‘Seeking Sanctuary’ celebrates immigrant stories through music and art

Boston musical ensemble Palaver Strings performed “Seeking Sanctuary” at the Boston Center for the Arts from Feb. 9 to Feb. 11. (Image courtesy of Melissa Blackall.) 

Light, airy folk tunes featuring the stringed Chinese erhu melded with fiery rhythms from Cape Verde compositions and Irish storytelling, under the glass dome of the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. The concert “Seeking Sanctuary,” performed by the ensemble Palaver Strings, united these three cultures in pursuing what it means to be part of an immigrant community in Boston. Surrounded by an interactive art installation, the musicians played Feb. 9 to Feb. 11.

“We wanted to take a holistic view of music and culture, as well as create a discussion on a hot topic issue,” said Francesca Crutchfield-Stoker, who facilitated workshops held before the concert. “We explored journeys, a sense of home, heritage stories and experiences as residents in our own sanctuary city … A sanctuary can mean a refuge as safety from pursuit, a nature reserve or a holy place, a temple.”

The opening portion unfurled a set of traditional Chinese songs, including the haunting and lyrical “Stream Flows” and the stirring “Charge of the War Horses,” complemented by a spoken word reflection on the experience of feeling like a foreigner. The soaring melodies from Cape Verde, such as the sweeping romance of “Amor Transatlantico” and the evocative, hopeful “Otilia Otilio,” spotlighted live vocals and were juxtaposed by mother and daughter speakers. Finally, a tribute to Irish culture was represented by the newly commissioned “Seeking Sanctuary” work, which was interspersed with stories drawn from accounts by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Tommy McCarthy. On the brick walls was an art installation by Miriam Shenitzer, displaying black panels with white hoops, within which audience members were encouraged to write their impressions.

Palaver Strings is a nonprofit that was founded in 2014 and is now composed of 14 musicians. The name of the group is derived from the term “palaver hut,” which is a “place of discussion and conflict resolution in Liberia,” according to the organization’s website. Through music, the artists hope to come to a creative agreement. Executive director Maya French said that the ensemble is democratically run, with no conductor or section leaders, while all members are considered co-artistic directors.

The Feb. 11 performance was followed by a panel led by the American Civil Liberties Union, during which speakers elaborated on what makes Boston a sanctuary city.

“We need to make sure we reject narratives that talk about immigrants being a danger to society,” said ACLUM representative Laura Rotolo. “…We’re celebrating immigrants who have made this city wonderful.”

The concert featured erhu musician Zhantao Lin, who played traditional Chinese folk songs. (Image courtesy of Melissa Blackall.)

Vania Chan presented spoken word pieces during the earlier portion of the program. (Image courtesy of Melissa Blackall.)

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