With more than 200 ethnic groups to be found in New Jersey, it’s unlikely the annual New Jersey Folk Festival will run out of ethnic groups to cast the spotlight on anytime soon. Assuming it’s around 150 years from now, New Jersey Folk Festival founder Angus Gillespie and many of his students will be long gone — yet they still might have overlooked the ethnic group the festival committee chose to honor in 2013 — the people and music and foodways of Garifuna. Thanks to the power of the Internet, folk festival coordinators had a much easier job of pulling together performers and demonstrators from the Garifuna people than they’ve had in years past, but more about that later.
Where is Garifuna, you ask? Well, it’s not a place, but rather, an ethnic group, forced from their native island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean about 250 years ago by the British, and relocated to several countries in Central America: Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize. Eleanor Bullock, who spent the first 10 years of her life in Belize — before moving to Brooklyn, Queens, back to Brooklyn and now Keansburg — has been instrumental in helping to organize this year’s New Jersey Folk Festival, working hand-in-hand with American Studies professor Gillespie and his committee of Douglass and Rutgers College students.
“We were all born in Belize,” Eleanor Bullock explains of her siblings, who include five sisters and one half-brother, noting her family moved here in 1968, after her parents had first immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Brooklyn.
“When I was 10, they sent for me and my siblings and we settled at first in Bedford-Stuyvesant and later moved to St. Alban’s, Queens,” Bullock says. While being raised in Belize and later in Brooklyn, her grandparents and her parents insisted on speaking the Garifuna language at home, while she and her siblings learned English in school.
“I am so glad they insisted on doing that with us, because many years later, after I got out of school at Syracuse University and I went back to Brooklyn as an arts administrator, I worked with Garifuna children,” Bullock explains.
“We all grew up pretty close to the ocean in Belize,” Bullock says, “and in 1797, after the British exiled the Garifuna natives from St. Vincent, some of us ended up in Belize and some of us were dispersed to neighboring countries in central America like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.”
“When we were younger and had already moved to Queens, my sisters and I were somewhat ashamed that we had a different culture and spoke a different language. But by the time I went to Syracuse, I continued to get educated about my own culture and I majored in visual and performing arts up there.” After Bullock graduated from Syracuse, “I decided to go back to the Garifuna community and discovered that most of them were living in Brooklyn. I went in and just decided to give what I had learned academically and creatively back into my community,” she says, noting by that point, 1982, most Garifunas were located in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
“Much of the teaching that I do today, I give them a lot of it in English as well as in the Garifuna language,” she says.
Bullock began working at Rutgers as a buyer in the university’s department of procurement services about 15 years ago, which prompted her move to Keansburg. She continued working with an arts and music group she co-founded in the Bronx, Ilagulei, which means “roots” in Garifuna, until she burned herself out with too many trips back to the Bronx.
With Dorena Castillo and James Lovelo, she ran Ilagulei for about a dozen years.
“I was the executive director, the choreographer, the marketing person, the PR person, so I wore a lot of hats,” she says, “and I was trucking back and forth between the Bronx and New Jersey with my four children to teach, and for the longest time I did it with no problem because it’s my passion,” she adds. Then in 2001 UNESCO declared Garifuna an extinct culture, and “that helped me with grant writing for the arts company we’d founded. We got grants from New York State and New York City to continue the work we’d been doing. Then once the Internet came about and people were able to see our work on the Internet, we got more funding.”
One of the professors involved with the Folk Festival’s guiding committee, Carlos Hernandez in Latin-American Studies, “Googled ‘Garifuna,’ and that’s how my name came up. So once they reached out to me, they were thrilled to know that I also worked at Rutgers. I had heard about the folk festival years ago, and I always prayed that they could bring Garifuna to the folk festival. What a surprise, my ancestors brought these people from the folk festival to me. Professor Gillespie was excited to know I worked right here at Rutgers, and we started communicating and planning this year’s festival in October of last year.”
“Once we met and I let them know how many contacts I had in the Garifuna community, they knew they had found a key Garifuna individual,” Bullock says. She was able to refer Gillespie and his students to various Garifuna crafts people, artists, musicians, and foodways demonstrators.
To that end, the Garifuna focus on the Skylands and other stages at this year’s festival will include performances by a group called Bodoma Garifuna, James Lovell, and Bullock herself.
Lovell is a punta rock musician from Dangriga Town, Belize. His music blends fast rhythms with socially conscious lyrics that address the politics of the Garifuna people and the people of Belize. After coming to the U.S. in 1990, Lovell co-founded Ilagulei with Bullock and released his debut album in 1995, “Cabasan Numari” [Who’s Going to Be My Wife.] Bodoma Garifuna is a Bronx-based group of musicians from Honduras who perform a hybrid of West African, Garifuna and Central American tunes, all the result of three drums and various other percussion instruments and dynamic, wide-reaching vocals. The band’s vocals are sung in a communal call-and-response format, to mimic the invocations of the spirits. Bullock will lead her Gamae performance and dance group of children in a set on the main stage as well.
Aside from Garifuna crafters and cooking demonstrations, other performers at this year’s festival include master storyteller and folk singer Jim Albertson, Scottish bagpiper Frank Watson, maritime and Irish singers Robbie O’ Connell and Dan Milner, the harp and percussion duo of Patrice Fisher and Carlos Valladares, political folk singer Spook Handy, Irish folk music duo McDermott’s Handy, storyteller Carol Levin, and headliners Hogmaw, a progressive bluegrass and folk band from Pennsylvania who freely mix traditional folk, blues, and bluegrass music into their sets. In addition, jam sessions will run throughout the day under the direction of Stony Brook Friends of Old Time Music, the South Jersey Irish Seisiun, and the Waretown-based Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association.
These days, Bullock maintains a relatively sane schedule, working by day at Rutgers as a purchasing agent and as director of GAMAE Arts and Culture a dance group that is based much closer to her home in Keansburg.
“For us it’s all about survival, protecting and preserving our Garifuna culture,” Bullock says. “We don’t have our own home land, we don’t have a place to call home. Two hundred and fifty years ago, the British came in and shot anybody that spoke the Garifuna language on St. Vincent. We survived, and we’re trying now to preserve what we have.”
New Jersey Folk Festival: A Celebration of Garifuna Traditions, Douglass campus, Rutgers University. Saturday, April 27, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free. 848-932-5775 or www.njfolkfest.org.
Masters of Ceremonies: Jim Albertson, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Roger Deitz 2:45 to 6 p.m.
Performance Schedule: Opening Ceremonies, 10 a.m.; Garifuna Performing Arts Company, 11 a.m.; Awards Ceremony, noon; Patrice Fisher & Carlos Valladares, 1 p.m.; Maki (School of Polish Dancers), 2 p.m.; Robbie O’Connell & Dan Milner, 2:45 p.m.; McDermott’s Handy 3:30 p.m.; Bodoma Garifuna, 4 p.m.; Hogmaw, 5 p.m.
Masters of Ceremonies: Dan O’Dea & Spook Handy, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Spook Handy, 2 to 5 p.m.
Performance Schedule: Bluegrass Jam, 11 a.m.; Old-Timey Jam, noon; Irish Session, 1 p.m.; singer-songwriters, 2:45 p.m.; Spook Handy, 4:15 p.m.
Masters of Ceremonies: Dr. Michael Rockland & Nick Burlakoff , 11 a.m. to noon; Dr. Michael Rockland, noon to 2 p.m.; Nick Burlakoff; 2:30 to 5 p.m.
Performance Schedule: Next Generation: Irish Music, 11 a.m.; Folk Images of NJ: Dr. Michael Rockland, noon; Folklore of Domestic Workers: Andy Urban, 12:30 p.m. Emily Roebling & the Brooklyn Bridge: Carol Levin, 1 p.m.; Folklore of Harold & Kumar: Allan Isaac, 1:30 p.m.; Reviving Garifuna Language: James Lovell, 2 p.m.; Composing New Music from Traditional Styles: Patrice Fisher and Bodoma, 2:30 p.m.; Keeping it in the Family: Bullock & Lovell Children, 3 p.m.; Look Ma! No Guitar. Unaccompanied Singing: Jim Albertson, 3:30 p.m.; Irish Sea Songs & Pirate Ballads: Dan Milner, 4 p.m.; Springsteen’s Folk Roots: Louis Masur, 4:30 p.m.