Monday, June 25, 2012


Thomas Hardy has a great description of what distinguishes unbroken folk traditions from revivals:

A traditional pastime is to be distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking feature than in this, that while in the revival all is excitement and fervour, the survival is carried on with a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept up at all. Like Balaam and other unwilling prophets, the agents seem moved by an inner compulsion to say and do their allotted parts whether they will or no. This unweeting manner of performance is the true ring by which, in this refurbishing age, a fossilized survival may be known from a spurious reproduction.

Personally, I draw a different distinction. I find that revivals have some kind of logic to them. My old Morris team used to tell the audience, “The sticks represent the spirits of the earth, the handkerchiefs represent the spirits of the air, and the bells represent the spirits of the other world.” It made a good spiel, but it's way too tidy to be true. We have no idea why Morris dancers started using those particular things. People add stuff they like, and eventually you get a hodgepodge of things that no one remembers the origins of.

Today I saw the summer solstice festivities in Otavalo, Ecuador, also known as San Juan or Inti Raymi. The solstice doesn't mean a lot at the equator – the day and night are each 12 hours every day of the year – but they surely do celebrate it anyway. It began this morning when a bunch of folks in rainbow masks carried a figure of John the Baptist into church, and it's still going strong. In between there have been parades, a bouncy castle, and a lot of corn products. Currently folks are having a city-wide street party playing music and dancing in circles. A gang of teenagers playing melodicas, flutes, and guitars just jogged by my window. Sorry, Mr. Hardy, but these people appear to be having a blast.

Watching a folk tradition that was totally new to me, my mind was full of questions:
Why are those guys dressed in drag?
Why are conch shells a traditional instrument so far from the sea?
How come there aren't any female musicians?
Why are there tentacles on your hat?

If Ecuadoran folk tradition is anything like the ones I know, the answer is probably, “Um, I'm not sure.” Which makes perfect sense.

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