A World of Music
FreshGrass bluegrass and roots festival goes global
Haitian-American singer and composer Layla McCalla has made an international name for herself with Vari-Colored Songs, a tribute to poet Langston Hughes.
Photo, top by Aden Seeley // left by Hannah Fiske
Yacouba Sissoko is one of the most sought-after musicians in the world, a master of the kora, a 21-stringed harp made of wood, leather, and calabash. As a boy in Mali, he learned from his grandfather, and today he lives in New York City and tours internationally, performing West African music, jazz, Latin, and rhythm and blues with icons like Regina Carter, Baaba Maal, and Paul Simon, and bluegrass with banjo player Jayme Stone.
The kora is traditionally a solo instrument, Sissoko says. In his hands, it can play the parts of many instruments at once, with a bassline, melody, and improvisations. He has released his first solo album, Siya, celebrating the harp’s rich sound and his own clear tenor. At MASS MoCA, he will perform in a trio with bass and percussion.
Sissoko will come for FreshGrass, MASS MoCA’s annual contemporary bluegrass-and-roots festival with an international reach, held September 14-16. This year, variety abounds, as Tunisian vocalist Emel Mathlouthi sings over low strings and flute, and Leyla McCalla sings in Haitian Creole and French.
“As we thought about what kind of festival we want it to be, roots music has become more and more important,” says Olli Chanoff, managing director of programming for FreshGrass. He curates this year’s festival with THE OFFICE performing arts + film, an independent curator and a production company in New York and London.
Traditional or roots music around the world is connected to bluegrass, Chanoff says. People forced to America from West Africa brought their own music, strings, percussion, and wind instruments. The banjo descends from the ngoni, a four-stringed instrument from Mali and the West African region. Workers from the Celtic nations brought fiddles and mandolins, button boxes and penny whistles. In the
South, jigs and reels, work songs and call-and-response chants grew into new American music. Bluegrass emerged in the 1930s, evolving out of folk, gospel, jazz, and blues.
At this year’s festival, when Rhiannon Giddens sings an old tune like “Water Boy” over low strumming and tambourine, with the fervor of field songs and soul, she shares a tradition with Irish band Altan, celebrating its 35th year.
FreshGrass 2018 is rich in well-known and emerging bluegrass artists—Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Della Mae, Allison Brown. Folk giants like Indigo Girls will share the lineup with Mathlouthi, who has performed from Tunisia to Paris to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. She writes her own music and raises her voice with the strength to fill brick mill courtyards.
Mathlouthi recorded her newest album, Ensen, in seven countries on three continents. In Arabic, Ensen means human, and she has dedicated the song “Ensen Dhaif” to “people that have to carry the weight and all the struggles so that a very small percentage can enjoy the power.”
She will come to the festival with a new composition, a score to a silent film, and so will Haitian-American composer McCalla, who has made an international name for herself with her first album, Vari-Colored Songs, a tribute to poet Langston Hughes.
The festival includes “A FreshScores,” a commissioned piece by a contemporary composer. Giddens will perform a new long work on Friday night, and on Saturday she will play a set with her band. Like McCalla and Sissoko, she writes music and makes traditional ballads her own.
Sissoko often plays songs he learned from his grandparents who raised him, and he creates his own arrangements. He comes from a family of djeli, storytellers, he says.
He sings in his language and tells the audience the story of each song before he begins. The music passes along messages of love, encouragement, and faith. “If we do good, if we support each other, then we don’t minimize each other,” he says. Siya is not only the name of his new album, but it is also the name of his band. The word means source. “That is the definition of who I am. This is what I do. I send a message from the ancestors. If we don’t do this job, no one will do it for us.”