On any given evening in Bloomington, Indiana, you have your choice of a couple dozen events and performances to attend. Few events, though, offer the diversity, character, and plain old good times as the Coffeehouse performance by the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University.
Sarah Gordon is one of the organizers of the Coffeehouse. She’s a PhD student studying Native North American oral traditions.
The fun thing about this department, Gordon says, is that the students and faculty are devoted to studying the world’s artistic and expressive traditions – “but we spend so much time in the library, so much time with our noses in books. This is the one event in the semester where everyone gets to live more creatively with the traditions we spend so much time living with academically.”
Students and Faculty Perform Together
Performers include students and faculty alike. One of the mainstays of the Coffeehouse performances is Prof. John McDowell, a professor in the Folklore Department. Recently, McDowell spent half a year in Mexico researching corridos, traditional narrative songs. His book is titled Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico’s Costa Chica.
McDowell is also known as ‘the singing professor‘ by many of his students, because as he says, “any chance I get, I bring my guitar into class.” In past Coffeehouse
performances, he has enjoyed impromptu ‘jams’ with colleagues. Such collaborations give him a chance to see a different side of the people he associates with everyday. “It creates a kind of conviviality you don’t get from faculty meetings.”
An Evening Of Fun
All sorts of diverse interests are represented in a Coffeehouse evening, from belly dancing to bagpipes to traditional songs. But not all the performances are rooted in academic research. There are some moments that are just silly.
“Every time, there’s guaranteed to be one or two acts who get on stage with the explicit goal of having a good time and making people laugh,” Gordon says. One such group is Xiaoshi Andrew Wei and the Jagermeisters. Andrew Wei came to Indiana University from Shanghai to study bluegrass music, and Gordon said, “he leads this bunch of amazing musicians from the Ethnomusicology Department in renditions of all kinds of ridiculous songs.”
The group that undoubtedly garners the most laughs takes performance art to the next level. The MP3s use novelty instruments to recreate pop tunes. “These people are talented enough to take Hot Licks Guitars and a Nintendo DS and actually reproduce pop songs with remarkable accuracy,” Gordon says.
The Folklore and Ethnomusicology programs at Indiana University are both highly respected in academic circles around the country, “and yet,” according to Gordon, “we are this little department that it seems that nobody knows about.”