarangi musicians in the Gandharva tradition. The sarangi is a bowed string instrument that is carved from a single log of wood. Notes are played by touching the sides of the strings with the fingernails.

Music of the Gardharva tradition, while popular in the ’60s and ’70s, is now endangered, though through the work of the Himalayan Heritage Band and Cultural Academy, the tradition is being revived.

The Himalayan Heritage Band features Shyam Nepali on sarangi, Sushil Gautam on murchunga (jaw harp) and madal (hand drum), Ranjan Budhathoki on bansuri (bamboo flute) and Raj Kapoor on madal. Kapoor also performs the Lakhe Mask Dance, a traditional part of the Indra Jatra, a religious street festival that takes place every September in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley.

photo by J. Stoller

photo by J. Stoller

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Pharos Ensemble featuring Vasilis Kostas – Bringing to Life the Anatolia Greek Tradition

photo by J. Stoller

photo by J. Stoller

The language of music is such that, with a gifted group of musicians, you don’t even need to understand the language to be swept up in the emotion and carried far away. Such is the case with the Pharos Ensemble featuring Vasilis Kostas. Their name taken from the Greek word for “lighthouse,” Pharos Ensemble illuminates the richness and beauty of their heritage, performing highly authentic Greek traditional music. The ensemble comprises five acclaimed musicians and educators who take extensive research and training and bring this proud tradition to the public in stunning musical form.

In addition to sharing their love of Greek music, Pharos Ensemble wishes to educate and inspire young people about the values of this musical tradition, in the hope that it continues into future generations. Drawing from a wealth of history, the ensemble is inspired by the music of the Greek refugees of Anatolia. It is a heartfelt and deeply emotional music that speaks strongly of traditional Greek culture.

Vasilis Kostas, on laouto (lute), was raised in northwest Greece. From an early age, he listened to his grandfather sing every night. The gentleman became his mentor, and Kostas learned to play guitar so he could accompany him. It was through this that he developed his love of the music, which focuses on a strong melody, slow rhythm and melancholy lyrics. He performed at local celebrations and came to the U.S. to study on scholarship at Berklee College of Music.

It was during a fateful trip to Spain, where Kostas was sent to present Greek traditional music, that he discovered his true calling. While there, he met flamenco master José Mercé, who encouraged him to give up the guitar and return to the laouto. In Athens, Kostas studied with Laouto master Christos Zotos, who transformed the laouto from an instrument that accompanied violin and clarinet into a lead instrument that adapted the clarinet’s melody lines and made them its own.

Now based in Boston, Kostas is well respected in Greece and among Greeks in this country for his laouto playing. He is joined by Panos Aivazidis on qanun, George Lernis on percussion and Eirini Tornesaki on vocals, performing beautifully as Pharos Ensemble.

Pharos Ensemble: facebook | youtube

Vasilis Kostas: web | facebook | instforgram | soundcloud | youtube

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Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Spreading the Word Through Song

photo by J. Stoller

photo by J. Stoller

Do you love traditional string music? Appreciate some finely executed a capella? Look no further! If you’re a bluegrass fan and you haven’t heard of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, where have you been? With deep roots in the Tennessee-bred gospel tradition, this extremely talented and powerfully spiritual bluegrass band has released almost 40 albums in as many years. Over the years, they’ve been bestowed with many awards, and their leader Doyle Lawson (mandolin and vocals) was inducted in the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2012. But don’t take others’ words for it. Have a listen for yourself.

Lawson is joined by Josh Swift (Dobro/Vocals), Stephen Burwell (Fiddle) , Eli Johnston (Bass/Vocals), Dustin Pyrtle (Guitar/Vocals) and Joe Dean (Banjo/Vocals), and they sound like they’ve been playing together for, well, 40 years! Doyle Lawson was raised on The Grand Ole Opry and was a big fan of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. The entire family sang gospel music and were involved in various church and revival a capella groups. He taught himself to play mandolin, playing along to radio, records and TV shows.

When Lawson was 14, he added banjo and guitar to his musical toolbox, and began playing banjo professionally in Nashville four years later. He’s played with Jimmy Martin, JD Crowe and The Country Gentlemen, settling back into mandolin to accompany his tenor vocals. In 1979, he formed his own band, which he first called Doyle Lawson & Foxfire before changing “Foxfire” to “Quicksilver.”

Through the many member changes through the years, Lawson’s Quicksilver band has been, in his words, “the farm team for bluegrass.” He has tried to integrate each member’s unique talents into the band, without sacrificing their core wholesome Americana sound. One constant has been the strong inspiration and influence of gospel music on their work and lives. Lawson believes that it is his “musical mission” to bring God to people’s lives through his work. Whatever your personal beliefs are, there is no denying the deep soulful sound of this fine band.

Listen to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on Spotify or Pandora.

web | facebook | twitter | instagram | soundcloud | youtube | Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Mark 25 Years in Bluegrass

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The Bing Brothers featuring Jake Krack and their old-time tradition

The Bing Brothers' Hoedown - photo by J. Stoller

The Bing Brothers’ Hoedown – photo by J. Stoller

What’s better than an old-timey string band? An old-timey string band at a hoedown! When The Bing Brothers perform, it’s a participatory event. Hailing from Marlinton and Huntington, West Virginia, the serious jams of this 100% authentic old-time string band naturally lends itself (I would say demands) a country square dance complete with caller. Old time music is a rural American string band tradition that was born in Colonial times from the meeting of the African banjo and European fiddle. These traditional continue today in Appalachian mountain communities.


The Bing Brothers Featuring Jake Krack “Handsome Molly” live @ Appalachian Rising ’13 – by Christopher Harper

Mike and Tim Bing first played together, on mandolin and banjo, in 1974. They had grown up raising hogs, with music a key part of their lives, from singing on their family’s porch to seeing legendary Flatt & Scroggs perform locally.

They built up a large repertoire of old-time music and 40 years later, they’re still going strong. Tim has been named West Virginia State Champion on the banjo for 14 years, and Mike is founder of Allegheny Echoes Summer Workshops, teaching traditional music for 22 years. They’ve been recognized by the state for their lifetime contribution to West Virginia’s traditional culture.

Since 2002, The Bing Brothers has featured Bob Lieving on guitar and Tim Corbett on bass. Jake Krack has been their fiddler since 2010, and the band is a four-time winner of Best All Around Performer at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention. They’ve toured the U.S. and Canada, Europe and Australia, and even performed on Broadway. They’re extremely versatile, playing songs in old time and bluegrass, in addition to traditional Irish songs and ragtime pieces.

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It’s Not Because of You: Jonas Brøg and his personal struggle

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Depression doesn’t just affect the individual who suffers from it. The illness might begin on the inside, but it radiates itself outward to envelop everyone around them. Those closest to the person bear the brunt of this the hardest, as they struggle to be understanding, supportive, and above all, to know that they are in no way responsible. As Danish artist Jonas Brøg explains in his latest song, “It’s Not Because of You,”

My family has been hit the hardest when depression became part of our world. When I struggle mentally I don’t love, and I can’t be loved. On these days it’s best I’m in solitude, but thankfully I can write songs when I’m alone, and this one I wrote for my family, the ones I know I love the most. I feel the importance for them to know, It’s not because of you!

I quiet the dark, not because, settle the dust, not because
Fading to black, not because, no it’s not because of you
Walking the line, not because, little to give, not because
Losing the plot not because, no it’s not because of you

This emerging songwriter began as a drummer, playing with Sister Sledge, Roy Hargrove, Dutch bands Relax and Beef, and UK band Westlife. He also produced works by other artists, until depression hit. To make sense of what he was experiencing and to better express his feelings, he began to sing his own songs. His first release, “Tell Me Why,” which came out in the summer of last year, was his cry for help.

Music, lyrics and song production for “It’s Not Because of You” is by Brøg, inspired by quiet walks in the early morning. He’s joined on strings by Frank van Essen, and by Sven Hammond (hammond) and Kim Ormel (keys). Jonas’ wife Kim filmed the video, during their road trip through the South of Italy.

Listen to “Not Because of You” on Spotify, Apple Music or Deezer.

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rtor.org – Mental Health Resources and Addiction Resources

rtor-org_logo

Personal History and My Idea

At some point in my musings about musicians and other contemplations, I had the idea to compile a clearinghouse of resources for those suffering from mental health issues. This didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. My mom struggled with bipolar disorder for most of her life, incorrectly diagnosed until her early 50s, and it’s something we lived with as a family. My dad, while supporting her, dealt with his own anxiety and worry issues and now, I proudly carry on that unwelcomed family tradition. For those who are interested in our personal story, you can see my essay on the Depression Army blog, “Transcending the Sad Circus: Caring for Someone with Bipolar Disorder.”

Resources to Recover – Gateway to Mental Health Services

In researching for my mental health directory, which I envisioned would start with Massachusetts, where I am based, and eventually encompass all of the Northeast and then the rest of the U.S., I came across rtor.org, Resources to Recover – Gateway to Mental Health Services. They provide information about the various mental health maladies, including depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. They also have a comprehensive directory of mental health providers, by state, in addition to residential facilities, educational information, financial services and more. They have an advisory board of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, and seem eminently qualified to be doing this.

As I’m a firm believer of not re-inventing the wheel, I’ll outline what they have available, say a few words about where Massachusetts sits in the confusing sea of uneven coverage for mental health treatment across the U.S, and leave it at that. I include substance abuse and addiction treatment, since it’s often related to mental health issues, or at the least, it’s almost always linked to mental health in terms of state coverage (or lack thereof).

State-By-State Mental Health Provider Directory

If you go to their Provider Directory, type just your state into the search form and click “Filter,” you’ll get a list of healthcare providers and facilities for that state. Drilling down further gives you a profile of the person or place, along with services, focus, patient quotes — and in the case of doctors, education, certifications and payment information, including what types of insurance they accept. It’s quite incredible.

In addition to filtering on state, you can filter on provider type and client focus. You can also select “Location Search” and do a map-based search based on your address or zip code. Even better.

Mental Health Resources and Statistics by State

One very useful thing that isn’t advertised, nor can I find a place where you can directly access all of them, is that if you go to rtor.org/directory/mental-health-[your state]/ (all lower case and use dashes if you need to, like rhode-island), you’ll get a page that provides general information about the state in terms of mental health and substance abuse support.

It begins with the population, population density, percentage of adults living with a serious mental health condition and percentage of those receiving treatment. Mental health statistics are courtesy of SAMHSA, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The state’s ranking in terms of mental health access is provided by Mental Health America. There’s also brief information about Medicaid, with a link to the state website for information. The page finishes with important links for that state.

Massachusetts Mental Health Resources

If you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health or substance abuse issue, be glad if you live in Massachusetts. Though we’re at the top of the heap in terms of population density (any commuter can tell you that), we also rank near the top in providing access to mental health services. There’s a link to the Massachusetts Health Connector, the gateway to obtaining insurance according to your needs and means. They list state resources and help in finding an appropriate provider for your location and concern.

In A Perfect World — Universal Mental Health Care (and Substance Abuse Support)

I yearn for a day when people don’t have to figure out if something is covered based on where they live. The same goes for those of lesser means wondering if a condition is covered. Finding the right support and treatment for yourself, a friend or a family member, while you’re trying to deal with a mental health or addiction issue, can be a harrowing experience. However, rtor.org is admirably filling a badly needed role, in helping those with mental health and substance abuse issues navigate the jungle. I thank them for their work.

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Mangum & Company *Shouts* the Lord’s Praises

Mangum & Company - photo by J. Stoller

Mangum & Company – photo by J. Stoller

In Psalm 150 of the Bible, it says “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet.” Gospel brass shout band Mangum & Company, led by trombonist Cedric Mangum, does exactly that, and not just with a trumpet but a full-on honkin’ brass band. The musicians represent many of Charlotte, North Carolina’s United House of Prayer congregations.

These “trombone choirs” are a sacred musical tradition, and it’s truly a joyful noise that they create. The church was founded by Cape Verde spiritual leader Marcelino Manoel da Graça (a.k.a. Daddy Grace) in Wareham, Massachusetts in 1919, focused on the ecstatic experience in worship. Their all-day, all-night services were propelled by the jazz instrumentation of the time, set to traditional gospel hymns. Trombones lead the way with a central melody, with others going off on roof-raising solos. This tradition continues in more than 130 United House of Prayer congregations across the U.S.

The shout band was first introduced in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1926 and huge parades with marching bands became commonplace in the religious and cultural life of the city. There are currently almost 20 shout band ensembles statewide. Cedric Mangum began playing music early and learned all the instruments before becoming lead trombonist. At age 13, he was already leading his band, the Charlotte Mother House’s legendary Bailey Clouds of Heaven, which he still helms today. As he explains, “Our music feeds the soul,” he says. “It’s designed for the soul, and that’s what draws the people.”


Trombone Shout Band, Charlotte, NC – by HistorySouth

united house of prayer for all people | national folk festival

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Nurture

nourish

You nurtured us,
and now I nurture your memory.
In this memory I try to hold
you are young and full of vibrancy and hope
like in that photograph
I keep on my fireplace mantle.
You and dad on your wedding day,
cutting the cake that celebrates
your first day together.

The folded frame holds two photos.
In the other, you are together still,
so happy, so in love, yet older.
Bodies not as supple, bending over with the weight of the world
and from life’s difficult truths, discovered.
But your commitment so much stronger, and so sure.
Resilient against all odds.

On your wedding day in 1957
you didn’t know the darkness you would have to endure together,
as one struggled with depression
and both struggled with pain from the past.

But you faced it together.
And when I was born,
we faced it as a family
and we were stronger because of it.

We nurtured each other, through the years,
feeding each other with the emotional nourishment
we all needed to feel safe and satiated.

In the early days, you cooked for the three of us, and I helped.
We were well fed and taken care of.
But then, sometimes, it wasn’t just about preparing satisfying meals.
Proper nourishment became more complicated,
and we didn’t always know what the other needed —
And especially, what you needed, Mom.

You, the family caretaker, needed special care
that only your loving family could give.
Dad and I, in time, learned how to nurture.
After all, we learned from the best.

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