Last weekend, folks came to the grounds of the Creative Alliance to learn about life—life in other countries, the lives of artists and the lives of craftsmen practicing and preserving rare and bygone occupations.
The Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival, presented by the Maryland State Arts Council and the Creative Alliance, brought duck-decoy carvers, banjo makers, Cambodian singers and dancers and a lot more, including Smith Island Seven-Layer Cake, to Highlandtown last Saturday.
Spar carving was part of Maryland’s maritime industry in the days of wooden ships. In spar carving, craftsmen create the masts and other long wooden pieces of sailing ships by hand. Carving a flag spar for the “Maryland Dove,” a replica of a 17th Century trade ship docked in St. Mary’s City, master spar carver Andy Shaw started with a squared, straight piece of lumber. Using a three-foot blade with handles on both ends, he carved off the corners, making the four-sided beam into an eight-sided pole. He repeated the process until the spar had 32 sides, and then he rounded the corners.
“This is a really nice piece of Douglas fir,” Shaw said, noting that the wood had been donated.
Kevin Enoch and Pete Ross picked tunes on the handmade banjos they produce at Enoch Instruments in Beltsville.
Enoch said that most of the wood for the instruments is walnut or cherry from Pennsylvania. The inlays—the iridescent, whitish markers along the neck of the banjo—are mother of pearl.
“Mother of pearl is getting more expansive and harder to get,” said Enoch, adding that the commercial fishing industry harvests oysters before they grow big enough to offer substantial amounts of mother of pearl.
One of the banjos had no frets—as in a standup bass, the musician must judge where to put his hand on the neck of the instrument without the aid of delineated markings.
“Frets didn’t start going into banjos until the 1850s,” commented Ross. “A lot of the old country players use quarter tones and slides. They demand fretless instruments.”
Roberto Rivera of Walkersville has been making a different instrument, the Puerto Rican cuatro, since 1994.
The 10-string cuatro looks similar to a guitar, but the tuning is different. It is used to play traditional forms of Puerto Rican folk music. In one traditional form of song, the “seis,” the melody repeats, and the singer makes up the lyrics as he goes. He may sing about family events or events that happened in the work fields, Rivera said.
Sometimes, he will sing with a partner. The two will trade off verses, and a “controversia,” or controversy, will occur.
“Inevitably, because you and I are friends, we will start picking at each other, and it will end up being a very funny song,” Rivera said.
Other artists at the Folklife Festival included Rhonda Aaron, master muskrat skinner and cook; blacksmith Peter Krug; knife maker Shawn Hendrickson; and many more.
by Erik Zygmont