Thank you, Montserrat! #BlendedRhythms 2014 comes to a close


This photo is from the first day of Blended Rhythms workshops back in January, and it’s hard to believe how much has happened since then. A lot of dancing and drumming, that’s for sure!

THANK YOU to Montserrat for supporting #BlendedRhythms this year and welcoming me and Dominique into the community and schools. We are making plans for next year, which promises to be even better!

A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU to Herman “Cupid” Francis for all of his support: helping us promote and schedule the workshops, setting up our performances at the St. Patrick’s Festival, and the hardest job of all, carting the drums across the island 3 times per week amid his busy schedule.

Yesterday we had our last adults workshop in Salem and we reignited the Bonfire dance from a few weeks ago. Thanks to everyone who came out for this final class! I hear that some of the students will continue meeting (same time, same place) so that they can keep up the dancing and exercise. I can’t wait to see what new choreography you’ll have to show off by the time I come back next year!

An update on the djembes we ordered through the #AwesomeWithoutBorders grant back in January: unfortunately, they still have not arrived due to some issues with the international post, but we are still trying to locate them and hoping they will arrive eventually. I hear that some people on island are also still waiting for Christmas packages, so there’s still hope!

UPDATE ON MAY 23: Guess what! Two of the djembes arrived the day after I left, and they are beauties! These drums, hopefully along with the others we ordered, will be waiting for us when we arrived next year for #BlendedRhythms 2015. Thanks again, #AwesomeWithoutBorders!


Until next year!

Irish dancers on the red carpet at the Easter Sunday Hat Parade and Tea Party

The St. Augustine Irish dancers did a great job performing their choreography at the school’s Hat Parade and Tea Party fundraiser on Easter Sunday yesterday. While the audience sipped tea and snacked on Easter treats, the girls showed off the dance they’ve been rehearsing for weeks. Don’t they look great in their coordinated pinks?

Video credit: Elizabeth Piper-Wade

Seeing all the creative hats that the students made was fun way to celebrate on Easter Sunday afternoon. Even the young ones had their model struts down, and the K-2 boys put on a lively performance for their walk down the red carpet. I don’t know how the judges were able to determine a winner!

The Catholic Youth Community ladies also showed real panache as they modeled high fashion Easter hats for the occasion.

The St. Augustine steel pan orchestra provided some pleasant entertainment as well. They play with such energy and vigor!

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Threading the needle and breakin’ it down

Yesterday we did some collaborative choreography in both classes, at Lookout Primary School and with the adults in Salem. It was great to get everyone’s creative input!

We included a new figure called “threading the needle,” and also included some moves inspired by Afro-Brazilian/samba and…break dancing. Yep, our Irish céili dance has a top rock in it!

The Lookout and adult versions of the dance have the same basic structure, but there are some differences since the students were responsible for the choreography. We’ll keep developing these dances next week and see what we come up with! These would be great performance pieces in the future.

Also, the Lookout girls proposed a great idea: a beach party for everyone who has participated in the Blended Rhythms workshops! We have chosen Sunday, May 11 at 2pm at Little Bay beach for snacks, drinks, games, and swimming. Stay tuned for more on this!

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A three-hand reel at Lookout Primary School

Lookout Primary School is officially on spring vacation right now, but the Grade 6ers were at school for exams, and they wanted to meet at our usual time for Irish dance class. It was a small class, but we choreographed a whole new dance! This is the creative group—they are focused and motivated, and have choreographed their own dances already, so I knew they’d be up for creating something new today.

We made up a three-hand reel, or a dance for three dancers (yes, we know they actually have six hands total). We started with a simple lead-around to “mark the territory,” as is traditional in a three-hand reel, and then did some side steps. The “double bridge” (as we’re calling it) was a new figure that looks pretty cool, and then we did a rose-like formation in a circle. The end of the dance has a couple Charleston steps, just for fun. (Homework this week is to look up flappers and Roaring Twenties Charleston steps on YouTube!)

Also, well done to one of the girls, who did an amazing job keeping up even though it was her very first day joining us!

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Small Beginnings Music Camp gets fiddlin’

Just because the Blended Rhythms workshops at the schools are on spring vacation for two weeks doesn’t mean that musical activity for the kids is on hold. Herman “Cupid” Francis is running the Small Beginnings Music Camp from April 1-13 so the children have an opportunity to learn various instruments. They each choose two instruments from a vast list, including violin, keyboard, guitar, banjo, mandolin, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and masquerade drums, and spend 3 hours each day practicing them with a variety of instructors at the Old Primary School in Salem.

This afternoon the camp invited guest violinst/fiddler Mike Evans for a workshop/demonstration. Mr. Mike has been on island for the past couple weeks and has played for our adult Irish dance classes a couple of times. Today the beginner students learned how to play rhythms on the violin, starting with the rhythm of: “Mont-serr-at is a beau-ti-ful is-land.” Most of the students haven’t yet been introduced to finger placement, so they while they weren’t able to play the melody of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” they did echo the rhythm successfully.

Someone requested to hear “Greensleeves,” and the waltz inspired the masquerade drumming instructor, sitting in the back, to quietly tap out the rhythm with his sticks. Soon the whole room was clapping out the rhythm, with half the room clapping the “one” downbeat, and the other half clapping the “two three” upbeats.

The last song Mr. Mike played was an Irish tune, which incited a few celebratory “yeeeee-haws!” and the Irish dancers in the group started squirming in their seats. They were a bit shy at first, but with some encouragement from Mr. Francis, they finally got up and demonstrated the dance choreography they’ve been practicing while Mike played for them. It was quite a collaboration!

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Mr. Francis helps a violin student with proper technique and placement

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Mr. Mike leads the violin students in echoing the “poetic” rhythm of
“Mont-serr-at is a beau-ti-ful is-land, Mont-serr-at, the Em-er-ald Isle”

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Irish dancers demonstrate their céili dance choreography

Adult dancers heat things up with the Bonfire dance

This evening we started with small numbers, but ended up convincing some of the guys who play basketball outside to join us. (We spied them imitating the dance in the doorway, so we invited them in, and it didn’t take much to persuade them!)

We had fiddler Mike Evans in the house again this week, this time playing reels for the Bonfire céili dance. This is a good dance for social interaction, as you move around the circle and dance with a new partner every time. The figures are a bit more complicated than those we’ve done in previous dances, and the circular nature of the dance was also new.

Trivia: the Bonfire is the only céili dance that has a figure named after a flower: the “rose,” when the ladies go in the center and gents stay on the outside circle, and then vice versa. When on the outside circle, the “book” (that is, Ár Rincí Fóirne) states that the dancers should wait in a pose with the left hand on the left hip and the right foot pointed forward with knee slightly bent. However, the boys got a little more creative. They decided to add some “vogue” poses every 2 bars, and I think I saw some Latin dance moves in there too.

I had come straight to the Irish dance class from a masquerade dance rehearsal with Montserrat’s Ladies of Alliouagana troupe. It is interesting to see how similar the quadrille formations are to céili dancing, and they also feature a one-two-three step. However, instead of hopping and standing erect and upright, the step is more of a shuffle with an emphasis down rather than up, and the posture is slightly bent over. We went through 5 quadrilles, one after the other, with lots of hooked arms, ladies chains, and arch-like formations. Not to mention the famous heel-and-toe step that is supposedly related to the Irish polka!

It was a wonderful (sweaty!) evening of blended rhythms, going from Montserratian to Irish dancing 🙂

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Some #BlendedRhythms announcements

Schools are on vacation for the next two weeks, so there will be no Irish dance classes for children during this time. (However, Small Beginnings will be holding a youth music camp from 1-13 April in Salem, so there will be no lack of musical education activity!)

St. Augustine dancers will be rehearsing next week for an appearance at the Easter Sunday Hat Parade & Tea Party fundraiser on 20 April at the school in Palm Loop. We’ll be performing an Irish dance alongside the fashion show while attendants enjoy a “cuppa.”

Adult classes are still on, and we will have guest fiddler Mike Evans playing again at our next class on Tuesday 1 April. If you missed last week, be sure to come next week!

Did you see Graham Clifford’s latest article in the Irish Independent about Afro-Irish culture on Montserrat? Blended Rhythms is mentioned at the end, and it’s wonderful to get some transatlantic ink!

Finally, I want to mention that I’m having a blast lately learning the different rhythms of Montserrat. Yesterday I had a lesson in masquerade drumming, and if those rhythms sound difficult, they are even harder to play! What a brain pretzel. Then I went straight to steel pan rehearsal, which is another challenge altogether—the melodic rhythms are difficult and I have a hard time fitting my tenor part into the overall ensemble puzzle.

I wouldn’t say that all these Montserratian, Irish, and African rhythms are “blending” in my head, but they are certainly competing for space! But it’s a harmonious competition. It’s pretty exhilarating.

There’s nothing like dancing to live fiddle music!

This evening at the adults Irish dance class we were lucky enough to have Mike Evans to provide live fiddle music! He played some lovely jigs for our review of the Siege of Carrick céili dance (our performance piece from St. Patrick’s Week) and also a new dance, the Walls of Limerick.

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Mike and his wife Jennie will still be on island next week, so we’ll have one more workshop with them. If you missed this class, make sure you don’t miss next week!

Walls of Limerick at Lookout Primary School

This afternoon it was all about the Walls of Limerick at Lookout Primary School. This popular céili dance is the very first dance I learned, and it continues to be my favorite to teach. We worked on formations and straight lines, doing hop 23s while turning (required when crossing/switching places across the set), and swinging.

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The set formation is “wall-like,” with couples facing each other, and I explained that Limerick is a city in Ireland, where I lived for one year.

The girls did a great job with the dance! They have a couple weeks to practice, as it will be spring vacation.

The culmination of Blended Rhythms at Montserrat’s St. Patrick’s Day Festival

This was it, the day we’ve all been waiting for! St. Patrick’s Day in Montserrat certainly did not disappoint. It was a whirlwind of activities, starting with the parade from the Montserrat Secondary School down the main road to “Heritage Village” in Salem.

The paraders gathered at MSS starting from around 1pm, and troupes included the Emerald Shamioles Masquerade Troupe (in their colorful ribboned costumes), Sankofa Garden (with their truck full of plants), Coral Cay (the local conservation research team), the Blended Rhythms Irish dancers, and Jalikunda (West African dance/drumming troupe). There were donkey rides for kids (and some adults!) and everyone was dressed in the kitschiest green “paddywhackery” you can imagine. If it weren’t for the hot sun, you might have thought you were in Dublin itself. Maybe.

Graham Clifford from the Irish Independent was there, reporting back home to Ireland about St. Patrick’s Day festivities on Montserrat. He spoke into the camera while paraders sang “Proud to be Montserratian” in the background, waving shamrocks and wooden machetes.

The groups lined up and started walking at around 2pm. I have to describe how incredible this experience was for me. The Irish dancers were between the masquerade dancers at the front and the West African drummers at the back, and so we were literally dancing to blended rhythms. We didn’t know which rhythm to follow! Both sounds kept fading in and out, and they both worked for the dancing, but the dancing had to change significantly depending on which rhythm we paid attention to.

The girls did a great job dancing, and we kept it simple: just some 3s and “sliding doors,” and we heard a few spectators exclaim, “Irish dancers!!!” The sun was bright and hot, and the road was long, but we powered through anyway. The excitement was infectious.

When we arrived at Heritage Village, we were greeted by Basil Chambers, who announced that he had no program for the day’s performances, and he would just be calling groups on stage as he spotted them in the crowd. The Blended Rhythms Irish dancers went up fairly early, and since we didn’t have time to arrange any music, we did our 3s and swings to soca music! Like the masquerade and djembe rhythms, the soca rhythm works just fine for Irish dancing, if a little off-putting at first.

The adult dancers also did a reprisal of their Siege of Carrick céili dance from Wednesday evening’s Shamrock Cabaret, and Mike Evans, visiting from the UK, played an Irish jig for us on his fiddle. We had a great time!

From there, the day was chock full of different forms of music, including local reggae, the Rude Boys String Band, a political rap, and soca. Calypso/soca King Wallace was in attendance, and I was disappointed that he didn’t give a performance of his famous “Dracula” hit from Christmas.

Jalikunda also performed again, and dancer Marietou Kouyate gathered some of the Blended Rhythms dancers together for an impromptu African dance performance! We threw on some skirts and jumped up on stage to shake it. We each did a solo as well, and you could see traces of each dancer’s background, from Haitian dance to masquerade dance to samba. It’s always the unexpected things that are the most fun!

Mike Evans also joined Jalikunda for some fun collaborations: he and Sidiki Dembelé paired up for an interesting ngoni/fiddle duet, and Landing Mané and I traded West African and Irish dance steps on stage. Marietou and Mamadou Cissokho also sang along with Sidiki and Mike for an improvised blended performance. Finally, the sound of the fiddle and djembe together lured me up on stage for some sean nós dancing, and I was joined by some others for some energetic steps on stage. It was impossible to resist!

The Volpanics and Genesis steel pan orchestras also played, and added a lot to the ambience of the afternoon. There were food stalls around the perimeter of Heritage Village, selling rotis, wraps, rice and peas, chicken, fried fish, duckna, goat water, and other treats. There was plentiful Guinness and Carib beer too, of course.

The Montserrat St. Patrick’s Day Festival was deemed a huge success, and it was a great finish for the Blended Rhythms program! We will take a week to recover and will start up a more limited schedule of Irish dance workshops next week.

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Masquerade dancers line up for the parade

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Blended Rhythms Irish dancers dance in the parade

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Jalikunda add some West African spice to the St. Patrick’s Day parade

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Paraders arrive at Heritage Village

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Masquerade dancers whirl up a dust storm in Heritage Village

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Landing and Kate trade West African and Irish dance steps on stage with djembe player Sidiki and fiddler Mike

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Blended Rhythms drumming students enjoy Jalikunda’s rousing performance (and see what they are working towards!)

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Some Haitian dancing adds a new element to Jalikunda’s West African music

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Jalikunda and fiddler Mike bring together Irish and West African rhythms on stage