Mississippi: The River of Song and more...

Smithsonian Institution
Midwestern Crossroads1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


Music of the Home and Homeland: Context and Background

       "There is something about the Greek people; everyone likes to dance," says Dean Bellos. This enthusiasm for dancing is maintained by both the elder Greek-born and the younger generations of Greek Americans who have never experienced Greek dancing outside of St. Louis. Such an ardor for dancing could be ascribed to any ethnic community where dancing extends cultural memories from the country of origin to the new, acculturated, American community life. Spokespersons for the dance groups describe a perspective that honors the homeland, maintains ties there, at the same time as celebrating the gifts of the new national identity.
        Dancing in the ancestral homeplace was more likely to have been activity integrated into sacred and secular systems, an accepted, expected, understood part of everyday routine, festivity, and religious custom. Here, the community base for ethnic dance groups is quite often church. In gathering to socialize, a revitalization of cultural knowledge occurs. People exchange information, speak a common language, practice songs and dances, and partake in familiar foods and customs of the shared heritage. In the multicultural community they build a framework for the adaptations of older cultural expressions. Language is maintained, but changed. New songs are learned from elders or those who have recently visited the country of origin, but they are sung in new contexts. Traditional clothing styles are copied, but adapted to available materials in the new home community. And old forms of dances are learned and re-enter the repertoire.
        As with the older ballad traditions of many folk groups, lyrics tell us of what the homeland looks like, why the narrator left (or was forced to leave), and the mixed feelings and hardships that go along with resettlement. Typically, love songs are part of the repertoire, as well as historical events and humorous songs. Groups perform on instruments either brought from the homeland or built or restored in an ever-enlarging network of folk instrument makers in this country. In the new performance context, facets of dance, such as stories told through stylized movement, traditional dress and symbolic body ornament, and instruments with familiar acoustics but unusual appearance, need interpretation in order to communicate the significance of these elements.
        St. Louis and Kansas City yield an abundant resource of cultural societies and neighborhood ethnic organizations. They address current social issues and occupational challenges, but music and dance traditions remain the focal point of weddings, birthdays, weekly gatherings after church, holidays, neighborhood get togethers, or all-city festivals. In St. Louis, for example, the Polka Society has over 700 members; the Irish Arts School opens classes to anyone interested in learning the music and intricate dance steps for dances, and hosts nationwide dance and music competitions. Cils occur once a month under the auspices of the Irish Arts School offering visitors a joyful opportunity to eat, talk, view the colorful costumes, and experience Irish dance and music. The success of these gatherings has generated a "mixed cil," when several times a year the pipers and dancers of the Scottish St. Andrews Society dancers and musicians join the Irish.

Program offerings:

       Huayra presents the instruments and music of Bolivia and the Andes. The band includes the panpipe-like simponia with its haunting, airy sound, strummed charangos, and driving rhythms of the bomba, bass drum. Dances and songs include traditional rural dances and festival dances that are extravagantly costumed or danced by masked characters. Dances might reveal a fusion of beliefs, such as the Bolivian dance which melds Catholic religious ideas and regional folk belief with the realities of working in the local mines, all expressed through pantomime and masks in this dance. Songs are sung in Spanish and the Andean language Quechua. Colombia Folklrico's instrumentalists and dancers present an array of colorful costumes typical of the different mountainous and coastal regions of Colombia. Costumes are constructed by one of the lead dancers and changed for each number. Stringed instruments, congas, accordion, and vocals are included in the band. Programs can include at least one dance in which the audience is invited to join.
       Mariachi Mxico moves from place to place during its performances with an ensemble of violins, trumpets, guitars, and the large bellied guitarrn. The group sings the spirited Mexican songs in three part harmony. The repertoire focuses primarily on the son jaliciense or the song form from Jalisco, but also includes romantic boleros, dramatic pasadobles, and swift huapangos.
        Tamburitza orchestras demonstrate a family of instruments. The stringed tamburitzim of different sizes and ranges are called prim, brac, bugarija, from the very small held high against the chest, to the large bellied guitar-like instruments. Presenting artists Veseli Becari and Zivili Hrvati intersperse the flowing, moving, dramatic music of the Serbian, Bulgarian, Croatian, and gypsy people with engaging renderings of the stories in English. Dancers wearing hand embroidered dresses, long white cotton stockings, and slit leather shoes accompany Veseli Bcari.
       German American traditions are presented by the immediate family and cousins of Leonard Nadler. Settling in New Melle near the Missouri River from, the Nadler family music making has carried on the evolution of German and American folk traditions since 1843. Playing on guitar, accordion, autoharp, and cello, traditional as bass, they sing and present typical dances passed down from generation to generation. Dancing, ever important in this tradition, is encouraged. Presenting artists: The Leonard Nadler Family Band.
        Art Treppler and his buttonbox band show off colorful and ornate accordions and one- two- and three-row buttonboxes. Accompanied by dancers from the St. Louis Polka society, they demonstrate traditional dances and costumes from Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovenia. The audience is invited to join the dancing.
        The Gannon Family presents the intricate footwork of Irish step dancing wearing soft leather gillies and the hard soled shoes developed to resound, but not wear out, on rough cobblestone streets. Students of the St. Louis Irish Arts School join the Gannons in presenting the dance, music, and traditional dance dress of Ireland. Applique in bright colors based on ancient Celtic designs adorns the kelly green dresses. Personal experience narratives of the Gannon's first days America in St. Louis in the early 1960s are combined with recitations, sean-ns, and some Irish storytelling. Music is played on pennywhistles, fiddles, accordion, and Celtic harp.
        Sean-ns, loosely translated from Irish Gaelic, means old style, referring to acappela or unaccompanied singing. Sean-ns repertoire of Patrick Gannon and friends includes long ballads, in the tradition of Ireland's pre-literate, sung narratives, and more modern slow airs, lively songs, and short anecdotes. They are presented in the tradition of a session, or in Gaelic, sessun ceoil, a semi-public gathering where music and fellowship are shared as family and friends sit in a circle, each taking turns introducing and performing a piece of music, song or story.
       The men and women of the ten-member ensemble The Hellenic Dancers of St. Louis dance in traditional dresses, aprons, and gold jewelry worn by the women and knee-high leather boots and white blousey shirts by the men. Dances represent older folk dances from regions in Greece, Turkey, and the Greek Islands. Using recorded music, the group illustrates the distinctive instrumentation of regional bands. Although some Greek dances require a large amount of athleticism, the group strives to present older, traditional dances rather than their showy, modern offshoots. Audience may join in a final set.
        Dances of India presents a contrast of folk and stylized classic dances in colorful garments made of cloth from India. The folk dances tell stories and make humorous use of masks. Facial expressions, an important component of Indian dance, are explained by Asha Prem, dancer and director of the group who also gives interpretations of the symbolic characters in the stories. In this way she links dance with basic characters and functions of folk stories.
        Kansas City based El Grupo Atotonilco emphasizes participation by students and young adults. They stress education and strive for members to excel at school as well as on the dance stage. Director Maria Chaurand teaches dances she learned in Mexico and yearly brings teachers in from Mexico. Energetic, skillfully executed dances show various regional dance styles of Mexico. The dance group performs for local festivals such as the "Cinco de Mayo" celebration in Kansas City.

Home | The River of Song Project | The Artists | Music Along the River | Calendar | Teacher's Guide | Press Room | The Store
© 1998 The Filmmakers Collaborative and The Smithsonian Institution, all right reserved
River of Song HOME the River of Song project the artists music along the river calendar teacher's guide pressroom store