Friday, September 19, 2008

Washington Songlines: American National Treasures: The National Heritage Fellows

Tonight was the 26th annual celebration of the the National Heritage Fellows, who as individuals represent an astonishingly broad and vital range of traditional artists and artisans in many genres, and who currently practice their skills in the geographical confines of the continental United States.

The musical genres represented this year included: rivetingly precise Korean-America choreographed drumming, and mystically hypnotic Ethiopian-American liturgical chant and drumming; Brazilian-American martial arts disguised strategically (for purposes of self-defense in the old times of slavery) as singing, instrumental music, and dancing; engagingly foot-tapping bluegrass string-band and vocal music (with the original honoree--as sometimes happens in these ceremonies--being too ill to be present personally); Native American a capella hymn singing (from a choir from the Oneida Nation), and warrior chanting and drumming (by a venerable elder from the Nez Perce Nation); and last but not least, New Orleans jazz--the last in a moving testimony to the human courage shown by those who not only survived Hurricane Katrina, but who (swallowing their pain and putting behind them their profound losses) fought back to transform their suffering into brave joy, with music as their life-raft and beacon.

The evening's "concert"--which also included, among other non-musical disciplines, presentations by practitioners of saddle-making, quilting, and traditional Peruvian miniaturist dioramas (with plaster-of-paris and flour mixture animal and human figures, brilliantly colored)--was sufficiently rich in musical resonance that I will make several future entries on each of the individual recipients and their arts and mastery. Let tonight's midnight musings suffice with a personal account of my own discovery of how this unique, but only too modest, annual occasion celebrates America's "national treasures."

When I first came to Washington in 1986 to join VOA as the Chief of the Urdu Service (having found the folkloric tradition as one of my avenues of discovery of the communicative powers of music), I attended my first National Heritage Awards celebration in Washington. The splendid narrator for the evening was the late Charles Kurault, host of the incomparable "CBS Sunday Morning" television show, which more than any other news program before or since quietly but eloquently celebrated the diversity, humanity, and vitality of the American heartland. I remember that evening with crystalline clarity (having moved after 26 years of university study and teaching to broadcast journalism) as carrying a spiritual message that inspired me, in my new and exciting career, to explore culture as a medium of understanding universal values among humankind.

And tonight, 22 years later, I am most fortunate to have the opportunity not only to witness again a few examples of individual and group genius--representing the many cultural currents, the myriad artistic motives and achievements, of the American "melting pot"--but to share the richness of tonight's celebration with my fellow citizens of the world, via this new and wondrous medium of the Internet. . . .

As we used to say in radio, "stay tuned" for more discoveries.

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