Tuesday, September 28, 2010

America's "Living National Treasures": The National Heritage Fellows

Each year the National Endowment for the Arts selects a number of traditional artists and artisans in many genres, who, whatever their national origin, currently practice their skills as residents of the United States. They represent the many cultural currents, and the myriad artistic motives and achievements, embodying both individual and group genius, of the American "melting pot." Last Friday night at Strathmore was the 28th annual celebration of this year's National Heritage Fellows:

(To enlarge, click on the photo.) In the back row from left to right are: NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts Barry Bergey; Bharatanatyam Indian dancer Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan, fiddler Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor, bluegrass guitarist and singer Del McCoury, Irish flute player Mike Rafferty, and NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman. In the front row, from left to right, are: lauhala (palm leaf) weaver Gladys Kukana Grace, folklorist and editor Judith McCulloh, sweetgrass basketweaver Mary Jackson, and Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy. (Afro-Cuban drummer and drum-builder Ezequiel Torres is not pictured.) The above photograph was taken by Michael G. Stewart (and used with permission from the NEA) at a ceremony at the Library of Congress on 22 September 2010.

As noted, the musical genres represented this year included Ghanaian and Afro-Cuban drumming (Afro-Cuban drummer and drum builder Ezequiel Torres does not appear in the picture), bluegrass music; and the Irish flute. The music of South India (also known as the Carnatic tradition), moreover, is the idiom of Bharatanatyam dance.

I very much regretted being unable to attend this year's Strathmore "concert" (I was in Denver for the fiftieth reunion of my high school class--of which more later), for the event has always been for me a high point of of the cultural year. I had attended my first National Heritage Awards celebration when I had come 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. The splendid narrator for the evening was the late Charles Kuralt, 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.

Since 1999, the Strathmore program has been ably hosted by the eminent folklorist Nick Spitzer, whose weekly program, American Routes, is heard throughout the U.S. on more than 200 public radio stations. (See a future posting on this fine series.)

This year, thanks to the medium of the internet, the 2010 program was streamed live on the Web and is due to be archived, and we are now able not only to access audio or video samples of performances by the musicians and dancer, but the audio and text of interviews with them (click on their names below), as well as with the other award recipients:

Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor, fiddler from Rockwall, Texas. At the Library of Congress Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman gave this citation: “A master of the intricate and ornamented style of fiddling known as the Texas style, Jim Chancellor could fill a trophy case with the local, state, and world championships he has won. He is a patient and skilled teacher of a new generation of fiddle artists across the country, but one who will remain always a sincere student of the tradition he loves.”

Del McCoury, bluegrass guitarist and singer from Nashville, Tennessee (feature podcast here, and MP3 feature for download here.) Landesman's citation: “Del McCoury is a distinctive singer whose penetrating vocals epitomize bluegrass standards of tradition and excellence. He is an innovator who has adapted the work of contemporary songwriters to reach new and broader audiences.”

Mike Rafferty, Irish flute player from Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey (feature podcast here, and MP3 feature for download here.) In the words of NEA Chairman Landesman, “Mike Rafferty is a master of the Irish flute who learned from family and friends in a small village in East Galway. He is an artist who brought his musical excellence to his new home in Hasbrouck Heights and has increased our appreciation of Irish music throughout the United States.”

Yacub Addy, Ghanaian drum master from Latham, New York. (Click here for an article on the music of Ghana.) In Landesman's words, “A master of the traditional Ga music, Yacub Addy is a generous mentor of aspiring drummers as well as a collaborator with jazz and popular musicians, who has created new works that speak to issues of social and cultural relevance today.”

Ezequiel Torres, Afro-Cuban drummer and drum builder from Miami, Florida. (Click here for an article on Cuban music.)

And finally, Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan, Bharatanatyam Indian dancer from Mastic, New York. Landesman's citation: “Narayanan is a master of south Indian classical dance whose name is synonymous with the art form. She is both a performer who has danced before queens, prime ministers, and presidents and a teacher who has trained students for the past three decades.”

I'll update this site as further possible podcasts and the archived video of the event become available. Last year's Strathmore program was featured on the 23 December 2009 edition of American Routes, and can be heard here.

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