Melting Pot

I went to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Heritage Fellowships Concert Friday night, and I’m so glad.

It was amazing.

The NEA gives out ten National Heritage Fellowships every year. The recipients are folk and traditional artists chosen from a wide array fo disciplines, all across America. This year’s honorees ranged from a Nez Perce chief–a drum-maker, singer, and tradition-bearer (I love that phrase!)–to an Ethiopian-American liturgical musician and scholar.  There was also a former cowboy, now a saddlemaker, from Idaho; a sassy Alabama quilter who has got to be someone’s truly awesome grandma; a Peruvian retablo maker; twenty-odd Oneida tribe hymn singers bussed in from Wisconsin; a Korean-American dancer and Shamanic singer; a bluegrass musician; a jazz clarinetist from New Orleans; and a Brazilian-American capoeira master. Each fellow gave us a demonstration and answered a few questions. Some spoke perfect English; some struggled to make themselves understood in their second language. All of them seemed to feel genuinely honored and displayed a humble pride in their work. Some of them played us a few songs. Some explained a finished product (quilt or saddle) and then gave us a brief demonstration of a work-in-progress. My favorite was the capoeira, a beautiful, intricate mix of martial arts and dance. The fighters circled each other, tagging in and out of the circle, doing somersaults and handstands to the beat of the drum, and the teenagers who accompanied the teacher being honored were totally hamming it up.

Each of these artists has a very specific heritage that he honors in his work, but the best part of the evening was the curtain call of sorts. All of the fellows gathered onstage. Dr. Michael White and his band played traditional New Orleans jazz while buff young Brazilian-American teens from NYC danced with old Onedia ladies from Wisconsin. The retablo maker joined hands and bounced in a circle with demurely-gowned, smiling Korean women (with his broad smiling face and his colorful knit cap, he looked for all the world like an adorable garden gnome). The ancient Nez Perce chief,  in full regalia, nodded his head and joined the tail end of the conga line. Possibly my favorite part was the young capoeira dancers trying to follow the intricate footwork of the lovely, doll-like shamanic dancer. The stage was just overflowing with joy, and I know I wasn’t the only member of the audience clapping and beaming.

It gave new meaning to the term "melting pot," and it was an excellent reminder of the importance of arts in the preservation of our diverse heritages. 

I haven’t felt such pride to be American in ages.

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