Through stories and music, ‘Welcome Here’ program explores diverse perspectives on homeland

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What does it mean to be connected to place, to have a homeland? That’s a question posed by a music and storytelling project currently touring the state.

On a recent evening at the Rockport Opera House, a dozen or so musicians were tuning their instruments before taking the stage for the second performance of the Welcome Here project.

The project revolves around the stories of three women — one from the Penobscot Nation, one from Puerto Rico, and one from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — who each have a distinct relationship with their homelands.

The program was organized by Palaver Strings, a musician-led string ensemble and music education nonprofit based in Portland. For this project, Palaver musicians play an accompanying role to guest artists of Wabanaki, Congolese and Puerto Rican heritage.

The storytelling aspect of the project was directed by Sherri Mitchell, an author, lawyer, and educator born and raised on the Penobscot Reservation.

“I can answer the question, ‘Who are you?’ And, ‘Where are you from?’ with one word: Panawahpskewi,” Mitchell said. “And so, knowing that that’s true, that gave me a starting point.”

Mitchell was also one of the three storytellers featured in the show.

“Long before I was born to this land, I was held in this soil, as an image in the deepest dreams of my ancestors,” she said onstage at the Rockport Opera House. “It was here that I first learned of my place in creation, with the people of the Dawnland, the keepers of the eastern doorway.”

Between storytelling sections, Mitchell was joined onstage by Wabanaki singers Tania Morey and Lauren Stevens.

Mitchell said her connection to homeland was embodied in her grandmother, a fluent Passamaquoddy speaker.

But she said her grandmother had to fight to hold on to her language against attempts at cultural erasure that took place in Maine. When her grandmother was eight years old, she was forced into a mission school which punished students for speaking their language.

“So this small child, who had been taken from her loving grandmother, spent the next few years being beaten every time she opened her mouth and tried to communicate,” Mitchell said. “She was forced to learn the English language through torture.”

Despite this history, Mitchell said she feels a deep sense of privilege and gratitude to be living in the place where she can trace her family back for generations.

A woman wearing a multicolor dress stands in front of a music stand on stage, while musicians stand in the background.

Adele Ngoy, center, reading part of her story onstage at the Rockport Opera House while her fellow storytellers Sherri Mitchell (seated, black shirt) and Blanca Santiago (seated, orange dress) look on.

For her fellow storyteller Adele Ngoy, that sense of continuity was ruptured by war. Ngoy, a fashion designer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had to flee her country as a refugee in the late 90s with her three children.

“I was feeling lost,” she said. “I was feeling like my life was over.”

They ended up in Portland, where Ngoy confronted the daunting task of building a new life from scratch. She said as a mother, she also faced the challenge of maintaining her sense of Congolese identity even as her kids grew up steeped in American culture.

Twenty-three years later, Ngoy is once again running a fashion business and has married a Mainer. Now, she says both Maine and the Congo feel like home.

“I have to balance. I have to do a lot of balancing,” she said.

A girl wearing a white dress sings into a microphone while a man wearing a white shirt and black pants plays guitar.

Guest artists Kaylee Kazadi, left, and Gabriel Nienguesso performing Congolese music at the Rockport Opera House.

For the third storyteller, Blanca Santiago, the idea of belonging to a place is hard to untangle.

“What is homeland? Is it the home you make here in Portland, where you feel the sense of home? Or is it the place of your birth?” Santiago said.

Santiago is from Puerto Rico, but left the island when she was a young child, and has lived in Portland for several decades. She now works as a therapist.

Santiago says she feels a deep connection to Puerto Rican culture, especially the music, performed in the show by guest artists Viva and Zayra Ocasio.

But Santiago said she also feels a sense of mourning for the island’s indigenous Taino culture and language, which were largely smothered under centuries of colonial rule.

She said Mitchell’s story and the Wabanaki songs struck a chord with her, as she wrestles with the colonial history of her own homeland.

“What happened there, in my motherland, and what happened here on this soil, it’s kind of almost like a parallel experience,” Santiago said.

In the telling of her own story, Sherri Mitchell turns back to her grandmother, who passed away some years ago, to offer a message in Passamaquoddy.

“I’m just saying to the grandmothers and grandfathers who came before us: ‘Thank you for preserving the language. Thank you for passing it down to us,'” Mitchell said. “And just telling them, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.'”

A grandmother herself, Mitchell said she’s now teaching the language to her own grandchildren.

A group of musicians and storytellers stand on stage preparing to take a bow.

Welcome Here guest artists, from left: Lauren Stevens, Tania Morey, Gabriel Nienguesso, Kaylee Kazadi, Sherri Mitchell, Viva, Zayra Ocasio, Blanca Santiago, and Adele Ngoy.
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