What do migrants bring with them? On a one-way trip to an unknown new life, perhaps they might pack money, documents, clothes, some small keepsakes. Invisibly and intangibly, they also carry cultural memories: the lullabies their parents sang, the dances they tried at a wedding, the best way to cook a chicken. On new territory, those memories become a link to home and also, with any luck, something to share with the neighbors.
It’s the American story, repeated with countless variations for each new arrival; it’s also a hot-button subject in politics worldwide. And it’s the theme for “Migrations: The Making of America,” a citywide festival that gets into gear this weekend, with Carnegie Hall at its center along with more than 75 partner organizations around the city, including the New-York Historical Society, the Irish Arts Center, Harlem Stage, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, El Museo del Barrio and the Vietnam Heritage Center. The festival encompasses dance workshops, panel discussions, and walking tours of Harlem along with concerts large and small.
“So many different cultures and so many different ethnicities want to tell their story,” said Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall. “It tells you something about the potency of the subject.”
Carnegie’s own programs focus on three historical migrations to and within the United States: the Irish and Scottish influx in the 18th and 19th centuries; Jews arriving from Russia and Eastern Europe from the late 19th century until the 1924 National Origins Act set quotas on immigration; and the Great Migration of 6 million African-Americans from the South to northern industrial cities. British Isles immigrants brought a repertoire that seeded Appalachian and country music. The Jewish contingent brought essential songwriters to Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. And the Great Migration disseminated blues, jazz, gospel and the other glories of African-American music.
When you consider that “some of the most sublime inspirational art you could ever imagine” came out of appalling situations, Mr. Gillinson said, “I think it tells you a lot about what human beings are able to do in transmuting some of the most painful and hardest things in life into something that can actually uplift everyone.”