Austin-based folklorist Pat Jasper had been coming to Houston to explore our local cultures for many years by 2005, when Hurricane Katrina forced so many New Orleanians to Houston to seek new lives in the Bayou City. Along with University of Houston folklorist Carl Lindahl, and others, Jasper went to work on Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, an oral history project in which Katrina evacuees told and recorded their own survival stories.
Jasper says that when the local backlash against the New Orleanians began, “based on stereotypes and bad [inaccurate] statistics,” the Surviving Katrina crew was able to use the story-gathering tools of folklore to let that community introduce itself to the city.
It was during this process that Jasper realized that “the whole city needed introducing to itself.” That is, Jasper saw that, while Houston was focused on its glittering cultural superstructure; the opera, the symphony, the ballet, and so on, the city was blind to its own indigenous culture. The opera was indeed world class, but it wasn’t unique to Houston.
“Only Houston,” she says, “is home to its own grassroots culture.”
That grassroots culture is the “rich Gulf Coast culture” that belongs to the people of various races and denominations who came to Houston long ago to work in the Port or in the refineries.
“There’s an incredible Creole culture here,” Jasper says. “Every fourth African-American you meet here has a Creole name. But if you’re not Creole, then you don’t know that.”
And in the last 30 or so years, that local grassroots culture has been further gumboized by the arrival of international immigrant communities, each of whom brings their own culture with them, and attempts to keep that culture alive.
Jasper says that all Texas cities have their grassroots cultural riches, but that none compare to the “urban nexus that is Houston.” But as we all know, the city is rather blissfully unaware of its own history and heritage.
“Houston is can-do and go-go. It’s been too busy to pay attention to its history,” she says.
But, beginning around the time of Katrina, Jasper says she felt a new element stirring in the local gumbo, an awakening of the city’s self consciousness.
“The city has been waking up to itself,” she says, and becoming interested in bringing together its disparate parts to create something new. As evidence she points to the success of Discovery Green, where Houston’s many communities happily rub shoulders.
Intrigued by Houston's potential —“It was virgin territory for folklore” — Jasper began the Sacred Voices, Sacred Sites project under the auspices of the Houston Arts Alliance. In it she has created a series of programs intended to allow the city’s many religious communities to introduce themselves to each other, and to the city. Some of the communities have deep roots here; others have arrived in this latest wave of immigration.
The first program took place last December in the Hobby Center, when Jasper assembled a concert of religious music from four traditions. The performers were all local: a mariachi band from a Catholic church, a Jewish cantor, a Sufi Qawwali singer (who had once studied with the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), and a gospel singer and choir.
Jasper was thrilled with the result. “The crowd was a diverse as the musicians,” she says. And the concert itself was electrifying. The crowd left buzzing about the performances and the city’s cultural riches.
Jasper will present a second program, OnSite/InSight, this weekend. This time she is asking Houstonians to get in their cars and go visit each other. Representatives from four religious traditions will open their doors to the public, and invite them to experience their music, food, architecture, and dance.
The event begins Saturday morning at the Hindu Chinmaya Prabha Mission, where congregants will perform a short puja (offering) to Shiva, and then make “presentations on music and dance in temple life,” according to Jasper. Saturday afternoon members of the Vietnam Buddhist Center will perform and explain a dragon dance.
Sunday morning members of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center in Sugar Land, which is affiliated with the Aga Khan, will demonstrate calligraphy and praise songs as they relate to their Shii’a services. The program concludes Sunday afternoon at Congregation Brith Shalom with a presentation of traditional cantorial music and contemporary Shabbat music.
Anyone can attend the programs, as few or as many as you like, but first you must register.
Sacred Songs/Sacred Sites will continue after this weekend with a series of workshops and exhibitions. For more information, go to houstonfolklife.com.