The most important thing to remember about playing your face, says Steve Hickman, is never use your fist.
After this warning, he showed several hundred students at Waynewood Elementary how to make the distinctive popping sounds he’d produced by batting his open palms against his cheeks in a blur of motion.
The students mimicked him as he held up an imaginary egg, then popped it into his mouth, forcing their mouths open, “as if you’re about to say ‘Oh,’” Hickman explained. When he led them in an “instrumental” version of “Mary Had a Little Face,” the gym echoed with resonant pops as if it were a pond-full of peepers.
Besides the fiddle, Hickman plays his body. With his “hambone” technique, Hickman can produce multitudinous noises from his legs, chest, arms and face. For more than 30 years, Hickman and his partner on guitar, John Devine, have been bringing traditional American music to country-dances, concerts and summer camps. Hickman said most of the music comes from the European communities that took root in isolated areas of the North-American wilderness. They play most of their “Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian, and Southern Appalachian” music at country-dances, which Hickman said are not as hard to find, as some would assume. They are still “one of the old-fashioned ways of finding a good mate.”
This December, the duo is performing at the Christmas Revels, a series of performances that demonstrate traditional ways of celebrating the season in cultures across the world. The Revels came to D.C. in 1983 to bring together children and adults, professionals and amateurs, to mark the changing seasons with songs and dances that have been performed across continents and centuries. This year, the focus is on early American celebrations of the Winter Solstice using music, dancing and drama.
IAN ROBERTS, a gracefully aging native of Britain who lives in Hollin Halls, said it is his “self-appointed mission” to spread the word about the Revels, although he himself, “can’t sing for toffee.” He has brought Revels performers to Fort Hunt Elementary for the last four years. This was the first year he brought performers to Waynewood as well. Last year, it was three musicians from north-west Russia and Finland. The year before it was Roma, or gypsies. They played Indian dances next to Spanish Flamenco – vividly revealing relationships that spanned regions and cultures. Roberts said he wanted children to understand they are connected to “a bigger tradition.”
“And they are also having a lot of fun in seeing these adults relate to them in a non-teaching way.”
But that is only if you consider a fill-in the blanks lesson on Magalena Hagalena Okanakawakataka Okanonokowokapoka “not teaching.” As Hickman described the singular woman from head to toe, the students eagerly finished his sentences.
“She had two holes in the middle of her nose,” Hickman sang. “One was open. One was-”
“Closed!” The children screamed.
“She had a big wart on the end of her chin. She said it was a dimple, but dimples point-”
“In!” they cried.
The assembly closed with an ever-expanding catalogue of the animals on Grampa’s farm. The students’ laughter reached a peak when Hickman acted out the final suggestion, “a big, brown monkey,” despite a steady chant of “Dinosaur! Dinosaur!” from the sixth graders in the back of the room.
“It was the funniest assembly ever,” was the consensus of one fourth grade class. They agreed it was different from any other event the school had ever hosted.
“The funniest thing was when he surprised us with yelling,” said Luci Ludovici.
Assistant principal Richard Pollio said he was happy to expose the students to traditional folk music, one of the many genres they study in class. Devine said the students responded so well to his music because children have been singing and dancing for thousands of years. Traditional entertainment gives them a role that is “participatory and not spectator, not being amused by the tube.”