Thursday, September 24, 2009

America's living national treasures: A scenesetter

The National Heritage Fellowships, awarded every year by the National Endowment of the Arts, honor a dozen or so practitioners of traditional and folks arts in the United States; this year's disciplines included music, dance, basket weaving, and poetry.

After the 2008 awards ceremony, I wrote in one of my earliest blog entries:

"When I first came to Washington in 1986 to join the Voice of America 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 '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."

This year's ceremony, to be held again tonight in the visionary Music Center at Strathmore, a cavernous structure that seats an audience of nearly 2,000 amidst a captivating multi-level array of glowing wood surfaces, promises to be no less memorable. Once again, Nick Spitzer, host of the popular Public Radio International "roots [folk/traditional/world] music" program, American Routes, will be the master of ceremonies for the evening.

I hope to comment on aspects of tonight's program in future blog entries, and have already paid tribute in a previous posting to the late Mike Seeger, one of this year's Fellows. To the left is a picture of his widow, Alexa Smith, receiving his award in a ceremony in the national Capitol's visitor's center the day before yesterday (Tuesday, 22 September 2009). You can read more about him, and listen to an audio tribute to him, with photographs, on the NEA Website. (Photo by Tom Pich.)

In the meantime, here are the photographs of other Fellows in the performing arts receiving their awards, with links to their NEA pages, with audio samples:

Here are the Birmingham Sunlights, a gospel music group from the city of that name in the Southern state of Alabama, who specialize in a vocal style, sung a capella (without any instrumental accompaniment) in what is called four-part harmony, with four different melodic lines woven together at different intervals so as to create chords. Go to their NEA Web page for their interview (which you can listen to or read), as well as for audio samples of their distinctive performance style. (Photo by Michael G. Stewart.)

Next among the musical Fellows is Edwin Colón Zayas, possibly the world's leading master of the cuatro, a guitar-like instrument popular in his home, the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico; the instrument, despite its name (cuatro is "four" in Spanish), has five pairs of strings. You may read his interview (in Spanish, or translated into English), and hear two clips of his music on his NEA Web page. (Photo by Michael G. Stewart.)

Amma D. McKen, from the culturally rich New York borough of Queens, performs in the vocal style of the Orisha religious tradition practiced among the Yoruba tribe of the African nation of Nigeria. Her interview, as well as two audio samples of her performance, is on her NEA Web page. (Photo by Tom Pich.)

Next is Dudley Laufman, a dance caller and musician from Canterbury in the northeastern state of New Hampshire. In the U.S., "barn dances", "square dances", or "contra dance" traditions, movements of the dancers (usually couples, and amateurs, often members of a rural community or group of families), are directed by a "caller" who gives advance notice to the participants of the next dance move, taken from a shared repertoire of stock patterns, that they are to make. Laufman himself is also a fiddle player, and examples of typical dance music, as well as his interview, may be heard on his NEA Web page. (Photo by Tom Pich.)

Finally, among the musicians, Ida Guillory, currently living Daly City, CA, is a singer and master of the accordion. She is known popularly as "Queen Ida", and performs in the Zydeco music and dance tradition, which emerged in the coastal state of Louisiana among the Creole community, whose culture and language resulted from a fascinating fusion of southern American and French influences. She is notable for being the first woman to lead a Zydeco band. Go to her NEA Web page for her interview and music samples. It is also interesting to note that she spent her formative years outside New Orleans, first in Texas, then in California, and yet became one of the best known and most beloved of Zydeco performers. (Photo by Tom Pich.)

This years Fellows also included two dancer/choreographers:

Chitresh Das, originally from India, is a practitioner of the classical Indian dance form known as Kathak, which, like the Flamenco tradition of Spain, or American tap dancing, places a primary emphasis on intricate percussive footwork. He lives and teaches in the San Franciso Bay area. His interview may be read on his NEA Web page. (Photo by Tom Pich.)

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, now living in Long Beach, CA, is originally from Cambodia, where she and her parents survived the horrific holocaust perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, under which all traditional Cambodian arts, including the rich classical dance legacy, were brutally and ruthlessly suppressed. You may read her interview on her NEA Web page. (Photo by Tom Pich.)

Also see the NEA Website for profiles of the other Fellows--two basket weavers, LeRoy Graber, from Freeman, SD, and Teri Rofkar, a member of the Tinglit tribe from Sitka, AK--and Joel Nelson, a cowboy poet from Alpine, Texas, whose NEA Web page includes audio recordings of him reciting two of his eloquent poems, as well as a slide show of the Cowboy Poetry Festival.

Judging from this rich panorama of diverse talents, tonight's program will most likely be as rich as last year's, and I expect in future postings to highlight the performance, as well as the achievements, of at least two of the National Heritage Fellows, who--in the tradition of some other countries who recognize the importance of the arts and artists--may be considered to be among America's living National Treasures.

(All photos of N.E.A. Chairman Rocco Landesman presenting the awards were provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, and are used with permission; photographer credits are given with each picture. The generous assistance of Elizabeth Stark of the N.E.A.'s Office of Communications is also gratefully acknowledged.)

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