Liberian Dream Girls: Will be singing and dancing as part of Syracuse University’s Migrating Memories, Migrating Arts event on Oct. 25.
Migrating Memories, Migrating Arts features diverse Syracuse residents from the newest to the oldest. Waves of immigration brought new cultures to our city: Ukrainians in the 1940s, South Vietnamese in the 1970s, Bosnians in the 1990s, and so on. Recent strife on every continent has ensured a steady influx of refugees from countries including Sudan, Bhutan and Kosovo. It is important to remember that we are all newcomers to the indigenous Haudenausanee, yet they are also well represented in this program.
The first event, starting Friday, Sept. 26, will be a photographic retrospective highlighting previous performances and programs sponsored by SU, Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Services, Center for New Americans, St. Vincent de Paul Church and Tabernacle Baptist Church. The images all capture moments where community members are exhibiting their skills, talents and traditions for the public: A Meskhetian-Turkish woman from Russia pauses to smile as she deftly works on embroidery; three small boys, a teen and a man hold parts of their dragon dancing costume; young adults in body paint execute an athletic dance. This display serves as a preview for the next two parts of the program, both live events.
Fans of needlework should show up for the first installment to compare and contrast the craft from Nepali-Bhutanese, Meskhetian-Turkish, Ukrainian and Bosnian communities. Danielle Schenandoah will show her beadwork. Slawka and Natalie Bobesky will decorate eggs. There will be dancers from the Nepali-Bhutanese and Meskhetian-Turkish communities. Music will be provided by Al Cleveland, a Haudenausanee flutist and Mirza Tihic, who plays a Bosnian plucked string instrument called a saz.
The second event will feature dynamic displays of Vietnamese martial arts, dance and calligraphy by Vinh Dang. Sudanese DiDinga dancers will perform, as will the Liberian Dream Girls Singers and the EDEJA Congolese dancers. A variety of Haudenausanee crafts will be demonstrated: Alf Jacques will carve lacrosse sticks, John Webster will make drums and Melissa McCann will form dolls from corn husks.
Witnessing all this creative output based on traditional forms calls into question our culture’s obsession with newness and instant gratification. “In today’s society everything is about being fast,” noted Schenandoah, who meticulously strings beads to create art. “Beading is not only relaxing but really gives one a chance to use their mind, to create and share artwork with the world.”
The arts also make it easier to bridge language gaps. We feel a song’s emotion without understanding the lyrics; we see the pride and unity in a dance without knowing the historical significance. Soon Syracuse Stage will mount Tales from Salt City, a dramatic narrative featuring life stories from local people including Lino T. Ariloka, who will be performing during Migrating Memories with the DiDinga dancers. Although a Western audience will easily understand Ariloka’s lines in the stage production (they are in English), his dancing communicates identity in a natural and more direct way.
“Traditions are never static,” said folklorist Faye McMahon, who has spent a decade working closely with numerous Syracuse area ethnic groups. “Every performance and every new audience brings a change.” Some examples of adaptation are obvious—the Sudanese DiDinga dancers create music with pots and pans instead of unavailable African gourds; the Teenage Liberian Dream Girls lift their name from Hollywood and improvise lyrics about life in America—but others are subtle.
McMahon got involved with planning this event and others like it to promote what she called “formative cultural fermentation.” When cultural groups get together in an atmosphere of sharing they enrich each other, becoming more than the sum of their parts. A healthier appreciation of what culture is and who we are arises for those who take part. The fermentation metaphor reminds us that cultural exchanges aren’t just educational; they’re spontaneous fun.
McMahon emphasized that these crafters and performers aren’t exotic spectacles but Americans—new neighbors that shouldn’t be ignored. The freedoms and opportunities of our country are a precious gift to them, but in return we gain their energy, creativity and ideas. “They’re giving us the gift. We gain so much and we have to recognize that,” McMahon concluded.
All Migrating Memories, Migrating Arts events will be held in the Panasci Lounge of Syracuse University’s Hildegarde and J. Myer Schine Student Center, 303 University Place. The photography exhibition will be on display from Sept. 26 through Oct. 25. The first live event will be held Oct. 4, 2 to 4 p.m. The second will be held Oct. 25, 2 to 4 p.m. All three events are free. Parking is available in all non-gated lots. For more information, call SU’s Department of Anthropology at 443-2200 or visit www.syracusesymposium.org.