The Sounds of Hispanic Heritage Month: A Spotlight on NEA National Heritage Fellow Musicians

Lorenzo Martínez y Riflexiones (featuring National Heritage Fellows Lorenzo (foreground) and his father Roberto (background)) playing at the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in a concert sponsored by the NEA. Photo by Jim Saah 
The United States is a nation of immigrants whose collective stories interweave to make America the unique, resilient, colorful, and beautiful tapestry that it is. The cultures that they bring and integrate with the already existing culture create the unique American character not found elsewhere in the world—nowhere else do so many voices speak for one country.
The National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship program celebrates those various traditions and how they represent these diverse communities throughout the country. The fellowships represent what it is to be American; the values, customs and traditions, and histories of those various threads that make up this tapestry.
During National Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re looking at some of the Hispanic/Latinx performing artists who have been awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, from Mexican American singer Lydia Mendoza in 1982 to renowned music group Los Lobos in 2021. Here are a few of the past honorees to enjoy during the commemorative month.
Los Lobos (2021 Fellows)
Let’s start with one of our newest fellows, the band Los Lobos from East Los Angeles. On each of their first two rock albums in the 1980s they included a traditional Mexican song along with their rock numbers, and that was my first introduction to the music. Sure, I had heard some jazz renderings, like Charlie Parker’s version of “La Cucaracha” and Charles Mingus’ Tijuana Moods, but those weren’t traditional renditions. After touring constantly and doing the La Bamba soundtrack (which increased their popularity), Los Lobos decided to lay back and put out an EP of only traditional music (okay, they wrote the title track, but as a traditional song), La Pistola y el Corazón, an album that showed the beauty and versatility of Mexican folk music. It remains one of my favorite Los Lobos albums. La Pistola y el Corazón ended up winning a Grammy Award for Best Mexican-American Performance (and started my search for recordings of traditional Mexican music).
Here’s a rendition of Los Lobos performing “La Pistola y el Corazón.”

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Eva Ybarra (2017 Fellow)
Conjunto music is one of the Mexican folk traditions with which I have become particularly enamoured, perhaps due to the sound of the accordion, an acquired taste for some but one for which I have always had affection. I came across an album, Romance Inolvidable, by someone I had not heard of before: Eva Ybarra out of San Antonio, Texas. I hadn’t come across any conjunto bands led by women before, so I picked up the album. Although maintaining the traditional conjunto style, all the songs were original. And the band cooked.
Here she is performing at the 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellowship concert, showing why she is called “Queen of the Accordion.”

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Israel “Cachao” López (1995 Fellow)
I was caught up in the traditional Cuban music craze of the late 1990s, due to Buena Vista Social Club, of course. Once you start looking back at the innovators of the music from 1930s to the 1950s, you can’t miss the importance of Cachao, as he was known. Considered one of the inventors of the musical style known as mambo, he was a star in Cuba and helped to popularize Afro-Cuban music in the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s. He defected to the U.S. in 1962 and was “rediscovered” late in his career when the actor Andy Garcia made a film about him in 1993. Extra fun fact: his nephew Orlando, nicknamed “Cachaito” after his famous uncle, was the bassist on the Buena Vista Social Club sessions and included two of his uncle’s compositions on his only solo album in 2001.
Watch Cachao in a session recording, with Andy Garcia joining in the action.

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Juan Gutiérrez (1996 Fellow)
Like traditional Cuban music, in which percussion plays a prominent role, Puerto Rico’s bomba and plena music also is heavily reliant on percussive instruments. Which is why percussionist Juan Gutiérrez is so important to the music. In New York City, he co-founded the ensemble Los Pleneros de la 21, which shared the joy of the traditional Puerto Rican music far and wide. Try not tapping your foot while listening to their music.
Watch this performance of Los Pleneros de la 21 led by Gutiérrez from 1991.

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Roberto and Lorenzo Martínez (2003 Fellows)
Roberto Martínez grew up in a region of New Mexico that historically had been a stronghold of Hispanic culture, and that is where he learned the folk melodies, especially the corrido, a narrative type of song that is often about contemporary topics. Martínez began writing his own corridos and his son Lorenzo became interested in the music and learned violin, and soon began playing with his father. Together, they helped preserve the music and continue it with his original compositions. The two, with additional family members as Lorenzo Martínez y Riflexiones, played at the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of a special concert sponsored by the NEA of Hispanic National Heritage Fellows and had the audience dancing along.
Here’s a Smithsonian Folkways recording of a corrido Roberto Martínez wrote, with his son Lorenzo playing along on violin.

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Lydia Mendoza (1982 Fellow)
Known as “La Alondra de la Frontera” (the meadowlark of the border) and “La Cancionera de los Pobres” (the songstress of the poor), Lydia Mendoza was part of the first class of National Heritage Fellows to be honored. She began playing with her family as a teen and in the 1920s became one of the first to record Spanish language music for a major label. In the 1930s, she performed Tejano and conjunto music for the Mexican American workers in south Texas, becoming popular and recording more sessions, including one for her signature song, “Mal Hombre.” She became the first Tejana inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1991, received a National Medal of Arts in 1999, and even got her own postage stamp in 2013.
There aren’t a lot of video recordings of her performing, but the documentary filmmaker Les Blank captured her in this excerpt from his film Chulas Fronteras. 

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Don Ball is a music aficionado as well as an assistant director in the NEA Office of Public Affairs.

Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: Elizabeth Acevedo

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Clap When You Land is loosely based on a true story of a flight that crashed on its way from New York City to the Dominican Republic. This was in 2001, two months after September 11th. It was American Airlines Flight 587. Over 255 people passed, and I remember learning that over 90 percent of the people on the flight were Dominican. Right? And it really rocked my community. I mean, we knew people who were on the flight. We knew people who had relatives on the flight, and the way that they were affected. And I’ve always thought back to that tragedy, the second-worst in United States history, and just wondered, like, something that was so massive for the community I’m from, but very few people know about.
Jo Reed: That is author, National Book Award winner, and host of the last four Poetry Out Loud finals, Elizabeth Acevedo. She’s talking about her recent book, Clap When You Land. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Elizabeth Acevedo is a poet and novelist whose books are alive with Dominican-American and Afro-Caribbean culture and community. And they have at their centers teenage girls learning to navigate life, relaxing into and pushing against their upbringings. And let me also say, Elizabeth Acevedo and the Arts Endowment go back a long way. She’s been involved with Poetry Out Loud for five years, hosting the POL finals for the last four, which means we knew her before her first book, The Poet X, won the National Book Award. The Poet X, if you haven’t read it– and if you haven’t read it, you should read it, because it’s a great book– it’s a novel in verse, and it tells the story of 15-year-old Xiomara, as she wrestles with her mother’s expectations, and discovers herself through slam poetry. Elizabeth Acevedo’s next book, With the Fire On High, is a novel told in prose, and filled with fabulous recipes. It’s about Emoni, a high-school student who’s a mother, and who also is determined to become a chef. Clap When You Land is, once again, a novel in verse. It uses that tragic plane crash as its jumping-off point. And I’m not going to attempt to give you a synopsis of the book. I’ll leave that to Liz. She and I spoke in March at the NEA Studios before the shutdowns. And here she is: Elizabeth Acevedo.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Clap When You Land is the story of two sisters who learn, after their father dies in a plane crash, that he had secret families; that he had two separate household [sic], and they do not know about each other. And his death brings about all of these secrets that he had, but also opens a doorway for them to learn about the fact that they have a sister in another country. And so one sister is drastically racing to try to get to the States, because she’s in a dire situation in the Dominican Republic.
Jo Reed: And that’s Camino.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that’s Camino. And the other sister, Yahaira, who is a competitive chess player– or was, at one point– is trying to figure out how she can accompany her father’s body back to D.R. And so it’s this story of place, of home, of loss, but also of what are the things that you gain when you have to be incredibly resilient.
Jo Reed: Those of the younger generation, they’re 16 going on 17. And then there’s the older generation, and there are two other women who are very central to their story. Tell us about them.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yes, we have Tia Solana, and we have Mami. And my books tend to have– they’re very intergenerational stories. I tend to really look at how family dynamics work. So you’re never going to, probably, read one of my books where a kid runs away, and there’s just no mention of a parent. That’s not where I come from, that’s not what I write. The decisions you make as a young person are crowdsourced with your family, and if they’re not, there are very specific repercussions to that. And so Mami is grieving, and Mami is trying to figure out–
Jo Reed: And that’s Yaya’s mother.
Elizabeth Acevedo: That’s Yahaira’s mother, yes. And so here is someone who lost a husband who, in some ways, wasn’t always a great husband. And so it’s grief, but it’s also hurt, and it’s also anger, but also still trying to protect him, still trying to hold his secrets, right? And so, her storyline of, “How do I protect myself, and what are the decisions that I’ve made that, perhaps, I might feel shame about?” And her story of learning what it means to love this man, to love her child, and to love who her child loves, was really important to me to navigate. And then Tia Solana’s just a G. I just really wanted someone who was fierce, and strong, and a healer. Right? And incredibly spiritual, and a pillar of the community. Just this woman who is such a great example and role model, and doing her best; and at the same time, someone who Camino, who is her niece, doesn’t always know if she’s strong enough. She’s still trying to shield her from her own problems. She’s not sure if her aunt is going to be able to carry some of the things that she has, and so she gets into a lot of trouble, because she doesn’t–
Jo Reed: Well, she’s being stalked by somebody who is… he’s a thug.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. It’s not talked about a lot when we talk about the Dominican Republic. Most people think of beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resorts, and the sex trade and sex tourism is really big in the Dominican Republic. Femicide rates have been going up for the last three years. The ways in which young women are approached– I’ve done a good amount of work, poetry workshops and different events in the Dominican Republic, with different organizations, and to meet 13-, 14-, 15-year-old young women who are approached all the time. “You don’t have to get bused out two towns over to go to high school. I could get you quick money right now. You don’t have to work for this little store and take care of your little brother. I could ensure that your family has enough money for the light bill for the next two months.” And so it’s these quick schemes to move young women into sex work in a way that is not of their own volition and, in many ways, where they cannot consent. And so it is a difficult thing to approach in a young-adult novel, but this stalker situation felt like a way to think through what I know a lot of young women face. “There is someone older who gives me attention, and it’s not enough that I can go to the authorities, and I’m not sure if it’s enough that I should even tell my family, but it’s not right.”
Jo Reed: Yeah. It’s scaring me.
Elizabeth Acevedo: It’s scary. Right? But if you say, “Oh, he shows up, and he kind of looks at me weird,” people will disregard it. And so, for me, it’s, how do we think about that?
Jo Reed: And yet, at the same time, you paint this vibrant picture of community in the Dominican Republic. I could really feel it, and smell the food, and it was beautiful word pictures.
Elizabeth Acevedo: I drew upon a lot of my initial reactions, and just a lot of the wonder when I first traveled as a child, and saw all these colorful homes, and the smells, and so really wanted to evoke that for folks. Because it could be easy to hear about sex trafficking and Haitian-Dominican policy, and for a reader to think, “Well, this place sounds awful.” And that was the last thing I wanted to do. Right? Everybody’s home is complicated. Regardless of how picturesque and Stepford Wives you think it is, every single place is complicated. And so I wanted to balance that, yes, I am talking about difficult things that are happening in this country, but I also want to talk about the everyday resilience and joy and celebration, and asking your neighbor for a ride, and–
Jo Reed: And neighborliness.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And neighborliness, and we’re all going to take care of this stray dog, or you’re going to pay me in rice and beans when I hope you deliver your child, because maybe that’s what you have, and the bartering system is still strong. So that, to me, also felt critical to depict.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I thought you did that brilliantly.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Thank you.
Jo Reed: I really, really did.
Elizabeth Acevedo: I appreciate it.
Jo Reed: This book is about strong women, and at its center is this man…
Elizabeth Acevedo: I know.
Jo Reed: … who has this powerful influence, but is absent. And that is just so interesting, because it’s like this power force these women are coming together, and coming apart, and coming together around.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right. I mean, there are lines in the story where– and both sisters have a line about it– where, “It’s like we orbit him.” Right? Where there’s a gravitational pull. And so I had to think about that. There is an absent man. Right? Because you never actually meet the father at the center of the story. And so in many ways, it’s like, how do women survive what men may have done to them? How do they come back to each other? How do they come back to themselves, even as what they’re navigating is learning, “You impacted me in such a way that perhaps I lost a little bit. But I can move on.”
Jo Reed: And how do you forgive?
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that’s really the biggest question: Can we forgive someone who is not there to ask for forgiveness, who cannot repent? And what does it… how imperative is it to our healing to do so? Can we continue to be angry, when what that anger affects is you and the other people in your lives? And it was a hard question. I wasn’t sure, when I first started writing, where both sisters would land. The first draft, Mami landed very differently than she did in the final draft. Initially, Tia Solana was the father’s sister. And so that was a very different dynamic, but I had to… I had to really sit with the fact that this dude did some bad stuff. And there is no easy, “Oh, okay, I’m okay now.” Right? “I forgive him.” But also the guilt. One of the sisters didn’t speak to him for over a year, and has to live with the fact that he died without her having a relationship with him in the way that she had wanted. And so that also is a big part of loss: “If only I had,” “Oh, I could have,” “I wish I had.” What do you do with that? And so there were a lot of questions of grief that I was looking at.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Oosh. You chose to write this in verse, as you did The Poet X. But With the Fire on High, you wrote that in prose. How do you decide which way you’re going to do this: when you’re going to write a novel in verse, when you’re going to use prose?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I think the story usually lets me know. I am of the opinion that verse cannot hold a large cast, and it cannot hold an adventure story. If your setting requires you to create an intricate magical system, or a wide landscape of multiple buildings, à la Hunger Game [sic], if that is what it needs, it’s going to be difficult to get that across in verse. If you have a good amount of interiority, and what we’re really looking at are these character studies of, how do these characters grapple with heavy emotions, and maybe they are just 15 pages of them feeling through something and reflecting upon something, that is a little better suited for verse, I find. And so, With the Fire on High, I knew there were going to be a lot of characters. I was going to need her to go to Spain. I was going to need her to be able to express very specific ideas of recipes, and of cooking things. And so I didn’t think I would be able to find enough figurative language to balance what I needed folks to receive very technically, in order to create the narrative, and also her internal. And it made sense in prose, and I also would hate to be pigeonholed. I really want to be able to write in many different forms, depending on what forms call to me. I’m looking forward to writing an adult poetry collection, an adult novel. I don’t ever want folks to think that I’m just a one-trick pony.
Jo Reed: I hear that.
Elizabeth Acevedo:
Jo Reed: Okay, I don’t need to get too technical, but how do you use line breaks? And tell me your thinking about it: how you use the words on a page, and when to go to the next page, and using the line breaks.
Elizabeth Acevedo: It ranges. I think, in The Poet X, I was considering strongly, you know, what word do I need to end on so that, visually, there is an impact? There’s a resonance to, well, if I land on bird or wing or cage. There’s something that happens in our bodies when we’re made to stop at very specific words. Right? And with the third book, with Clap When You Land, I was thinking through, I need each sister to have her own kind of voice, and so one sister is written in tercets, one sister is written in couplets. And one sister is almost shorter and skinnier and more staccato, and the other sister’s a lot more lyrical, and fuller lines. And so the line breaks were very specific to their voices. For me, New York is sharp, and it’s gritty, and sometimes it races. We talk very fast, and so that came out with Yahaira’s voice. And Camino’s growing up in a little more, like, lackadaisical, little more chill, little more go-with-the-flow, a little more water-driven. And so she has less end stops. She has less punctuation indicating when we need to stop it a moment, so that those end lines were a little gentler for her. And so I had to think through both what words feel like strong words to end on, but also, what is the rhythm of each sister that I need to be able to get across? And most readers, I don’t think, pay any attention to any of this. This is all just very much under– right? This is craft. This is under the water, you know, hauling along something.
Jo Reed: Nice metaphor.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Oh, thanks. Like just hauling a reader along, and I think some folks really feel. They’ll read something, they’re like, “That felt powerful,” and they don’t always know that it’s because the writer is creating momentum, or because the writer is creating these very short stops that kind of stop your breath, or– that’s those little things that evoke emotion in us, outside of the language.
Jo Reed: You describe Camino swimming so beautifully. And I’m somebody who loves the sea.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. Me, too.
Jo Reed: And in the water, and… God, did you capture that. You know, that feeling when you’re in there. And I had never thought about it before, but she says being in the water is like–
Elizabeth Acevedo: The closest I can get to _______ 00:14:46, yeah.
Jo Reed: To flying, yes. And it’s just like I really just said, “Oh, my God, that’s right! That’s right! I never thought about that before.”
Elizabeth Acevedo: Well, we– yeah. We often don’t think of the water and the sky as potentially being similar, but…
Jo Reed: Yeah, but– yeah.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Where else can a body propel itself in that way, right, that isn’t running? And it is, I think…
Jo Reed: And that weightlessness you feel.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that weightlessness, and that initial dive, and that– you know, the way that you are interacting with air. And it felt important to give her her own thing, and her own source of power in her body. But also, it’s almost an escape, but she can only go so far, right? She can only swim out so far. She always has to come back. And that’s part of what her struggle is, too. Like, “I’ve gone so far, and yet in this moment, I might have to come back. I might have to pull back from all those dreams.” So it felt like a really good way to depict that internal struggle she was having.
Jo Reed: When you’re following the characters, are you thinking in verse? Are you thinking in prose, and then do you create the verse that goes with it? I’m just so curious about that.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. I write in verse, so I write it as it comes along. I’m thinking in verse. I’m thinking out loud right now. I’m trying to navigate my process through your question. I have to give myself a lot of permission that I am not writing poems. I’m not writing poems; I am writing verse. And so I’m not concerned with a page or two of self-contained poetry. I am thinking through, I need to get this character to the next stage, whether that’s emotional, or physically I need to have action happen. But I’m also highly aware of rhythm. And so, perhaps when I’m initially drafting, it is less about big metaphors or precise wording as much as it is about the rhythm, and getting that really clear, and then also the action. But I will say that I give– and this was true in The Poet X, too– I give my characters a language base, like a language of experience. So, for Camino, it was very much water and healing and the Dominican Republic, so her metaphors are sourced from that. With Yahaira, it’s New York, it’s chess. Her metaphors are now sourced from that. And so I keep that in mind as I’m writing. If I get stuck in a moment I’m trying to express how she feels, okay, well, what does she know that she would draw upon in order to explain this? And so even in the first draft, that’s kind of coming through. So there’s a musicality in the thinking, but that’s not the emphasis at all. The emphasis is more voice and rhythm.
Jo Reed: And when you’re beginning a book, is it the characters? Is it the image? I mean, with this one, you said there was the plane crash that was the origin story there, but typically, is it an image, or is it characters, or words that make you start going, and saying, “Okay, wait, this is something”?
Elizabeth Acevedo: Oh, it’s funny, Jo, because as you’re talking, I’m like, all the things you’re saying are exactly what propel me to write a poem. It’s usually a word, or an image, or a particular moment of language exchange. Right? When I’m writing for a collection, or tour as a collection, that is where I’m moving for. When I’m thinking of something that’s going to be a book, it’s more of an idea: “Okay, I want to talk about grief and this really big crash.” And Clap When You Land, initially, was only Yahaira’s story.
Jo Reed: Oh.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And I drafted the entire thing– 40,000 words– just from one sister’s point of view, and had to go back in and rewrite it when I– you know, I was talking to Ibi Zoboi, who is an author of American Street, a National Book Award finalist, and she’s like, “You need the other sister. Why don’t we get the other sister?” And I realize, “Oh, crap. I’m going to have to rewrite this whole thing!” And when I started thinking about her voice, I mean, Camino came so quick. And so that was a moment where I realized the book wasn’t complete, and I knew there was something off, but it was because this other voice needed to come through. And with her, her language came through quickly. That first poem about mud was the first thing I ever wrote in her voice, and realized there is something here. There’s something that is vibrating within this character that’s going to really push the story forward. It was like a piece of my brain kind of opened up, and it flooded out– all of these different poems that had probably been sitting, but that didn’t fit the story up until that moment. And so sometimes it’s like that. With fiction, it’s always an idea. I need to have a sense of an idea. The Poet X, I didn’t know that character until two or three drafts in. I knew where she would get, but I had to figure her out. But With the Fire on High, Emoni came talking. She came, and she had all this dialogue, which is how I also knew it had to be prose. I could not get that much dialogue in verse, and I needed folks to hear her talk. Because that’s how I heard her. And so I guess every story is different, yeah.
Jo Reed: Well, each story might be different, but all your books explore Afra-Latinas. And they both celebrate the culture, but they also expose its limitations on girls, as well.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. I mean, I think I’m always thinking about, what are the cultural ways that we are empowered and taught to navigate spaces, and taught to take up space; and then what are the cultural ways that we are taught to step back, to be quieter, to be– right? And I think every ethnic group has to encounter that, right? We are always at an intersection of race and gender and power. And even if you are not Afra-Latina, at some point, there are questions that your upbringing probably has an effect on how you see socioeconomics, how you see race, how you see queerness, all of those things. It’s just how we are raised. And so for me, it’s these questions of religion, of blackness, of Caribbeanness, of a fraught relationship with Spain. What are the ruptures? And so I’m just curious about the ruptures. I don’t want to give any answers. I’m not here to offer solutions. I am just curious about, let’s look at the wound. Let’s just flush it out.
Jo Reed: But you look at the wound. You absolutely do. But, again, that celebratory aspect is also part of your work. It’s so vivid and so alive.
Elizabeth Acevedo: That’s the flushing it out.

Elizabeth Acevedo: That’s what flushes out the wound, I think.
Jo Reed: Okay. Excellent.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Or maybe it’s… maybe it’s more of, like, how do cultures think about what historically has worked, and brings them together and empowers them, and perhaps what no longer serves them?
Jo Reed: Well, with The Poet X, for example, that…
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah.
Jo Reed: That battle…
Elizabeth Acevedo: No, Jo, all these motions you’re making of wrestling, that’s exactly right. Yes, that’s The Poet X. It is this kid wrestling with herself.
Jo Reed: And wrestling with her mother– that traditional mother, who’s a wonderful, wonderful character– and the girl wants to just be herself. But it’s so interesting, because even though her mother is so traditional, the act of leaving her country is so bloody radical, and that’s something that I think it’s very hard to appreciate.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right. Right, and I–
Jo Reed: And you do in your books, and I love that.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that’s probably why I try to make sure that the characters that are older have real story arcs. They are none of them evil. They are none of them the villain without questions. Right? That even if they are the antagonist, there has to be a consideration of what made them human, what do they love, when are they tender. Because I just refuse to think that anyone is black and white, and that’s not what I’m trying to write. I’m trying to look at the moments of… of how people act out in hurt and fear. And I think, particularly for women who come from other countries, where they were raised in very specific ways and have to launch themselves, and then carry their families here, there’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of fear of, “What if I fail? What if I can’t raise them right? What if, when I go back, my family doesn’t think I did a good job by my own kids, because there are different cultural norms then? But also, how do I love my kids, who are so different, who have these American tendencies that I cannot understand?”
Jo Reed: “And who have to help me.”
Elizabeth Acevedo: “And who have to help me. And I have to then face my own vulnerability of, there’s so much I don’t know.”
Jo Reed: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Elizabeth Acevedo: “And I want to be a parent, and I want to protect, and I want to hold them, and I’m doing so without always having all the information.” And I just– I’m just so empathetic. It’s so hard for me not to be empathetic to what that struggle must be like. I’ve watched it in my own mom. And so, in writing for young people, I think I also want to give a little bit of insight into, perhaps, what their parents, or their aunts or their uncles, or people they might have in their neighborhood, who you may paint as one thing– “Oh, she’s so strict,” or, “She’s always on me, “or, “She calls me 10 times a day”– that there are other things at play.
Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. And the great courage…
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that.
Jo Reed: … that they display, to take that step. That is a hard bloody step.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. I think very few people want to leave their home.
Jo Reed: I completely agree, yeah. Okay, I know it’s been said, but it can’t be said too much: the importance of representation and culture in books– let’s talk about books, because that’s what we’re talking about– and what that means for kids who are reading, to see themselves or not.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right. There are all these studies, and people much smarter than me, and more eloquent, have said it better, but I… I just think of how young people might conceive of themselves differently: they see themselves as heroes, if they see themselves as protagonists, if they see themselves as a love interest, if they see themselves as the mastermind of a grand heist, or if they see themselves as saving themselves in the midst of grief; that I think all kids need to see ways where they are depicted as being smart and capable, and also vulnerable, and being able to express that. And for a very long time, I’m not sure that kids of color were given room to have sadness, to have love, to be wronged. Right? That’s not what their role in books were. I mean, I come from a long tradition, right? Walter Dean Myers was doing this work for such a long time. Jacqueline Woodson has been doing this work since I was a child. There are so many writers. Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street was the first time I ever saw a Latina character, ever saw a Spanish name in that way, and a community that spoke Spanish, and felt like… “Wow. I don’t know what a Chicana is, I’ve never been to Chicago, but I know this girl.”
Jo Reed: And Julia Alvarez.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Julia Alvarez, for sure. I mean, yeah. Before We Were Free, I remember reading that, and having heard stories of Trujillo, but here, seeing it in a book, and realizing, “Oh, my history and where I come from also matters, and can also be written.” And I think it’s that. I think sometimes it’s this idea of the lives we live don’t deserve to be written, or observed, or understood, or anything. We’re not for books.
Jo Reed: How did you come to storytelling?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I come from storytellers, yeah. My mom is one of 15 children. They were all raised in the Dominican Republic. And when I was five years old, she brought her parents her. She has since brought my entire family, including 61 first cousins. So we’re massive. But when I was young, it was my mom, my dad, my brothers, and my grandparents, and that was my family. Everyone else was in the Dominican Republic. And my mother would tell me these elaborate stories of her childhood, of the countryside where she grew up, of stealing her father’s horse, of getting in trouble, of chopping mangos; just things that growing up in Harlem, you could not conceive of a mango tree, much less stealing a horse.
Jo Reed: Or a horse.

Elizabeth Acevedo: And so– but I remember just, like, those are my fairy tales. Those were the stories I wanted to hear, and wanted to know about, and she was so good. She was so good at painting that picture. And my grandfather would walk me to and from school, and he would recite these riddles he had memorized. He would just go on and on and tell these elaborate riddles that would all come back at the end. And so I don’t know that I knew at the time, “Oh, I am being taught how to tell stories. I’m being taught how to entertain. I’m being taught the elements of what connects us as humans, and of sharing.” But I would say that’s where it was. And hip-hop. I was really big into hip-hop when I was young. I wanted to be a rap star. I had all these dreams, and my early poetry were all songs. And it was listening to music, and studying it. I remember we got our computer when I was probably 12 years old, and I would go online– AOL– and download lyrics, and study lyrics, and look at how rappers, what they were doing with internal rhyme, how they were ending lines. I really, even as a kid, wanted to figure out how to do this. But it was really the medium to do what I saw my mom and my grandfather do.
Jo Reed: Now, I could be wrong, but my experience of first-generation Americans is that their family, typically, they’re not overjoyed if they want to grow up and be an artist of any type.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right.
Jo Reed: You know, lawyer good, doctor better.

Jo Reed: How did your parents and family just respond to you, as you’re like, “I want to be a rap star, or a slam poet, or a writer, or all of it, and I’m doing it”?
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. Oh, I was incredibly lucky. My mom just wanted me to be famous.
Jo Reed: Excellent.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Even as a kid, she had put me in modeling classes, acting classes. She wanted to put me in singing classes, and I was like, “I’m all right.” But I did theater. I mean, I think there were moments where it was very clear my parents didn’t always understand what I was doing, particularly poetry recitation for competition. That, for them, was… we come from a tradition of rendering poems. Right? We’ll call it “declamar” is the phrase. And my father has given me CDs of Dominican poets, right, reciting their work, and recording their work. So I think they were familiar with, this is something that happens, but they couldn’t really figure out, like, can that be a career? Right? And so when I was a schoolteacher, they were very happy, because they felt like that was a very solid job that they understood, that had job security. There was insurance. I had health insur– right? Like, all of these things, good. And so when I quit my job, and decided to get an MFA in creative writing, and then decided to tour the country reciting poetry, there was a good amount of confusion, for sure. They never said no. They never said, “We don’t want you to.” I think they just… you know, “We want you to be safe. And we’re nervous that you’re traveling.” And at the time, I mean, I was doing maybe a hundred events a year, oftentimes small-town colleges in middle of nowhere, right, comparatively, to New York. And so I’m telling my mom I’m in Pocatello, Idaho. I’m in… I’m in Alaska, and it’s a longer flight than if I were to go to Europe. And I think they just– they didn’t get it. But… but they never stood in the path. They never were against my dream. They were just very clear, “We’re not sure what your dream is, but we think if anyone can figure it out, it’s probably you.”
Jo Reed: That’s good.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right, and that was good. And then the book came out, and they were like, “Oh, yes. This makes sense.”

Elizabeth Acevedo: “Books, we get.”

Jo Reed: What changed for you when you won the National Book Award, which was huge?
Elizabeth Acevedo: It was big.
Jo Reed: It’s big.
Elizabeth Acevedo: It was a big year. I mean… you know, people say, “Never in my wildest dream.” No, in my wildest dreams, that’s exactly what happened.

Elizabeth Acevedo: My wildest dreams just came true. I don’t know. I think I’m still kind of seeing the impact of what an award like that one does. I was already heavily touring. I was already on the road a good bit. My books had– you know, we already knew where they were going. But I’ll say marketing revved up. My ability to stand up for myself more, right, to say, “Okay.” All of a sudden, I’m now an asset to a lot of different kinds of people, and what does it mean for me to take a step back and go inward a little bit? And what are the things that I want? Because it’s easy to get swept up in what other people’s visions are. “We want to put you on this kind of tour, and we want to market your books in this way, and now we’re going to”– but wait, is that what I want? And I don’t want it to change the stories I’m telling. I don’t want to become scared of not reaching this kind of success again. And so I had to… I had to kind of not process it for a bit. I had to put it away and… I mean, my second book was coming out. I was going to be on tour for that. I had to… you know, thankful. I’m thankful for this moment. I appreciate this award, and now I have to get back to work. Right? I mean… you know, my husband and I still live in Southwest. Most things didn’t change. It helps that I come from pretty humble beginnings, and most people in my family don’t care about awards. My close friends are still my close friends, and so I tried to keep things as normal as possible, and my career things are my career things, but home, hopefully, it doesn’t change.
Jo Reed: Who do you write for?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I think it ranges on what I’m writing, but I’ve tried to be mindful of– I had such a hunger, growing up, to wanting to see a kind of life that maybe seemed like mine, but was different than even I could imagine. I wanted to see characters who had similar beginnings, but were playing them out differently. I just felt so alone. I was a book nerd, but also loved to dance and play basketball, but also was always writing in my notebook when all the other kids were hanging out with boys, and making out. And so I wanted to see nerdy Dominican girls who had dreams, and were competitive, and wrote poetry, and loved boys, and loved girls, and loved their parents, and were scared they were unloved by their parents. I wanted that. And so I think I write in an attempt to show… at least, primarily, initially… Afro-Latinas, there are many ways to conceive of yourself. There is no one template. You may not see the example you imagine is possible of you in the world, but here are multiple examples. And just steal what works, craft what works, and make your own blueprint. And I think I’m just giving an example of templates.
Jo Reed: I think that’s a good place to end it. Thank you.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Jo, it was a pleasure.
Jo Reed: It was really a pleasure for me.
Jo Reed: That’s author and National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo, talking about her recent novel in verse, Clap When You Land. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, and then please leave us a rating on Apple, because it really helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.
#### End of Elizabeth_Acevedo_Podcast_Final_050720.mp3 ####

National Endowment of the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Warner Williams

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of Piedmont blues songster Warner Williams of Gaithersburg, Maryland, recipient of a 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. 

Warner Williams performing at the 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowships concert. Photo copyright Michael G. Stewart.
Warner Williams was born in 1930 and grew up in a musical family in the Washington, DC suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. His father played guitar, fiddle, and piano; his mother sang hymns; and all eight of his brothers and three sisters sang or played instruments. Warner began performing in public in his teens, first on the streets of DC and later at city night spots. He played music at house parties, social events, church functions and local clubs. When he retired, Warner brought the Piedmont blues to schools, blues clubs, and folk festivals with his musical partner and harmonica player Jay Summerour.
The Piedmont region runs from Maryland to Georgia and west to the Blue Ridge mountains. Dating back to the early 20th century, the Piedmont blues has included gospel, fiddle tunes, blues, country, ragtime, jazz, and popular songs. Williams’ diverse repertoire shows the range of musical influences on him. He was often referred to as a “songster” for the breadth of styles, sources, and songs he performed. 
Williams and Summerour performed at National Folk Festivals, the Lowell Folk Festival, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as well as multiple times on the Folk Masters series at the Barns at Wolf Trap. Warner was closely associated with the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation in Hyattsville, Maryland. Following his National Heritage Fellowship recognition in 2011, he was celebrated in concert by the Maryland State Arts Council, and by Maryland Citizens for the Arts at the 2012 Maryland Arts Day events in Annapolis. He recorded for Smithsonian Folkways and Patuxent Records, and was featured numerous times in Living Blues magazine, and in this 2003 interview on American Routes, where he and Summerour used song to share the story of life and of the blues. Williams described the blues as “something you’ve been through in your life … Blues is a poor person feeling bad. Blues makes you wonder what happened.” 

National Endowment of the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Warner Williams

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of Piedmont blues songster Warner Williams of Gaithersburg, Maryland, recipient of a 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. 

Warner Williams performing at the 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowships concert. Photo copyright Michael G. Stewart.
Warner Williams was born in 1930 and grew up in a musical family in the Washington, DC suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. His father played guitar, fiddle, and piano; his mother sang hymns; and all eight of his brothers and three sisters sang or played instruments. Warner began performing in public in his teens, first on the streets of DC and later at city night spots. He played music at house parties, social events, church functions and local clubs. When he retired, Warner brought the Piedmont blues to schools, blues clubs, and folk festivals with his musical partner and harmonica player Jay Summerour.
The Piedmont region runs from Maryland to Georgia and west to the Blue Ridge mountains. Dating back to the early 20th century, the Piedmont blues has included gospel, fiddle tunes, blues, country, ragtime, jazz, and popular songs. Williams’ diverse repertoire shows the range of musical influences on him. He was often referred to as a “songster” for the breadth of styles, sources, and songs he performed. 
Williams and Summerour performed at National Folk Festivals, the Lowell Folk Festival, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as well as multiple times on the Folk Masters series at the Barns at Wolf Trap. Warner was closely associated with the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation in Hyattsville, Maryland. Following his National Heritage Fellowship recognition in 2011, he was celebrated in concert by the Maryland State Arts Council, and by Maryland Citizens for the Arts at the 2012 Maryland Arts Day events in Annapolis. He recorded for Smithsonian Folkways and Patuxent Records, and was featured numerous times in Living Blues magazine, and in this 2003 interview on American Routes, where he and Summerour used song to share the story of life and of the blues. Williams described the blues as “something you’ve been through in your life … Blues is a poor person feeling bad. Blues makes you wonder what happened.” 

National Endowment of the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Warner Williams

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of Piedmont blues songster Warner Williams of Gaithersburg, Maryland, recipient of a 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. 

Warner Williams performing at the 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowships concert. Photo copyright Michael G. Stewart.
Warner Williams was born in 1930 and grew up in a musical family in the Washington, DC suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. His father played guitar, fiddle, and piano; his mother sang hymns; and all eight of his brothers and three sisters sang or played instruments. Warner began performing in public in his teens, first on the streets of DC and later at city night spots. He played music at house parties, social events, church functions and local clubs. When he retired, Warner brought the Piedmont blues to schools, blues clubs, and folk festivals with his musical partner and harmonica player Jay Summerour.
The Piedmont region runs from Maryland to Georgia and west to the Blue Ridge mountains. Dating back to the early 20th century, the Piedmont blues has included gospel, fiddle tunes, blues, country, ragtime, jazz, and popular songs. Williams’ diverse repertoire shows the range of musical influences on him. He was often referred to as a “songster” for the breadth of styles, sources, and songs he performed. 
Williams and Summerour performed at National Folk Festivals, the Lowell Folk Festival, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as well as multiple times on the Folk Masters series at the Barns at Wolf Trap. Warner was closely associated with the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation in Hyattsville, Maryland. Following his National Heritage Fellowship recognition in 2011, he was celebrated in concert by the Maryland State Arts Council, and by Maryland Citizens for the Arts at the 2012 Maryland Arts Day events in Annapolis. He recorded for Smithsonian Folkways and Patuxent Records, and was featured numerous times in Living Blues magazine, and in this 2003 interview on American Routes, where he and Summerour used song to share the story of life and of the blues. Williams described the blues as “something you’ve been through in your life … Blues is a poor person feeling bad. Blues makes you wonder what happened.” 

Angel Blue

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive. 
“Si mi chiamano, Mimi” from the opera “La Bohème,” composed by Giacomo Puccini, performed by Angel Blue. Used courtesy of Angel Blue
Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed.
That is soprano Angel Blue singing “Si mi chiamano, Mimi” from the Puccini opera “La Bohème.”  Angel Blue may be a California native but she is an international star in opera houses around the world. Equally at home in recitals or in opera performances, Blue is known –and I’m quoting the critics now–for her voice of “shimmering beauty”   that is “always perfectly controlled and consistent throughout her expansive range.” A luminous presence on the stage, Blue’s vocal gifts are matched equally by her innate acting skills in roles like Violetta from “La Traviata”, Tosca, or Mimi in “La Bohème”. In fact, Blue made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017 singing Mimi and was praised by the New York Times  as “the clear star…” “combining power, as needed, with sensitivity and warmth.” Two years later, Angel Blue was back at the Met—this time opening the season as Bess in a Grammy Award-winning production of Porgy and Bess. Once again, she received rapturous reviews—with one critic writing,  “It’s impossible to decide which aspect of Blue’s performance was the most enchanting: her radiant voice…; her joyous stage presence; or her nuanced take on the contradictory character of Bess…” On September 27, after the long pandemic shut-down, the Metropolitan Opera will open its new season—and Angel Blue will be on the stage again, this time with baritone Will Liverman, in the opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” composed by Terence Blanchard and which has been supported by arts endowment since its development period.  It’s based on the memoir by Charles Blow…and it marks the first time an opera written by a Black composer will be performed at the Metropolitan Opera. I had the opportunity to speak with Angel Blue late last month as she was in rehearsals for the work and that’s exactly where I began our conversation.
Jo Reed: First of all, Angel Blue, thank you for joining me.   
Angel Blue: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Jo Reed:  I can imagine how busy you are! Of course, the season opener is always an event but after the shutdown and then opening with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” this is very special.
Angel Blue: It is. Yes, it is. I think that the opera will be something very emotional for people; I know it is for me just being in rehearsal the last couple of days and reading the book, the memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Charles Blow. The story is one of redemption and I think that’s what everyone is sort of looking for right now after having this 18 months of lockdown and no performances for most of us. I know for myself, I’ve only had a handful of performances that have been in person and with a live audience. So I think this will be a very momentous occasion and incredibly special for not just us as performers but I think for the audience as well because we’ve missed them. I think most artists will say that they’ve missed the audience but I know for myself I’ve really missed seeing people in the audience and their reactions to what we’re doing onstage so this will definitely be a very special evening.
Jo Reed:  I don’t want to put you on the spot but can you just give us a thumbnail sketch of what “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is about, what the story is?
Angel Blue: Yes. Well, I hope I do it justice because I’m still sort of really processing the message of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” I’m a huge fan of Charles Blow, that’s the first thing I should say, and the memoir that he’s written of his life is stunningly beautiful and incredibly upsetting in so many ways. The story begins with Charles returning to Gibsland, Louisiana, where he is from, and he had a very difficult upbringing. He was poor. He was raised in a very violent community. His mother had five boys. She was basically a single mom, and she had a husband who ran around on her and she raised her boys by herself.  And in this community Charles really stood out because of his intellect, his personality and how adventurous and interested he was. So the story starts with him coming back to his hometown to seek revenge on his cousin, Chester, who molested him when he was a little boy; I believe he was seven years old. And the character that I play is Destiny, and Destiny is sort of the good angel/bad angel on his shoulder. And throughout the opera I’ll say you just see how Charles grows up, how his life changes as he becomes a man, from childhood and being pushed away by his mom and pushed away by his family members and sort of just overlooked to going into college and finding his way in journalism to him going back to Gibsland and realizing that that revenge isn’t actually what he wanted and what he was really seeking was already there within himself and that was the forgiveness that he finds in his heart for his cousin. That’s why I call “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” a story of redemption. There’s so much in the opera, I apologize– I’m not really able to succinctly summarize it. The one thing I can say is that it is a story of redemption, and it is a story about race and forgiveness and I think during this time of this pandemic that we’ve all been through this is definitely something I think everyone can relate to. I didn’t grow up like he did at all but there are definitely parts in the opera where I have been able to put myself into his position and the story is the same for me so I do believe that many people will be moved by this piece definitely in terms of forgiveness and redemption.
Jo Reed: I read the book and I’m very fortunate because I live outside of Washington, D.C. He’s one of the columnists of my paper so I’m privileged. He’s a wonderful writer and that book is so honest.
Angel Blue: It is very.
Jo Reed: And opera is first of all so strenuous to begin with and I don’t think people realize what you all have to do on that stage to get your voices out but you also have to hit these beautiful notes while you’re acting and I’d like you to talk about that combination especially with a story like this one, which is sung in English, which has to make a difference for you since it’s your own language.      
Angel Blue: Yes, it definitely makes a difference that we’re singing in English because I have to say it’s actually harder to sing in English because I speak it every day and I speak it very relaxed so I do have to work on some of my English diction so that I can be understood on stage. I think that the strenuous part of opera as you said is definitely being able to project one’s voice and in a piece like this there’s so many nuances because Terence Blanchard is a jazz musician so there’s a lot of nuances in this piece actually that I think will help all of us with that kind of projection over the orchestra but there’s also so many very intimate moments that he’s created, jazzy moments even, that we’re able to pull back and still be heard over the orchestra so I’m looking forward to those especially. I think one of the– probably one of the most interesting things for me that just in the last few days that I’ve been rehearsing is my character, Destiny. She sings an aria called “Peculiar Grace” and in the book Charles mentions grace and he does mention destiny and such and we’re calling him the boy with peculiar grace and when I’m speaking this aria and I say “speaking” because the way that Terence Blanchard has written it is that it’s not like this big, grand shana. It’s not this big thing. It’s more about what Destiny is saying and how she is describing Charles and there’s a lot of moments like that in the opera so I believe that I’ll be able to project that for sure over the orchestra. It’s mainly strings in the orchestra, and it’s a lot of tremolo and very pianissimi in that section but I particularly love that aria just because it’s not about singing in that moment; it’s about speaking and getting the audience to understand how Destiny sees Charles Blow and that for me is a very just great moment in the opera.
Jo Reed: Camille Brown and James Robinson are co-directors and you worked with them on “Porgy and Bess.” Can we talk about the rehearsal process? This is a fairly new work, “Fire Shut Up in my Bones,” which means you’re really doing a lot of the creating.
Angel Blue: Yes, absolutely we are. I’ve worked with both James and Camille two years ago for “Porgy and Bess” as you said. What I love about their direction and them together as a team is that they allow for creativity from the artist. It’s not like it has to just be their ideas or their way of thinking of the character or the staging is the only way to do it and I also appreciate that they are both very sensitive to the fact that we are singing. It’s possible sometimes to work with a director who’s like “I know you’re singing but I want you to stand on your head and do the splits and sing a high C.”   This rehearsal process is a bit different in that as you said it’s the second time this piece has been done. The first time was at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and oftentimes when we’re performing we’re not performing music where the composer and the librettist and also the main character of the story where all of these people are living. So to have Terence Blanchard in the rehearsal room and the librettist, Kasi, in the rehearsal room and to have read Charles Blow’s book and to know that he’ll be coming to see it brings about a different aspect of creativity. So it- it’s wonderful to be able to ask not just the director but the composer, “What do you mean in this section? How did you feel when you were writing this? What is your feeling on this? What is the tempi in this part?” Those things are invaluable because as opera singers we don’t often have that opportunity. If I’m singing Mimi or “Traviata” or “Aida” I don’t have the opportunity to ask Verdi or Puccini what did they mean in this section. So the rehearsal process is special as will be the opening night is very special as well. It’s also a much more intimate feeling this time around and I really believe that has a lot to do with the fact that we’ve been away from each other for so long.
Jo Reed: Are there pandemic protocols in the rehearsal process? How–
Angel Blue:
Jo Reed: Yeah, I would imagine it would be.
Angel Blue: Yes, there are a lot of pandemic protocols. So I have to say I was recently in Russia just two months ago I think or maybe three months now but Russia when I was there, if I may say this, it was like a party. Every time I’ve ever sung in Russia I’ve always felt like I’ve just had a really good time, it’s just like going and having a party with the other artists there, but people were not really wearing masks and everyone– we were tested daily but there wasn’t really any protocol in terms of the pandemic. It’s very different at the Metropolitan Opera. All of us are vaccinated and we are tested twice a week and we are required to wear our mask at all times even when singing so you can imagine it’s very– it’s strict but I think we all appreciate that. It’s a way to keep us all safe and so that we can all do our jobs.
Jo Reed: Wow, even when singing.
Angel Blue: Even when singing.
Jo Reed: I was not expecting that.
Angel Blue: Yes, even when singing.
 Jo Reed: Angel, music is bred in your bones practically. You come from a musical family. Tell me about your family.
Angel Blue: Oh, man. Thank you for the question. I love them; they’re wonderful people. We are all musically inclined. I got my love of opera from my dad and my father grew up in Alabama and West Virginia and I believe he spent a little bit of time in Mississippi as well but he loved opera and he loved opera because my grandfather, his dad, liked Enrico Caruso so I have always known about the great opera singers and my dad actually had a lot of records of people like Lily Pons and of course Caruso, Tetrazzini, and he liked the movie actor/singers like Jane Powell and Mario Lanza so I always just had music in my life from my dad. My mother was a violinist and a pianist and then, goodness, so I have four siblings. My oldest sister played piano; my second-to-the-oldest sister played guitar; my sister who’s just above me, Heather, she sings and also played the harp. I play the piano, the alto saxophone and the bass guitar. I play the alto saxophone very badly I should say; I don’t want anyone to think that I actually can play it very well; I play pretty badly but it is an instrument that I do know how to play, just not very well. And then after me is my brother, James, and James I would say is the one out of all five of us who is the real musician in the family because he can compose and arrange music. His first instrument though was the drums and he also plays the bass guitar, the guitar, the alto saxophone and the piano so he’s really a musician. He’s currently serving in the United States Army.
Jo Reed: Your father was Sylvester Blue, great, great singer who I’ve heard and his voice was extraordinary–
Angel Blue: Thank you.
Jo Reed: -and he was a preacher and you had a family band.
Angel Blue: We did. I played the bass, my dad sang, my sister sometimes would sing and sometimes she would play a harp or she would play a keyboard behind my mom, my mom would play the piano, and my brother would play the drums, and we were Sylvester Blue Evangelistic Association.
Jo Reed: Do you remember the first time you went to the opera?
Angel Blue: I was four years old. It wasn’t actually an opera; it was a concert version of “Turandot” in Cleveland, Ohio. I don’t know why my parents took me to that to this day. I’ve asked my mom because my father has passed away but I asked my mom; I always say, “Why did you and Dad take me to that opera? What made you– I was four. Why did you think I would sit still?” And my mom said, “Well, number one, you knew how to act because we trained you” and then she always said that I just kind of always had music at the forefront of my mind. She said I was always singing and always just making noise and stuff so they took me to see “Turandot” and to this day I still have that feeling; I don’t know why it’s so strong but I remember how I felt sitting in that seat watching the people onstage singing and I’m so grateful for that moment because who knows what would have happened had my parents not taken me to that concert.
Jo Reed: When you were at university as an undergraduate you studied classical piano in fact.
Angel Blue: I did. I was a classical pianist for 14 years. The last thing I was actually learning was the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and I never finished it but that was the last thing I learned.
Jo Reed: Then you switched to voice when you went to graduate school. What was missing? What were you feeling?
Angel Blue: I just wanted to sing. I feel like I sound so silly saying that but it is very true; I just wanted to sing. And honestly I always just wanted to sing opera. That bug that bit me when I was four years old watching that concert–it stuck and so when I was an undergrad and going into graduate school I just thought I have to sing; there has to be something that– some way that I can get involved in doing operas and doing them professionally one day. So it’s that thing where everybody has a lot in life and that lot I believe– is something that burns like a fire shut up in your bones and– something that burns in your bones and if you don’t do it, you’ll go nuts I suppose and so that’s where that came from for me.
Jo Reed: I wonder about the similarities and differences between gospel singing and opera singing.
Angel Blue: Hmm. I don’t feel that they are different at all. I don’t change my voice or anything doing opera or gospel. I’m still using the same technique, the same breathing techniques and everything. The only thing that’s different is how I hear it so when I hear an opera or if I’m learning something I think of it in terms of being more straight. Let’s take “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” If it was da- da- da- da- da- da- da- da then I’m going to sing it exactly like that if it’s opera. Does that make sense?
Jo Reed: Yep.
Angel Blue: Okay, cool. So if it’s gospel then that means I have a little bit of liberty so I could do something like da- da- da- da- da- da- da- da- da- da. It’s still the same exact notes; it’s just that the freedom is just a little bit more. In opera I just think that the singer– and I’m specifically speaking of singing opera– the singer has to be a little bit more strict with what’s written on the page whereas in gospel you have a little bit more freedom.
Jo Reed: I think that’s a very good distinction. I find it helpful. Thank you. You put yourself through college by entering in beauty pageants–
Angel Blue: Yes, I did.
Jo Reed: –and I cannot help but wonder how these pageants helped prepare you for opera because you want to talk about pageantry.
Angel Blue: Yeah. I loved pageants. Pageantry is really fun. It’s very similar to opera in that the amount of preparation that goes into it is just super intense. I put myself through college doing pageants and that started in about 2000– I want to say 2002 or 2003 and I didn’t finish competing in pageants until I want to say I think 2006– probably 2006– maybe– no, sorry– 2007 was my last year and pageants taught me I think to really focus on myself and I don’t mean that selfishly. I just need to really focus on what I’m doing and not to be so concerned with what other people have going on because it’s really easy in pageants– I always tell people I’m 5 foot 11-1/2 so I’m basically 6 feet, if I put on socks I’m like 6 feet, and I don’t have a petite frame or anything and when I was competing in pageants I was quite thin and I would be standing next to– onstage in a swimsuit next to a woman who would be 5 foot 2 with a very petite frame and I didn’t look anything like her. And so I just learned quickly not to compare myself to anyone else. It’s hard to do that, it’s very difficult, but in opera some people– when I came out of the young artist program there were some singers who were just starting an international career right away and as soon as they turned like 25 they had a manager and they were singing all over the world and they were making these great, big debuts and here I was still kind of meandering around Los Angeles trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. So it really helps me to try to focus more on what I have going on and what I’m doing and to also be really thankful for what makes me unique, which is being me, and I think that’s something that I– well, I know it’s something that I use to this very day. It’s very helpful to have done pageants and to now be in the opera world. They’re quite similar I have to say.
Jo Reed: I see a real similarity myself. You mentioned you were at L.A. Opera’s Young Artist Program but then you went to Spain after two years of being in the artist program and you said that was really life changing for you.
Angel Blue: It was. I had never been out of the United States other than a few times. I shouldn’t say that because I had been out of the United States but not for singing.  So when I was invited to be in the young artist program in Spain at the Palau de les Arts in Valencia, Spain, I jumped at the opportunity and Europe changed my life and I will always be thankful. I know that sounds probably really weird but Europe really did change my life and also it changed my perspective on where I fit into the opera world and it changed my perspective on what I was capable of in opera. I had no idea that there were so many young people who were in their early twenties, mid twenties who loved opera so much and were fanatical about going to the opera and watching different operas and such and I didn’t really see that until I went to Europe. I also didn’t know that in Germany- Germany’s like the South, like in Louisiana where we used to go visit my cousins. And every quarter has a church and in Germany every corner has an opera house so that really opened up my eyes to just the fact that opera was just more mainstream than I knew it to be and I’m thankful for that experience.
Jo Reed: Opera is not known for its diversity on the stage, in the auditorium, behind the curtain or in the boardrooms and I wonder if it was more open for you or to you in Europe and in the United States, if you had more room to navigate.
Angel Blue: I’ll be 100 percent honest. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. When I went to Europe I was 25 or 26 and I was being offered roles left and right. Some of them were totally wrong for me and I knew that I had to say no to them because of my age or because of my lack of experience or what have you, but I was being offered things and  I have found in my experiences– I’ve been an international opera singer now for I think this is the fifteenth year– yes, fifteenth year for me and when I’m in Europe– this is of course just my experience– I don’t feel like they see me and they think okay, this is a black woman singing Mimi. I think they look at me and they think this is an American woman, okay, we might have to work with her on her languages or whatever. In Europe I’ve sung more roles than I have in the United States. I’ve actually only performed at four opera companies in the U.S. so I mean I think that speaks a lot to how open minded European houses are and I think American opera houses are becoming open minded and that’s a very strong opinion but it’s just mine; it doesn’t mean that that’s the way things are.
Jo Reed: No. I understand completely it’s your experience.
Angel Blue: To me it just seems like in Europe people are– the companies have been more open to diversity.
Jo Reed: Have you seen changes in American opera companies over the past couple of years since racial equity has been more front of mind?
Angel Blue: In the United States, the last one– the last year I have seen a difference but is that difference actually something that is going to stay with us? I have no idea. I have been saying for the last year and a half that–okay, I’m a black soprano. It’s not like oh, “Hey, we hired a Violetta, great. Our job is done. Angel came in. She represented the diversity, the equality or the equity and the inclusion that we needed and now we’re done”. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a change of heart really; it has to be a change of heart and I think that if people, all of us, myself included, if we really do unto others as we want others to do to us then the DEI, BIPOC, all of the things that we’ve been speaking about within the opera community will be fixed. It has to be a change of heart.
Jo Reed: Thank you for talking about that so frankly. I’m going to switch gears here because I’d like to talk for a moment about Puccini because I love Puccini and I know you do too–
Angel Blue: Yes, I do.
Jo Reed: –and “La Boheme” has a special place in your career and in fact it was the role of Mimi that was your first performance at the Met in 2017 and I’m so curious because it’s an iconic role in an iconic opera in an iconic opera house and how did you approach that role and what was this like for you?
Angel Blue: I just wanted to sing it. I just wanted to sing and sing well. I think all of the things that go with the sort of spectacle of the thing I had to put out of my mind so that I could focus on what I needed to do and that was of course just sing the role well and stay focused on what I had to do because when I start thinking about the company that I’m singing with or the orchestra that’s playing in the pit or even singing Puccini when I start thinking that way it can become overwhelming so for me I was just really trying to stay focused.
Jo Reed: You’re active on concert stages and recitals and I’m wondering balancing the two between opera and recitals how that works for you.
Angel Blue: It’s hard. I’m not going to lie; it’s hard. At one point I thought I was going crazy because I was learning so much music all of the time and I thought okay, well, maybe I should just choose one, just say, “Okay, I’m only going to sing operas and I won’t do recitals, I won’t do concerts,” but it’s just not– it’s not fair to who I am as an artist I think because I love so much to do recitals and I love so much to do concerts as well, and I think having those three things on my season every year is something that really helps me to stay balanced in the career. So to balance them it’s just a matter of learning things hopefully before they have to be performed but just maintaining the excitement that I have for all three of them because they are all very different but they all provide something for me as a singer and as an artist. I feel like I have so much more freedom in a recital because I can take people on a journey whereas when I’m doing an opera– I’m sort of restricted to the character that I’m playing and how the director and the conductor want the piece to go so I enjoy all three. It can be very difficult but for sure if I didn’t have all three, I don’t think I’d be as happy.
Jo Reed: I’m so curious about because you’ve sung in so many different countries. Are audiences different in different countries?
Angel Blue: One hundred percent, yes. Yes. I have to say the Italian audiences are– it’s like going to a football game– like an American football game with cheering and they don’t care if the aria’s finished; they don’t care if the orchestra’s still playing. They just go full out just applauding. I love that about the Italian audience but likewise if they don’t like something they will boo and that’s wild. That’s wild, and then there’s the English audience. I did my Royal Opera House debut two years ago and they’re so attentive; it’s like you can hear them paying attention to every aspect of the opera. And there’s a part of me that is scared of that because if you make a mistake they know but it’s really nice to have an audience that’s so attentive like that. I think the most polite audience though is the United States, whether someone performed great or not great you’ll still get some applause.
Jo Reed: Do you try to open opera up to new people who haven’t experienced it yet? It’s a time commitment. It’s a huge money commitment to take a chance and go to an opera and people can feel very intimidated by it.
Angel Blue: Yes. I try to. When the opportunity presents itself I definitely try to destigmatize opera for people if there is a stigma there. I’ve never seen it as an elitist art form but that’s because I was introduced to it when I was four whenever I see it and whenever I think of it I try not to make it an elitist art form so maybe that’s just in my world that I do that, and so when I speak to people I definitely try to show them what it is for me.  I look at opera as just a fun night out. I don’t go to the opera to criticize singers. Number one, the tickets are too expensive for all of that. I don’t go to the opera to criticize the orchestra. I don’t go to the opera to take apart everything. I just go to be entertained. So I tell most of the people that I speak with– and usually I’m speaking to high-school students or college students about it and I just try to tell them, “It’s just a night out. Just go and have fun. If you like it then go again. If you don’t like it then don’t go back.”
Jo Reed: I want you to tell me what you love about opera.
Angel Blue: Oh, my gosh, foo– so many things.  Oh, I love the orchestra. As an opera singer, what I love is I like being onstage and looking down into the pit, the orchestra pit, and seeing the orchestra and then seeing the conductor and past the conductor are just all of these people. That’s so much fun; that’s just such a beautiful feeling. I love the spotlight. I really like the spotlight, not necessarily being in the spotlight but I like the spotlight; I like seeing it. I love seeing the people up in the rafters and walking around operating the lights and the people backstage, the crew, and people don’t know how many people are actually working backstage to make the show happen and I just– I love the theater. The theater life is so exciting; it’s exhilarating to me. I want to cry. Wow. I enjoy it so much. In opera specifically, I like the fact that we sing without microphones. I will never understand how any of us really do that, I sometimes don’t understand how I do it, but I love the fact that we’re not miced and we’re projecting like that over orchestras and I love seeing opera singers onstage being supportive of one another and this is kind of weird, but also I like to see when opera singers are sweating because you know that they’re working really hard. There’s so many aspects to it. Of course I love the music; I love the drama; I love the theater. I love the fact that opera has every single emotion in it. You can feel everything that you’ll feel in real life in an opera and that’s so spectacular. I don’t know what else to say other than I’m just so honored that I’m even here and a part of it in any way and to call myself an opera singer is a huge, huge blessing.
Jo Reed: I think that’s a great place to leave it. Thank you so much, Angel.
Angel Blue: Thank you.
That is soprano Angel Blue— On September 27, She’ll be opening the new season at the Metropolitan Opera in Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” She follows that up, by reprising her role as Bess in “Porgy and Bess” at the Met later in the fall. You get more information about both operas and the rest of the Met’s season at MetOpera.org.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

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National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Kenny Sidle  

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of fiddler Kenny Sidle from Newark, Ohio, recipient of a 1988 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

Photo courtesy of ThinkTV
Sidle was born on July 20, 1931, in a log cabin in Licking County, in central Ohio. His father, Vernon Sidle, and uncle, John Cromer, were both fiddlers and encouraged him to play the instrument from a very young age. He continued to hone his skills as he grew up, and in the 1950s, started playing professionally for local radio shows and for square dances, though he never became a full-time musician.
Through the years, Sidle developed a distinctive “contest” style, which featured improvisation with many separate notes, but was also smooth, melodic, and sophisticated. His music reflected some Texas and Canadian influences, although it was difficult to place Sidle in any single line of development. His fiddling displayed technical precision while retaining the warmth and excitement of traditional fiddling. These abilities, combined with his affable personality, made him immensely popular among musicians, callers, dancers, and his community.
Traditions: Ohio Heritage Fellows presented a video story about Kenny Sidle in 2016 that features the musical life of Kenny Sidle. In his down-to-earth way, Sidle believed that “bluegrass music comes right down to the real story of American life.”

Sneak Peek: Angel Blue Podcast

Jo Reed: I want you to tell me what you love about opera.
Angel Blue: Oh, my gosh! As an opera singer, what I love is I like being onstage and looking down into the pit, the orchestra pit, and seeing the orchestra and then seeing the conductor and past the conductor are just all of these people. That’s so much fun; that’s just such a beautiful feeling. I like the fact that we sing without microphones. I will never understand how any of us really do that, I sometimes don’t understand how I do it, but I love the fact that we’re onstage, we’re not mic’d and we’re projecting like that over orchestras. There’s so many aspects to it. Of course, I love the music; I love the drama; I love the theater. I love the fact that opera has every single emotion in it. You can feel everything that you’ll feel in real life in an opera and that’s so spectacular. I don’t know what else to say other than I’m just so honored that I’m even here and a part of it in any way and to call myself an opera singer is a huge, huge blessing.

Quick Study: September 16, 2021

Jo Reed: Welcome to “Quick Study,” the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts.  This is where we’ll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life.  I’m co-piloting “Quick Study” with Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the Arts Endowment.  Hello, Sunil.
Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.
Jo Reed: Well, I know for this episode of “Quick Study” you wanted to discuss a new report by the Sundance Institute from an art researcher who’s also a theater professional, Jesse Cameron Alick, and it’s a different study from the ones that we’re used to talking about here.
Sunil Iyengar: Yes.  It’s a provocative report called “Emerging from the Cave: Imagining the Future of Theater and Live Performance.”  The cave, of course, is the shutdown that’s affected theaters nationwide during the pandemic.  The studies we discussed in the past, Jo, often rely heavily on statistics and academic jargon to some extent, but this one is based on in-depth interviews with 76 diverse artists, administrators, donors, and others in the theater space.  The interviews were done earlier this year, mostly by Zoom, and they started by asking a simple question.  Simple but complicated.  Basically, “How’s it going?”  In the process, these theater makers were encouraged to talk about their needs, the challenges they continue to face, but also speculate about what the future of theater and live performance could look like.
Jo Reed: That sounds fascinating, and as you say, complicated, but also broad.  How did they distill these conversations?
Sunil Iyengar: Well, the study identified four themes that ran throughout all the interview data.  They’re the notion of collective leadership, of holistic artist support, of digital theater and hybrid futures, and something called field ideation.
Jo Reed: Okay.  Well, why don’t we take these one by one and begin at the beginning with collective leadership?
Sunil Iyengar: Right.  So first, under the heading of collective leadership, several participants advocated more collaborative and less hierarchical approaches to leading theater organizations, since as one interviewee put it, “no one person has the answer.”  Another interviewee, who was the writer, director, songwriter and performer Whitney White, gave this indictment.  She said, “The field is risk-averse to diverse sources of talent, even when the ideas are good.”  She added, “What happens is that we’re all listening to the same 10 people, and so the possibility for transcendence and surprise becomes impossible.”  Kimber Lee, the playwright, argued that, “We worship at the feet of iconoclasts.  We all hunger to give ourselves over to the brilliant person who’s going to save the American theater from itself.”
Jo Reed: Okay. And another theme is “more holistic support.”  What does that mean?
Sunil Iyengar: That relates to more comprehensive plans to support artists as part of the theater ecosystem.  Osh Ghaniman, the actor, writer, director and producer of Broadway For All, observed, “Everyone wants the new Lin-Manuel Miranda, but nobody wants to do the work to cultivate and share access with all of the Lin-Manuel Mirandas in all of the pockets across America.  Artists needs people to invest in them when they need the most investing, which is their formative years,” end quote.
Jo Reed: And then, well certainly digital theater and hybrid futures.  That’s been on everybody’s mind given the ways theaters have adjusted and are still adjusting to COVID.
Sunil Iyengar: Or still need to adjust.  That’s right.  So for example, Lynn Nottage, the playwright, suggested that theaters, rather than thinking about how we can create theater everywhere that demands a stage, they should think, “How can you create theater that meets the needs of our individual space?”
Jo Reed: And finally, the category of field ideation.  Sunil, I don’t even know what that means.
Sunil Iyengar: Well, I think as the report phrases it, it’s really kind of a grab bag of ideas that came from the field itself from these experts, these artists and administrators in theater, about how they would like to change the field, and so one of the things I really admired is a statement that was made by the artist, writer and performer Ty Defoe, where he envisions theater as kind of a place of permanence.  He specifically says, quote, “I think about the seven generations model that many different native nations or tribes have.  It’s a question of, ‘Are you thinking seven generations ahead?  Why this piece of work now?  Why this play now?  Why is it important?’”
Jo Reed: It sounds like they’re really rethinking theater very, really radically, and I wonder, were there any conclusions or next steps or was this some necessary food for thought?
Sunil Iyengar: Well, as I said at the start, Jo, this was very unlike some of our other studies that we’ve talked about because it was very much based in interviews, and so there’s a lot of great texture about what people felt about theater.  So I don’t have numbers, but I do have sort of broad conclusions from the study.  So the researcher, Jesse Alick, offers a final diagnosis.  He writes that, “Large institutions, in an attempt to reach national relevance, have failed to make deep investments in local communities and local artists.  Although it may be idealistic to believe that there was ever a golden age where regional theaters were laser-focused on their own communities, this moment has shown us that we have turned away from ourselves in our own backyards in search of bigger things, and in that quest, we are losing sight of our mission.”  That’s plenty to think about there, especially for arts funders.
Jo Reed: Well, yeah.  A lot to think about for anybody who loves theater.  I’m really interested to see the response to this not just in words but actions in the coming months and years.
Sunil Iyengar: Here’s to that.
Jo Reed: Sunil, thank you so much, and I’ll talk to you next month.
Sunil Iyengar: Sure thing.
Jo Reed: That was Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts.  This has been “Quick Study.”  The music is “We Are One,” from Scott Holmes Music.  It’s licensed through Creative Commons.  Until next month, I’m Josephine Reed.  Thanks for listening.