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Arts & Culture: Keepers Of A Cultural Flame

By Anh-Minh Le

With a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, Cambodian American dancer and choreographer Charya Burt is creating a dance/theater piece that will premiere in 2024. | Photo courtesy of RJ Muna
With a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, Cambodian American dancer and choreographer Charya Burt is creating a dance/theater piece that will premiere in 2024. | Photo courtesy of RJ Muna

Folk and traditional arts take center stage with a recent round of Hewlett Foundation grants.

For decades, Ghanaian American choreographer and master musician C.K. Ladzekpo has used dancing and drumming to educate audiences about West African culture. Similarly, dancer and choreographer Charya Burt is dedicated to preserving and promoting dances that comprise the classical repertory of Cambodia. And L. Frank Manriquez — a Tongva-Ajachmem artist, activist and participant in the annual Tribal Canoe Journey — has described the traditional ti’aat, or canoe, as “the vessel that contains the culture.”

The three Bay Area artists’ efforts to showcase their respective art forms and cultural practices recently got a major boost from the Menlo Park–based Hewlett Foundation. They are part of a group that received grants in support of folk and traditional arts. The funding comes from the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions, a five-year initiative launched in 2017 — the charitable foundation’s 50th anniversary — that provides $150,000 each to 10 local nonprofits annually. At least $50,000 goes to the lead artist that the organizations commission.

Each year, the foundation has focused on a different performing arts category. The past categories were music composition; theater, spoken word and musical theater; and dance and movement-based performance. The final round of recipients, chosen later this year, will draw from the media arts. The 2021 applicants “embodied a tremendous range of aesthetics,” says Emiko Ono, director of Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program, noting that the threestage review process “focused on the artistry and lineage, project concept, project design and plan, and community impact.”

Among the latest recipients of the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions is African American blues and jazz vocalist Faye Carol. | Courtesy of Faye Carol.
Among the latest recipients of the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions is African American blues and jazz vocalist Faye Carol. | Photo courtesy of Faye Carol.

Some of the newly chosen artists are scheduled to share their works in years to come. Ladzekpo’s performance, reenacting the Anlo- Ewe people’s journey from servitude in Togo to freedom in Ghana, is anticipated for summer 2023. Burt’s dance and theater composition, featuring a reconceived Khmer classical dance set, is slated for 2024, as is the maiden voyage for the canoe that Manriquez is creating.

Tibetan American musician, dancer and opera singer Tsering Wangmo and African American blues and jazz vocalist Faye Carol are preparing for debuts this year.

When Wangmo learned that she had received the Hewlett grant through Chaksam-pa, a traditional Tibetan performing troupe that she helped found 33 years ago, her reaction was “pure joy and just tears,” she recalls, adding: “The commission validates all the work that me and my colleague artists have put in over the years.”

Wangmo’s parents fled Tibet in 1959. She was born and raised in a refugee settlement, Bylakuppe, near Mysore in South India. “I was fortunate enough to study Tibetan music and dance at TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts) from highly reputed masters,” says Wangmo, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1989 and now lives in the East Bay.

“The depth and breadth of the projects that these 10 artists are pursuing is a breathtaking reflection of our times.” — Emiko Ono

With the additional Hewlett resources permitting her to “think big,” she is mounting the Shoton Festival, a two-day Tibetan opera festival, this summer. “Shoton” translates to “yogurt,” and the Shoton Festival of Tibet is “marked by the village folks offering yogurt to the monastic community of Drepung near Lhasa,” Wangmo explains. “For the following days, different opera troupes of Tibet perform.”

In 1993, at the behest of the Dalai Lama, India-based TIPA revived the historical tradition in the Tibetan exile community. “Chaksam-pa is honored to re-create the firstever Shoton Festival in North America in 2022 and aspires to continue this tradition,” says Wangmo, whose rendition of two full-length operas, Ache Nangsa and Chogyal Norsang, will involve about 25 other artists who have trained or taught at TIPA. Attendees can look forward to classical Tibetan folk dance and music as well as a genre of singing called Namthar.

For Carol, her forthcoming Blues, Baroque, and Bars — produced in affiliation with Art

Soul Oakland — “will tell the story of Black folks in America through music, from our being brought here on the slave ships, to the cotton fields, to the Great Migration, to the present day,” she says. “It’s important for this story to be told because authentic Black music is so thoroughly underrepresented, and our history both musically and as a people is so thoroughly untold and under-documented.”

She further elaborates: “I hope audiences will take away that Black music is all one — the expression of a resilience and strength of a people.”

Tibetan American musician, dancer and opera singer Tsering Wangmo is part of the same cohort and, like Carol, will debut her work this year. | Courtesy of Tsering Wangmo.
Tibetan American musician, dancer and opera singer Tsering Wangmo is part of the same cohort and, like Carol, will debut her work this year. | Photo courtesy of Tsering Wangmo.

Carol was born in Mississippi and at around age 8 moved to Pittsburg, California, where she grew up performing with the choirs at Solomon Temple Missionary Baptist Church. She has been singing professionally since the mid-1960s. With Blues, Baroque, and Bars, she once again partners with her pianist and musical director Joe Warner. The work also entails a trio of musicians (acoustic, bass and drums), a string quartet (this will be her first time writing for strings) and a rapper.

According to Carol, the Hewlett commission allows her not only to hire world-class musicians but to present her piece in Black communities in the Bay Area that otherwise might not have the opportunity to see it. It will premiere at Oakland’s Art + Soul Festival, July 23 and 24. There are plans for free shows later in the year in Pittsburg, Richmond, East Palo Alto and San Francisco’s Bayview–Hunter’s Point neighborhood. (In the nearer future, to mark Black History Month, she will be performing every Sunday in February as part of a four-week concert series, Faye & The Folks, at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in downtown Oakland.)

While the artists selected by the foundation are all local, their influences are often far-flung. Afro-Cuban choreographer Susana Arenas Pedroso’s undertaking highlights the cultural and political relationships between Cuba and Guinea. Seventh-generation Nautanki opera performer, writer, director and guru Devendra Sharma is conjuring an Indian folk opera. Brazilian American capoeira master and teacher Marcia Treidler’s presentation centers on trailblazing women in the Brazilian traditional arts. Iranian singer and musician Mahsa Vahdat is devising a song cycle that integrates classical and contemporary Persian texts. Composer and Vietnamese master traditional artist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ’s multimedia production explores the cultures of those living along the Mekong River, as well as the impact of environmental change on them.

“The depth and breadth of the projects that these 10 artists are pursuing is a breathtaking reflection of our times,” says Ono. “Many are activating painful truths. … What distinguishes folk and traditional art forms is that they are informed by cultural context, history and lineage; they braid together past, present and future.”

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