An excerpt from the chapter about the Lowell Folk Festival in my forthcoming book, Mill Power: The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park, which will be available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers in September. The book was produced in collaboration with the National Park Service. Here is a sketch of activities at the 2011 festival.—PM
. . . Each edition of the Lowell Folk Festival offers surprises. Veteran attendees reminisce about the instantly classic appearance by teen-aged Alison Krauss or the flying Celtic feet of Michael Flatley before he starred in “Riverdance.” Reviewing the 25th anniversary festival in 2011, Boston Globe arts writer Stuart Munro reported that he was “bowled over” by the surprising performances of the Boston-based Debo Band with guest singers and dancers from Fendika of Ethiopia. At the Dance Pavilion in the park parking lot behind Market Mills, Debo and friends likely softened the asphalt under the wooden dance floor with their super-hot, funky jazz-inflected Afro-pop sounds. They had hundreds of people moving every which-a-way and clapping on-and-off rhythm under what felt like a revival tent. Big blasts of golden horns, peppery runs on accordion keys, drumbeats that thumped in chest cavities, driving guitar licks, and jet-powered singing—all this from 15 artists making one grand sound.
A person wants to see something new when walking around the festival, whether a close-up view of a man carving a wooden duck decoy or a different brand of banjo playing. When Fendika’s lead singer, Melaku Belay, ecstatically shook in place at the climax of one of the group’s towering numbers, most of those gathered around witnessed something new. It was “eskista,” a traditional trance-dance of Ethiopia whose moves are the roots of breaking and popping—and the Harlem shake. He was like strawberries in a musical blender revving at top speed. When he peaked he just stopped and threw his arms wide. Everybody was spent.
Fendika had CDs for sale, but a plastic disc would not transmit anything close to what the crowd had experienced. The “live” aspect of the festival is the winning ingredient. The Quebe Sisters might make for pleasant listening on Prairie Home Companion radio waves, but a person has to lean on the black-iron fence at 1824 St. Anne’s churchyard to soak up their harmonies for full effect. The same goes for The Rhythm of Rajasthan performers with their lush music from northern India and the gospel-singing Birmingham Sunlights of Alabama, both of whom enchanted audiences at Boarding House Park against the brick front range of the Boott Cotton Mills at the 25th festival.
The festival has become as much a delight for “foodies” as for music fans. At the Foodways Tent in 2011, Dorothy “Dottie” Naruszewicz Flanagan of Lowell and Carol Matyka of Boston taught onlookers how to make a favorite Polish-American food, pierogi or pierogis (because nobody can eat just one). Popular at Christmastime, they are on the menu in all seasons. These dumplings can be filled with cabbage and sauerkraut or a mixture of cheese, onions, and potatoes. “Every culture has its own version of this food, like Italian ravioli, Chinese pot stickers, and empanadas,” Matyka noted. Other specialties included Pennsylvania Dutch chicken corn noodle soup, cold Cambodian noodle salad, and Jewish noodle kugel: the topic was “pasta and noodles around the world.” . . . .