Bay Area ACTA Awardees Gathering 2009
By Lily Kharrazi, ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program Manager
Photos by Sherwood Chen, ACTA's Associate Director
At the close of each calendar year, bay area participants who have completed or are near completion of their Apprenticeship Program learning cycle or their Living Cultures Grant Program project are invited to meet one another. On December 6, 2009, nearly 40 people gathered in an upstairs classroom of the new Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley to share what for many in the room is considered their life work.
Traditional artists, cultural activists and staff traded in a few short sentences their vital information, beginning with introductions, what organizations they represent and what arts they are engaged in. The tone of the meeting was set immediately by the blessing of Christine Hamilton, Pomo basket maker, who as the indigenous elder brought our focus together to acknowledge that our Bay Area home- base is indeed indigenous land. Perhaps it was the close quarters and full room, but the depth of conversation afforded each participant a glimpse into the commitment and artistry of all those in the room.
The gathering also featured the sharing of art by a number of participants. We were treated to the sounds of Haitian petwo rhythms, a driving sequence played on lead drum by Zeke Nealy and accompanied on second drum by Jan Jaap of the Haitian Dance and Drum Conference. Apprentice Kwan Wong played and sang a song hundreds of years old on the Chinese quqin, a plucked zither instrument treasured for its refinery and depth of sound. He played under the watchful eye of master instrumentalist Fei Wang. Lilia Serlegi and Ferenc Tobak, fresh from the previous night’s musical concert of pipe and drone instruments from around the world, treated the group to Hungarian Christmas songs played on the mandolin and bagpipe, respectively.
The room transformed itself from a crowded classroom to an Uzbek family living room when Abbos Kosimov, master percussionist who plays doira, demonstrated the intricacies of this Central Asian percussion instrument. His apprentice this year is Tara Pandeya, a dancer whose life work is researching and performing the dance of this region. She was able to show us the translated percussive skills she has been perfecting since studying percussion with master Kosimov. They have both been invited to perform in the Arab Emirates and were boarding a plane for this long flight the next day.
We witnessed the first public showing of kapa cloth that was pounded and designed by Wendeanne Ke’aka Stitt along with the Antioch-based Halau 'O Kawainui. Under the leadership Kumu Hula (teacher) Kau’i Peralto, the project consisted of research into an ancient code of dress which was used in hula then adapted and made with the assistance of members of the halau . With carefully stamped markings of a dye of California black walnut hulls and hand-dyed areas of turmeric-yellow and bright pink-mulberry, we watched Hi’ilani, daughter of the kumu, dance for us as her mother chanted. The cloth was completed the night before our gathering and the honor that it was brought to our gathering to show us the dress and dance was appreciated by all.
Sani Rifati of Voice of Roma got the group up on the floor to learn a line dance. What looked to be a simple “step-step-hop-hop” was elegant for him and awkward for others but the group spirit he engendered with his teaching style was infectious. The music and dance of the Roma people have influenced greatly the popular styles in all of the Balkans, Turkey, Spain and beyond.
The unaccompanied voice of Tsering Wangmo was strong as she sang a Tibetan song of blessing for the New Year. She had relayed in her introduction to the group that she had never been to Tibet. With parents exiled to a refugee camp in India, she was born outside of Tibet. She exemplified cultural continuity as her life’s work has been dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of Tibetan arts both in India where she was a member of an esteemed arts institution dedicated to teaching the arts as well as here in the Bay Area where she has been a member of Chaksam-Pa Tibetan Dance & Opera Company, which just celebrated 20 years in the Bay Area.
When Melody Williams, apprentice basket maker to Christine Hamilton, held a tightly coiled basket in the palm of her hand for the group to see, an audible gasp was heard when we were informed that it took her 100 hours to complete the tiny, tightly woven basket. From the gathering of materials, some of which are roots dug up by a river bed to the preparation of these materials before weaving, the tradition of basket making is both utilitarian and spiritual in nature. We were able to see examples of the materials and a number of baskets made by the Pomo women.
For many assembled in the room, the continuity and perpetuation of traditional arts is not so much a choice, but might be best characterized as a drive. One reason that gatherings of this nature are important is that traditional artists often feel isolated from one another. The issues that communities face from lack of resources to best practices often stay within a small trajectory. Some of the surprises expressed in finding commonality among the myriad grantees were expressed by Ronnie Stewart of the Bay Area Blues Society. Upon hearing Tsering sing her Tibetan song, he immediately identified it as in the key of B-flat and pronounced it as “blues”. He wants to record her! The plight of the Romani people and the appropriation of their music into the dominant culture is something that resonated with him as well as he documents the rich history of African American blues in northern California. Sean Dorsey of Fresh Meat Productions has incorporated traditional artists into the annual San Francisco festival that highlights queer and transgender artists. He articulates the need to place into our cultural history the value of another marginalized community who have their own rich aesthetics.
With final blessings chanted by native Hawaiian speaker and storyteller Paul K. Blake, who serves on the board of the California Indian Storytellers Association, as well as from Christine Hamilton, we were brought back in circular fashion to where we had begun with a Pomo blessing for our conclusion.
Additional attendees not captured in the photos include:
Mestre Marcelo Pereira and Donna Lee (Capoeira Mandinga), Ronnnie Stewart (Bay Area Blues Society), Ana Nitmar and Manuel Torres (Martin Productions), Carol Keslar (Chaksam-Pa Tibetan Dance & Opera Co.), April Kim (Oakland Asian Cultural Center), Sia Amma (Global Women Intact), Steve Baker (Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse), Paul K. Blake (California Indian Storytellers Association).