Virginia Folklife at Virginia Humanities
This past Fall, the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities built a cultural bridge across continents by bringing a delegation of Virginia traditional musicians to collaborate with local performing artists in Cabo Verde, formerly Cape Verde, an island nation off the West coast of Africa. The unprecedented cultural exchange, facilitated through a partnership with the U.S. Embassy, enabled artists to share deeply cherished crafts, and to explore continuities within differences to help engender lasting mutual respect, appreciation, and understanding. There are multiple common threads linking these cultures. Morna, a nostalgic and longing singing style originating on the Cabo Verdean island of Santiago is reminiscent of Virginia mountain ballads. According to Virginia Folklife Program Director and State Folklorist Jon Lohman, listening to Fogo’s fiddle-based music is like sitting in the parking lot at the Galax Fiddlers Convention. And funana, an electrifying form of dance music, is deeply reminiscent of French Louisiana zydeco. The instruments are similar, too. The cavaquinho resembles a cross between a ukulele and a mandolin, while the ferrinho is played much like a French creole washboard. Such connections make sense. Cabo Verde brought together cultures from across Africa, while slavery dispersed African styles across North and South America, mixed with European traditions.
The Virginia Folklife Program’s musical delegation consisted of award-winning multi-instrumentalists Danny Knicely of the Shenandoah Valley, Jared Pool of Richmond, and the stunningly talented Aimee Curl on vocals and bass. Their musical guide was celebrated Caboverdean cavaquinho master Zerui Depina, who introduced them to master musicians across the country, including “Bau,” widely considered Cabo Verde’s greatest guitarist. They were accompanied by Lohman and Virginia Folklife Program documentarian Pat Jarrett. While in Cabo Verde, the group performed at schools, concerts, and festivals, and participated in hours of collaboration and jams. Prior to the journey, Zerui Depina had joined the Virginia musicians at the Cabo Verde Embassy in Washington D.C., and performed several concerts in the region. Virginia is rapidly changing, and is increasingly a state which hosts a dizzying number of cultures from around the globe. Lohman believes that cultural exchanges provide people with powerful opportunities to see, hear, and get to know one another – helping us understand and feel, in a deep sense, a common humanity.
The Virginia Folklife Program brings people together to share those cultural traditions that they hold most dear, often facilitating real cultural diplomacy. Such exchanges also help us better understand and explore in real time the constantly evolving and dynamic cultural manifestations of centuries of human activity and diaspora in the trans-Atlantic world. A critical contribution of the humanities and the arts is to help people build bridges across cultural differences and provide opportunities for greater understanding, empathy, and appreciation of one another. Our community-based (folk) traditions are at the very heart of who we are and how we understand our place in the world, and an expression of what we hold most dear. The Virginia Folklife Program produces numerous opportunities, be it through direct cultural exchanges, residencies, and festival presentations to bring diverse tradition bearers together. As the Cabo Verde journey illustrates, bringing “Virginia” abroad is an important part of a true cultural exchange.