Supporting the Arts, One Musician At a Time

Iguana FundTony Watt, a recipient of the Iguana Fund, strums his mandolin for a portrait session at the Cantab Lounge, where he plays every Tuesday. Photo by Evan Sayles.

Passim doled out $42,000 this winter to musicians with ties to New England as part of its annual effort to help artists advance their careers.

The Harvard Square-based nonprofit’s Iguana Music Fund is designed to enrich local communities by supporting musicians and making it easier to be a full-time artist.

“It’s really to help the whole community,” Assistant Club Manager at Club Passim Abby Altman says. “Art isn’t made in a bubble, and so many artists, especially in the Greater Boston music scene, help each other, play with each other, live with each other. The greatest thing about this fund is that helping one of these artists is going to spread into the community.”

The grants will support everything from composition to equipment repair to music education.

“I feel like the fund does a great job of not just, ‘Here’s some money so you can make a project,’ but ‘Here’s some money so you can make a living as an artist, you can make this what you do,’” she says. “It’s not just specifically music projects that we help with, but we help with the artists’ lives.”

Meet the Cambridge-based musicians who received Iguana grants this year:

Deborah Silverstein

Iguana Fund

Deborah Silverstein. Photo by Evan Sayles.

Scout: Tell us a bit about yourself and your connection to the area.

Deborah Silverstein: I’m a singer-songwriter and I’ve been living in the Boston area since 1973. I’ve been in the acoustic folk music and topical music world most of this entire time. My music’s always threaded through my life of conscious politics and social justice issues.

One of my bandmates from my first band, New Harmony, got a gig to perform at a women’s political history conference that was at BU. We were preparing to do that gig at BU and somehow, without any real intention, I spontaneously wrote a song which we ended up singing at that conference, and I call that song “Riveted.”

The song is about all these women who were drawn into the factories and the workforce during World War II, because all the men were fighting in Europe, and so women were heavily recruited to populate the workplace. And then as soon as World War II ended, the women were all moved out of the workplace quite deliberately, and there was a huge amount of propaganda about that, and they were moved out of the workplace and into the life of the ’50s, which was for working class, middle-income women, the life of the suburban housewife and the whole set of social norms and attitudes about who women were supposed to be and what femininity was supposed to be.

And that’s the world I grew up in. Because I’m a child of the ’50s and the ’60s, so the song is meant to be about the experience of that woman and what happened to her and the daughters of these women who were raised in this environment. And then we are the ones who went on to become the second wave of the women’s movement.

After I wrote the song I started thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is a play, this is a generational play.” And that idea kept growing in my mind and I found myself writing another couple songs around the image of this character who I call Rosie, who is that person who was a young woman at the start of World War II and then ended up in the suburbs and the life that she lived and her children.

Scout: So the grant is really to help you write and compose this?

Right, it’s development money, it’s not production money. It doesn’t exist in a complete form yet. I have a whole story arc figured out and I have three completed songs now.

Scout: Passim intends the grants to ultimately benefit the community in some way. What are you hoping this will end up doing for the Cambridge community?

What I’m hoping is that this will get staged and performed eventually as a complete musical, and in the interim there’s the option of staging small parts of it. I’ve been talking to many people I know and everyone I’ve spoken to—not just women of my generation, but with younger women as well—get excited about the idea that I have, because it’s going to be a three-generational play and it’ll be happening in the present with flashbacks.

 

Tony Watt

Scout: Tell us about yourself and your work.

I am born and raised in Cambridge, and I grew up listening to and later playing traditional bluegrass music, which is an indigenous art form of America that was invented and played primarily in the South for most of its history. My dad plays banjo and mandolin and has for probably over 50 years in Cambridge, so I grew up loving bluegrass and playing bluegrass and spent a lot of my college and post-college years living in various places down south where I was studying to be an engineer—I was at Vanderbilt in Nashville, which was really just an excuse to live in Nashville and play music on the side, not so much about school. I eventually ended up back here in Cambridge, where I’ve been teaching bluegrass music full-time for the past decade as my primary job. I perform locally with my own band, I perform in my dad’s band, I perform in my wife’s band. My band is called Tony Watt and Southeast Expressway.

Scout: How are you going to be using this grant from Passim?

Iguana Fund

Tony Watt. Photo by Evan Sayles.

I am starting a new bluegrass event. It’s a weekend-long event that is going to be held the weekend before Thanksgiving, Nov. 16-18, at the Framingham Sheraton. This bluegrass weekend event is like a bluegrass festival, which is a normal, very common way that bluegrass musicians get together, but it will not have a stage show, there will be no bands performing. It will really just be focused on bluegrass jamming, with some workshops and jam sessions led by some wonderful teachers and musicians.

Scout: Why do you think that the Greater Boston community needs an event like this?

We have a really vibrant bluegrass community in the northeast, it’s really very surprising given that we’re not located in the southeast United States. This event is happening in sort of a dead time for our community. We have a very busy summer festival season, where people go and camp out at bluegrass festivals all throughout the summer, and then after it starts cooling down, transitioning into the fall, there’s not many weekend events for bluegrass musicians in the northeast, so this is an indoor event and I think that the community will really be excited to be a part of it.

Scout: What is it that you enjoy about bluegrass so much?

The thing that’s so enjoyable about bluegrass is the jamming, the jam culture of bluegrass. It’s very inclusive—you can learn how to jam bluegrass very quickly and make music with other people. There’s something about that communal creation of music that is just more powerful than anything you can imagine, it’s really, really exciting. We have a great community built around that.

 

NEWPOLI

NEWPOLI

NEWPOLI. Photo by Liz Linder.

Scout: Tell us about the group’s style and how you got where you are today.

Carmen Marsico: The genre that we do is a little bit difficult to describe. It is based on the folk tradition that we have in the south of Italy, but right now after many years we kind of developed a slightly different sound—we use this tradition but we mix it with other traditions that you can find in the Mediterranean area so that you can hear a little bit of the Middle East and North Africa, and this is actually our sound now.

Specifically, these last few years we’ve been trying to talk in our original songs about immigration, diversity—people are different. We are trying to create more of a peaceful world with our music, we want to spread this message.

Scout: What are your group’s ties to Cambridge?

Angela Rossi: I’ve been a Cambridge resident for at least 10 years. We have definitely played in Cambridge a lot—we’ve performed at the Lizard Lounge, for example, we have performed at Regattabar, Ryles, The Lilypad. We’ve performed at pretty much all the venues around here. Cambridge seems to like Newpoli, and we like Cambridge.

Scout: Tell us about this grant and how you guys are going to be spending it and what it will allow you to do.

CM: We applied for the grant because we are going to Kansas City, Mo. to perform at the Folk Alliance International Conference. We need some funds for this because it’s quite expensive between the traveling, the hotel, and the fees for the conference. We really want for Newpoli to spread music, to have more and more people listening to the project.

AR: Those conferences are one way for musical acts to access areas of the U.S. where the music is not known yet and present at venues, and sometimes agents come to those conferences to see what the musical groups do, and so it’s our chance to spread our music.

Scout: One of the main goals of Passim’s Iguana Fund is to be empowering local musicians so that they can give back to their community. So how do you think that this experience for your group is going to be able to make you give back to Cambridge?

AR: If the group is successful, the background of this group, the fan base in Cambridge, we will be representing wherever we go. One of the ideas that we had is to hold a world music festival sometime in Cambridge.

CM: We are very grateful that Club Passim has these opportunities for musicians in Cambridge because, specifically for us, it’s very difficult to find funds and grants. Because of the type of music that we play, sometimes you can find grants for classical music, jazz, but for world music it’s quite different. It’s complicated, there are not so many possibilities, so we were really happy when we received the fund.

Each spring, all of the grant winners put on a showcase highlighting their projects. This year’s show will run on April 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free.

Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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