Nine nights of multicultural music at the Minnesota History Center


July 1 kicked off the 12th year of the Minnesota History Center’s spirited Nine Nights of Music. Every Tuesday night in July and August, the Minnesota History Center brings free outdoor music to the vast green lawn encircling its building at the intersection of Kellogg Avenue and John Ireland Boulevard in downtown St. Paul.

The series includes an array of vibrant rhythms and rich sounds from Minnesota’s multicultural community as well as some American favorites. Groups range from Bavarian polka to sizzling Brazilian samba and classic big-band swing. According to coordinator Wendy Freshman, the musicians they use for Tuesday night performances are all based in Minnesota. “The Twin Cities are such a melting pot, and this is great way to showcase that. It’s a way to be able to let people intermingle with each other through dancing together and holding hands.”

Nine Nights of Music runs through August 26. Performance times are generally 6:30-8:00 p.m.; however, performances on some evenings run until 8:30 p.m., and activity schedules vary. For more information, see the event calendar.

As an added bonus, dancers from the Tapestry Folkdance Center will be on hand to help get audience members dancing. They have partnered with the music event for about ten years. “We really want to get people to dance,” says Freshman. “We want to make it an active, participatory family event.”

Approximately 750-800 people attend each week’s performance. Freshman says that attendance has increased each year, and has reached as high as 1,000. The event was founded, in 1996, as a way of attracting families to the History Center. Performances are held on Tuesdays because the History Center is open until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday evenings. In addition, the museum admission fee that was implemented in recent years is waived on Tuesday nights, so attendees can visit the exhibits for free.

The event organizers at MHS work to create links between the live performances and exhibits at the History Center. For example, the museum is preparing a Minnesota’s Greatest Generation exhibit to debut in 2009. On July 9, Nine Nights of Music will offer 1950s-style music with a costume contest and classic cars on display. Later in the month, there will be a performance of big-band music with vintage World War II clothing and other items from that period on display.

Another fun activity, which started three years ago, is a “Guess the Gizmo” game. “It’s a quirky way to bring the museum outside,” says Freshman. “We work with a museum curator who goes through the stacks and finds really weird things. Some of the collection never sees the light of day!” Each unusual item is put in a portable display case, and audience members are invited to submit entries with their best guesses. Just before the end of the show, about five of the funniest answers are read aloud; the person with the best guess wins a membership to the museum. In past years, gizmos have included a “Pig Snouter” from 1898, which was used to remove cartilage from a pig’s nose; a “Cake Decorating Comb” from the 1950’s, which was used to carve decorative ridges into the frosting on the sides and tops of cake; and a “Climbing Iron” from 1945—used by telephone line workers to climb wooden utility poles.

Contratopia performs on tour in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy Contratopia.

Upcoming performances

On July 8, rock and roll group the Rockin’ Hollywoods offer a 50s-style show with be-bopping energy and excitement. Attendees are encouraged to wear their “50s threads” to model in a fashion show and win prizes. Instructors from Tapestry Folkdance Center will offer dance lessons.

Brazilian group Brasamba, performs on July 15; a Tapestry Folkdance instructor will also perform.

Irish/Celtic group Flip the Cat performs on July 22. The group is known for its signature combination of instruments (bouzouki, fiddles, mandolin, uilleann pipes, didgeridoo) and its eclectic influences: country-western music, movie theme, and more. Pre-show activities, including genealogy and jewelry workshops, run from 4:00-6:00 p.m.

On July 29, the Red Rock Swing Band pays tribute to “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.” The performance will extend to 8:30 p.m. and the evening will also include displays of World War II gear and vintage clothing.

On August 5, Cajun/Zydeco group Jumbo Ya Ya plays 60s-style zydeco, blues, and swamp pop—music from the Mississippi River and the Delta.

On August 12, the Mila Vocal Ensemble and the Niks perform Balkan music—thrilling vocal harmonies accompanied by a live folk ensemble with repertoire from the heart of Eastern Europe.

On August 19, master drummer and composer Sowah Mensah, a native of Ghana, plays a wide range of drumming styles as well as bamboo flutes, xylophones, and mbiras. An ensemble of musicians and friends join together to share an evening of joyous West African music.

On August 26, Contratopia performs American Folk jigs, reels, and waltzes. A caller will teach contra dancing, a traditional American social dance style similar to square dancing.

Betsy Mowry works as an arts administrator with COMPAS and the Arts & Culture Partnership of St. Paul.