Lowell Folk Festival: A Celebration of Cultures

August 6, 2008 Updated: August 7, 2008

Event Preserves and Revitalizes Traditional Folk Crafts

LOWELL, Mass.—With prices skyrocketing all around, it’s hard to imagine finding anything free these days, let alone a music festival. But billing itself as the country’s largest free folk festival, the Lowell Folk Festival is three days of outdoor music and activities, and by far one of the best takes of the year. In its 22nd year, the festival takes place over much of downtown Lowell with six stages, numerous food tents, craft booths, art displays, games, and family fun.

“It’s one big block party!” exclaimed one visitor upon seeing the throngs of crowds in the streets and the line of people waiting to board a historic trolley car at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center on Saturday. The festival, held this year July 25–27, opened on Friday evening with a parade.

By the mid 19th century, Lowell had become the second largest city in New England and a major American industrial center with its thriving textile mills along the Merrimack River, which attracted many immigrants seeking work. Now the fourth largest city in Massachusetts, it is a melting pot of cultures and is known for its ethnic diversity.

The Lowell Folk Festival is a celebration of the traditions and customs of the city’s varied populations, which draws visitors from across the country. The music is international with bands coming from other countries as well.

Musicians are “folk” musicians in the true sense of the word, giving audiences a taste of traditional musical styles and sounds from their countries of origin. In addition to popular American genres such as gospel, blues, soul, and bluegrass, there were authentic performances of Tibetan, Greek, Balkan, Indian, Portuguese, Cape Verdean, Celtic, Quebecois, and Native American music—just to name a few.

The festival’s ethnic food display is also a big draw for visitors. Volunteers from local community organizations, churches, and social groups prepare a wide assortment of traditional dishes for the public to sample. Proceeds are donated back to community organizations, charities, parish groups, scholarships, and programs.

The Armenian Relief Society, for example, provided stuffed grape leaves, lamejun (sometimes referred to as “Armenian pizza”), and losh kebab (or lamb patties on a skewer) among other delicacies.

The group, according to The Sun’s publication about the event, raises money for local as well as overseas causes such as Armenian summer camp, scholarships, and resettlement. Another group, Celebration of Life, touted during intermission at one of the stage shows for its chicken curry, says money goes toward supporting orphanages in Jamaica.

This year, craft demonstrations featured artists from Massachusetts who are dedicated to preserving and revitalizing traditional folk crafts. These artists are also featured in “Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts,” an exhibit currently on display at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington.

Over a dozen master craftspeople displayed their creations as well as their tools, and explained in detail the processes handed down through generations. Bob Brophy, one of the artists working in the tents set up along the city’s canals, carves waterfowl decoys using traditional hand tools—many of which he made himself, he explained. He said that it didn’t take a lot of tools to carve a decoy and described how he uses each of the tools he had on display. And Carol Kostecki held a captive audience as she demonstrated how to draw designs on eggs as part of the Polish tradition called “pysanki.” Children couldn’t keep their eyes off the brilliantly colored, intricately patterned painted eggs of various sizes that were on display.

Cambodian ceramics artist Yary Livan, now living in Lowell, is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s persecution and murder of Cambodians during the 1970s. He is, in fact, “the sole survivor of his generation of artists trained in traditional Khmer ceramics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh,” according to biographical notes on the festival Web site drawn from the “Keepers of Tradition” catalog. His display included many pieces of pottery, both glazed and unfinished, in the exotic shapes and traditional colors of his country’s ancient heritage.

Although the Lowell Folk Festival is over for 2008, the artwork and traditions by these masters can still be enjoyed for many months to come, in historic Lexington, Mass. The “Keepers of Tradition” exhibit runs through Feb. 8, 2009. (See www.massfolkarts.org for more information.)