When Debora Kodish arrived in Philadelphia in the early 1980s with her new doctorate in folklore from the University of Texas, there was no one in the city documenting everyday life in its many and varied neighborhoods.
No one organization was looking at what the African drummers were doing, what the Hispanic street artists were up to, what the Vietnamese musicians were playing, what the Italians in South Philly were saying – or at why they were doing what they were doing and saying what they were saying.
Kodish and some young colleagues huddled in a room at the Fleisher Art Memorial, and started asking the questions.
From those sessions, a small, fiercely focused independent organization grew – the Philadelphia Folklore Project, a reflection of Kodish’s commitment, energy, and voracious appetite for documentation.
Now 61, Kodish is stepping down after 27 years of leadership. Selina Morales, 32, a folklorist trained at Indiana University and a four-year PFP vet, will take the helm of this still-unique, still-focused organization.
The official transition will be marked at PFP’s annual birthday bash Saturday at the Painted Bride Art Center, 220 Vine St. There also will be two honorees, percussionists Elaine Hoffman Watts and Nana Korantema Ayeboafo, the former working in klezmer, the latter an African drummer.
“Both totally groundbreaking,” Kodish said recently, sitting with Morales in the back gallery of the project’s home, a rowhouse on West 50th Street near Baltimore Avenue.
The large front gallery is occupied by the current exhibition “Honoring Ancestors,” a joint effort with the Community Education Center, marking CEC’s DanceAfrica Philadelphia! festival.
Kodish and Morales sat at a table covered with a red-checked cloth in the Bill and Miriam Crawford Dining Room, a permanent installation in the PFP building. Its walls covered with political images, posters, fliers, and newspaper pages that once adorned the dining room walls of the Philadelphia activist couple’s home, it is a prime example of the project’s work.