World Music Feature: Libana Marks 35 Years of Musical Exploration
“There are people coming to our shows now who are the age we were when we started. They are seekers, like we are, and they connect with the music that we play.”
By Jason M. Rubin
On Saturday, November 14 at 7:30 p.m., the First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist Church in Harvard Square will host the 35th anniversary celebration concert of Libana, a Boston-based women’s world music and dance ensemble. Founded by Susan Robbins, a gifted singer and instrumentalist with a background in classical and early music, Libana made their first sounds together in Cambridge in 1979. It’s not a homecoming per se, since the group has always been based in the Greater Boston area, but for the women of Libana it marks a milestone on an ongoing journey that has taken them to Bulgaria, Morocco, India, Greece, and throughout North America.
“Libana uncovers and celebrates the songs and traditions of women’s communities around the world,” says Robbins. “In many societies, music and dance are a daily part of women’s lives—in the home, in the field, and in the community, such as lullabies, work songs, and dances that accompany rites and rituals.”
Marytha Paffrath, Libana’s primary percussionist (all members play multiple instruments), concurs. “Women don’t take the stage in many countries. Their music has a utilitarian or spiritual function. It’s rarely for entertainment. Being from the west, we can present this music more broadly as a means of honoring the lives and creativity of women everywhere.”
Taking their name from a 10th-century Moorish poet, philosopher, and musician, Libana have released nine albums; over the years, the group has gotten smaller, though not less powerful, and their focus remains global.
“We had 25 people that first night we sang together,” says Robbins. “We’ve been six for a number of years now.” In addition to her and Paffrath (who joined in 1981), today’s Libana features founding members Lisa Bosley, Linda Ugelow, and Cheryl Weber, as well as Allison Coleman, who has been with the group since 1990.
The attrition has been organic. Some of the women left to start families, others weren’t able to commit to the growing national and international demand for public appearances, still others wanted to take their talents in a different direction. Yet since all the women both sing and play instruments, their sound remains full and their devotion to learning new repertoire means that Libana is always moving forward. The concert, in fact, will be less a retrospective of where they’ve been than a mix of past and current explorations.
“It’s taken a lot of work and dedication to last this long, but we don’t know any other way,” insists Paffrath. “Being in Libana is as much a part of our lives as any long-term relationship. We’re always talking and singing together, celebrating holidays and life stages together. And that commitment rarely feels challenging to sustain because we get so much out of it.”
In addition to songs and dances from around the world, the 35th anniversary concert will provide a kind of ‘verbal travelogue’ to audience members through stories told in between songs.
“We used to consider them as simply introductions to the songs,” says Paffrath of the stories. “What country the song came from, what it means, how and when it’s used in the culture. But over time, they’ve taken on a life of their own, and we’ve heard from people that they really enjoy hearing them. Stories are such a big part of what builds community and what makes us human, and I think if the audience responds to them it affirms the importance of what we’re doing.”
That audience isn’t just people who came of age in the feminist movement of the 1960s, such as Robbins. According to Paffrath, “I feel a trend toward a younger audience discovering us. There are people coming to our shows now who are the age we were when we started. They are seekers, like we are, and they connect with the music that we play.”
If you wonder whether Libana is just a group of Western women doing Western-friendly versions of ethnic music, they’re not. They study extensively with native singers and musicians, and their performances are as authentic as possible.
“We were asked to perform at a world music festival in Tangier in 2013,” recalls Robbins. “We performed the ‘Zar’, which is a healing dance that appears in different forms all over North Africa. As soon as we started ululating, all the women in the audience joined in. At the end we got a standing ovation. Another time, we were performing at Bunker Hill Community College, and a student from Algeria came up to us and said, ‘When you did that dance you became my grandmother and my aunties.’”
When Libana formed in 1979, Robbins wasn’t thinking about the group being a touring and recording unit. She simply was curious about the music of women around the world and wanted to assemble peers who could uncover and perform it, to see what it was and learn about other women’s lives. 35 years later, Libana has built an international reputation and continues to explore new cultures. Its upcoming concert in Harvard Square promises to be a celebration for the group’s longtime fans, and an introduction for new listeners seeking music that crosses borders and touches hearts through the universality of human experience.
Tickets can be purchased here and at the door. A reception with the group will follow the performance.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 30 years, the last 15 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. He regularly contributes feature articles and CD reviews to Progression magazine and for several years wrote for The Jewish Advocate.