"Folk art" is a term that terrifies many urban dwellers. Utter those otherwise harmless words in the company of your big-city friends and images of crudely painted farm scenes and hand-sewn rag dolls will leap almost telepathically from one troubled cranium to the next. Misconceptions about the true definition of folk art abound, so for the past twenty years researchers from historical museums and cultural agencies throughout Florida have sought to settle, once and for all, the meaning of the words.
Their conclusion, pending continued investigation, is offered in "Florida Folklife," an exhibit on display through January 3, 1999, at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in downtown Miami. (It then travels to Orlando, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Tampa.) The exhibit attempts to highlight the sometimes subtle artistry of folk art and the personal touch that people from all backgrounds attach to their tools and other basic possessions. Items on display include sponge-diving helmets and frog gigs, shrimp nets and boat sails, saddles and ceremonial dresses -- all objects with deep significance to the various groups of Floridians who craft and use them in their daily lives. And that's the key: Almost all the items are as functional as they are aesthetically pleasing, and nearly all are used in the everyday world of their makers.
Music plays a part in that world too. "Florida Folklife" showcases a sampling of musical instruments vital to some of the more distinctive groups who call Florida home. The Caribbean is well represented, as would be expected, with musical devices such as shiny Trinidadian pans (steel drums); double-headed Afro-Cuban bata drums and gourd shekeres; and beautifully colored, carved Haitian Vodou drums. Guitars, violins, gut-bucket basses, and other, more exotic string instruments are included in the display. Rattles and bagpipes and animal horn shofarot are also featured. All the instruments are handcrafted -- often by the musicians who use them. And if they were not at the museum, all would regularly resonate with the sounds of music at gatherings public and private.
"One of the main messages of the exhibit," explains Dr. Stephen Steumpfle, the museum's Folklife Program coordinator and a music historian, "is that these are all objects made by people who are working today. A lot of times when people hear the words 'folk' or 'folklore,' they conjure up old-timey, antiquated stuff that's either no longer practiced or is just practiced in a revivalist form. With maybe one or two exceptions, all of these artists are living and working today, and all of these traditions have some kind of significance within contemporary communities. We really wanted it to feel and look contemporary."
Steumpfle and the museum staff decided the best way to celebrate the contemporary aspect of the exhibit is by hosting a special concert at the museum Saturday, October 24, which they've dubbed the South Florida Traditional Music Festival. Guest performers will play a variety of musical styles representative of those found in Miami and South Florida.
"The music in the festival does not necessarily originate in this area," says Steumpfle, "because, basically, what does originate in South Florida? This is a very recent city, and almost everybody is from somewhere else. All these traditions have been brought in from somewhere else. Even the Seminole came from somewhere else. They're not indigenous; they were descended from the Creek peoples of Alabama and Georgia. So what does it mean to talk about traditions in South Florida? In most cases, it means traditions that were brought here from somewhere else but have taken root here and become part of community life, and that are still evolving."
To present a cross-section of the region's musical and cultural influences in the music festival, Steumpfle booked groups with diverse backgrounds. Featured performers include Wheels of the World, a bluegrass and country group; the St. Agnes Progressive Marching Band, a New Orleans-style jazz band; Irish fiddler James Kelly and Friends, who play Irish instrumental music; Jan Sebon! Kazak and Friends, who will perform Haitian and African roots music; and Marty Galagarza and Friends, who will play Latin jazz and traditional Latin music.
"The idea is to present music that's happening around here but is not that well-known," he says. "There is a bluegrass scene in South Florida, which a lot of people are not aware of. And Irish music is not a major part of life in South Florida, unlike places such as Boston, Philadelphia, or New York, where you have vibrant, community-based Irish music scenes. But James Kelly is an internationally known Irish fiddler. He has recorded many, many LPs. He's one of the most respected Irish fiddlers in the world, and he lives in Miami. Other than occasional appearances at JohnMartin's on Miracle Mile, he spends all his time playing in Ireland and northern U.S. cities. He rarely plays South Florida, so here we have this great musical resource in town, and most people don't know he lives here."
Most of the performances will take place in a room in the museum. Concerts previously held in the museum lobby were acoustic "disasters," according to Steumpfle. One group, the St. Agnes Progressive Marching Band, will appear in the courtyard in front of the museum.
"Most of the fellows in the St. Agnes Band are of Bahamian background -- some are African American -- and in a lot of Caribbean cities, as well as in places like New Orleans and Key West, you have marching bands that have played in polyphonic styles for decades," Steumpfle explains. The group, founded in the 1930s, is based at St. Agnes Episcopal Church in Overtown and is composed of musicians ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies.
Latin percussionist Marty Galagarza has performed at the museum before (in last year's "Caribbean Percussion" exhibition), and will play rumbas, a traditional style often confused with the big band mambo. "The rumba is a traditional Cuban percussion music played on congas or sometimes on cajones, which are wooden boxes that you sit on and slap," Steumpfle continues. "It's a style that remains popular in Cuba and in places with a large Cuban population, such as Miami or New York. In New York you hear it a lot in the parks, but our park system here is not conducive to music making."
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Another artist also featured in the 1997 "Caribbean Percussion" exhibit is Haitian musician and Miami resident Jan Sebon!, formerly of the group Koleksyon Kazak, who painted several of the gorgeous Haitian Vodou drums (built by Ton Ton Laguerre and Ti Wouj Senatus) seen in the "Florida Folklife" exhibit. Steumpfle elaborates: "Younger people with college backgrounds got interested in Haitian folk music and started doing interpretations of that to express political statements. With Koleksyon Kazak, Sebon! worked within that framework, but also drew on African and Caribbean music traditions and blended them all together. And he lived here in Miami the whole time."
For Steumpfle, the eventual blending of various musical styles such as those presented at the South Florida Traditional Music Festival is a most interesting possibility. But he points out that the Miami area is still too young for that intermingling to have progressed far: "You might expect more blending than there is. One of the things I've noticed about Miami in the few years that I've been here is that it's a very fragmented city. A lot of musical styles continue to exist within a particular cultural community but don't become well-known outside that community. For example, there's a huge Colombian music scene. There's the Haitian scene. There's the Bahamian junkanoo, the Trinidadian steel bands, and the tassa groups, and other forms of East Indian popular music. All these things are happening, but they don't often happen outside that particular community."
Mostly, Steumpfle blames the segregation of these musical styles on a lack of venues. "There aren't as many spaces in the Miami area," he says, "where musicians from different backgrounds can meet and become familiar with one another's music. There are all kinds of experimental-type musicians who do try to explore what's going on here in more general terms and have developed more synchronized styles of music. There are these innovators who are exploring the range of musical sounds available in the Miami area, and who are trying to come up with ways of combining them. But from what I've observed, there are far more people who are traditionalists and are just working within their community. It just takes awhile for that kind of cross-fertilization to happen. I would expect that as time goes on and there are more common spaces in Miami where everybody can go and get to know each other, more of that will happen."
The South Florida Traditional Music Festival takes place Saturday, October 24, from 11:00 a.m. till 5:30 p.m. at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W Flagler St; 305-375-1492. Admission is free.