Most people associate Smithsonian museums with Washington, D.C., but New York City is actually home to two Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of the American Indian (there is also one in Washington, D.C.), and Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s design museum. Today’s post is going to focus on the National Museum of the American Indian, or NMAI.
Every time I go to NMAI, I’m reminded why I really love this museum. There are always great exhibitions, but the museum also regularly offers special events in the gallery space on the first floor. On my last visit, I walked in just in time to attend a free concert. (Both the museum and almost all events are free, an added bonus!) In celebration of African-American history month, the museum invited James Lovell, Garifuna musician and cultural activist, to perform. Mr. Lovell is also a resident of New York City, making this event a perfect fit for this blog on many levels.
Mr. Lovell and his friends introduced the audience to Garifuna music, language, and culture in an exciting and entertaining way. As I learned during the concert and Question & Answer session, the Garifuna people originally lived on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, but they were banished to modern-day Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize in the 1790s. The Garifuna people are a combination of African and indigenous Caribbean descent. New York City has many Garifuna residents, and Mr. Lovell uses his music to increase understanding of Garifuna culture and social issues, as well as preserving the Garifuna language.
The ensemble included drummers and other musicians, as well as traditional dancers. Mr. Lovell had also invited Lucy Blanco, a jazz singer of Garifuna descent, to participate. The music was beautiful. At times the stories told by the music were haunting, as they documented the challenges the Garifuna have faced over time; other songs were joyous and welcoming. During most songs, the singers sang both the Garifuna version and then an English translation so that audience members could fully engage with the performances and their messages.
But the audience did not sit passively throughout the performance. Mr. Lovell taught us a song in Garifuna, and at one point we were invited to get up and dance with the traditional dancers. It was impossible not to tap our feet and clap along with the music throughout the concert.
If you have the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, be sure to check the museum’s event calendar to see what special events might be offered during your visit. And I definitely recommend that you attend one of James Lovell’s concerts if you have the opportunity – I know I will be looking for both his and Lucy Blanco’s concerts in the future!
How do you get to NMAI? If traveling by subway, take the N or the R trains to Whitehall station, the 1 train to the South Ferry Station, or the 4 or 5 train to the Bowling Green station. If traveling from Staten Island, the museum is only a few short blocks from the ferry terminal. NMAI is across the street from Battery Park, and I encourage you to visit the park either before or after your trip to the museum. (Battery Park is also where you can catch the ferry that goes to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.)