A celebration of Virginia music and folklife at the Library of Virginia.
Should you need to find a potent symbol of cultural heritage and resilience, look no further than the eel pot.
Brad Hatch learned how to make these intricate woven baskets for catching eels, constructed from split oak and covered with tar, from two older Patawomeck Indian tribesmen, who were said to be the last to know how to make the traditional Patawomeck fishing tool. “One of them passed before making the first pot, so that tells you something about the precarity of the tradition,” says Katy Clune, Director of the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities.
Clune, as Virginia’s official State Folklorist, oversees the VFP’s Folklife Apprenticeship initiative, which helps to keep Virginia traditions alive by pairing masters of a lost or disappearing craft or art with apprentices who can learn and forward the practice.
Hatch and other 2022-2023 program participants will be honored as part of “A Celebration of Virginia Folklife,” slated for the Library of Virginia on July 7-8. The free, two-day event will feature demonstrations, live music, documentary films and interactive displays, all designed to spotlight different sides of Virginia’s cultural heritage, but concentrating on artists and craftspeople affiliated with the Folklife Apprenticeship program. This mini-folk fest is part of the Library of Virginia’s yearlong 200th anniversary celebration.
Most people know of the apprenticeship program because of its concentration on music, but many other indigenous traditions, like eel pot making, are addressed too. Starting last year, Fredericksburg native Hatch has been training fellow Patawomeck tribal members David Onks IV and Reagan Andersen to weave these traditional fishing traps. “Brad is bringing these back as a way for the Patawomeck people to tap into their cultural heritage,” Clune says. “It’s an object that has more symbolic power than functional power today but it’s been cool to see Reagan, who is in their mid-20s, and David, who is 17 or 18 speak of how important it is and how it helps them connect to their grandparents.”
With support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Folklife Program, since 2002, has paired up 147 teams, made up of 330 individuals to help keep alive everything from banjo picking to Brunswick stew cooking to hard candy making to Bolivian folk dancing. “We give the apprentices and masters some funding and offer a public platform,” says Clune. “But it’s really designed to motivate and to encourage these folks to continue to do this work. It’s not just the apprentices, the program can also reinvigorate teaching artists.”
In addition to Hatch, the Library of Virginia event will honor 2022 masters and apprentices practicing the lost art of Tidewater’s community blues dancing, learning to play an Iranian stringed instrument called the tar, singing Gullah Geechee-style gospel music, and learning to dance Puerto Rican styled bomba music.
“We want to help people understand the significance of preserving these traditions,” says folklorist Gregg Kimball, the Library’s director of public services and outreach. “The apprenticeship program is an important way to do that.” He says that Friday night’s events will be focused on the apprentices but Saturday will feature full musical performances by, among others, old-time fiddle master (and National Heritage Fellow) Eddie Bond and the Richmond Shape Note Singers. It will also feature an “instrument petting zoo,” where kids and adults can try out ukuleles, dulcimers and more exotic specimens such as a “didley bow,” a primitive one-stringed guitar.
The event will also give the Library the opportunity to display many of its little-seen music-related artifacts, such as its formidable collection of shape note singing books. “The first major book on shape note in Virginia was published around 1860,” Kimball says. “When congregation singing became a thing, people were trying to figure out a way for laymen, some of whom were illiterate, to sing together. The first version was the old Baptist call-and response singing but after a while, a way was created that is based on the “fa, sol, la” — like “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti” — each represented by a visual shape. And that’s how they taught singing…special singing masters would go around and teach people how to sing this way.” In that spirit, he adds, there will be a shape note demonstration at the Library. “We are happy if people want to jump in and try it, because that’s the way to learn.”
Maurice “Tito” Sanabria-Gallardo is ready to learn. The self-taught bomba percussionist has been named one of the 2023-2024 Folklife Apprentices. Starting in July, Puerto Rican bomba and plena master Erick M. Vializ Montalvo, who performs as Kily Vializ, will begin to apprentice him in Mayagüez-style plena singing, composition and drumming.
“He’s been a bomba and plena practitioner since he was a little kid,” says Sanabria-Gallardo of his teacher. “He makes an effort to keep these rhythms alive and to document the history of the rhythms.” Like Kily, Tito was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico and will teach him the form of plena music– often referred to as “the newspaper of the people” — indigenous to their western Puerto Rican hometown. “There is a style of playing the panderos (drums), and also writing and playing plena, that is different there. In many ways I’ll be connecting to my roots.” The duo will hold lessons virtually as well as through live sessions on the island and here back home.
Sanabria-Gallardo will also perform at the Library of Virginia on Saturday as part of Kadencia, an 11-piece bomba group co-founded by his father Maurice Sanabria-Ortez. The percussionist will also be on hand Friday night to support Isha M Renta Lopez, a 2022 folklife apprentice who trained with one of the true legends of bomba music, Margarita Tata Cepeda. It was the first cross-ocean apprenticeship in the program.
“Their performance together at last year’s Richmond Folk Festival was incredible. It gave me chills,” recalls Clune. “Tata is a celebrity in Puerto Rico and she’s the granddaughter of Rafael Cepeda, a legend of bomba music. Isha went to San Juan to take a master class with Tata last summer and then Tata came and did some classes here through Isha’s non-profit, Semilla Cultural. The documentary film we are showing of them at the Library, a glimpse into their apprenticeship, is very moving.”
The apprenticeship program helps to keep traditions alive the old fashioned way, Sanabria-Gallardo says. “People forget that most of this was kept alive through oral tradition. That is the case with bomba and plena music. In the case of bomba it was centuries, but in the case of plena, for a hundred years. People passed it down from generation to generation within the community, and now plena and bomba are practiced and enjoyed in Virginia. My intent is to learn everything I can learn so that I can continue to showcase it and share my knowledge.”
The Library of Virginia and the Virginia Folklife Program of Virginia Humanities present “A Celebration of Virginia Folklife” on Friday, July 7 at 5:30 p.m. and on Saturday, July 8, 12–4 p.m. Admission is free both days but registration is required for Friday at lva.virginia.gov