Read Online at Creative Loafing : https://creativeloafing.com/content-464764-elise-witt-celebrates-a-life-of-music
“North Avenue Lounge” Host Shannon Turner speaks with Amani Women Center Founder & Director Doris Mukangu and Global Village Project Music Director Elise Witt about their work in the community of Clarkston, known as “the most diverse square mile in the US.”
Listen Online at the WREK North Avenue Lounge Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/northavenuelounge/nal-20191111
WOMEN ON AIR
Dec. 15, 2015
hosted by Susan Lachmann
on WETS-FM, Jonesboro TN
19:22 Introduction to interview – Peace with Harmony
25:16 Interview about Community Singing
30:00 Bees Make Honey
38:42 Interview about the Global Village Project and languages
Vienna Tang – Transcontinental
Lizz Wright – I’m Confessing
Buffy St Marie – It’s My Way
September 27, 2017
Elise Witt – An interview with the singer, composer, educator, recording artist and community activist. “I wanted to contribute to change and connect to people through my music.”
Elise Witt is a person who is driven to make the world a better place through music and the performing arts. After being born in Switzerland and spending her early childhood in upstate New York, Elise was raised in the southern U.S. state of North Carolina and since 1977 has made Georgia her home. Her mother used to sing in a choir in Switzerland and Elise carries on that singing tradition. Her main interests through her school years were languages of the world. She would study this in college and is fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish and English.
Throughout her professional career in the arts, Elise has been gathering songs in different languages from all parts of the world. She shares this knowledge of culture in the many community projects that she is associated with. Having a great reputation as a vocal instructor, she thrives on taking this ability to helping the less fortunate in society. Examples of the projects she is involved with include: “Alternative ROOTS“, “Global Village Project“, “An Impromptu Glorious Chorus™”, “All The Way In” and more. These are organizations that help people grow through the arts.
In her performance life, Elise has many successful performing and recording projects. She was a member of The Robert Shaw Chamber Singers which played Carnegie Hall on a regular basis. Her various groups and joint ventures have brought well-polished music all over the U.S., as well as the world. Elise has served as a cultural ambassador to South Africa, Nicaragua, China, Italy, and Yugoslavia. I recently had the opportunity to speak to Elise about her wonderful career.
R.V.B. – Good morning Elise… how are you today?
E.W. – I’m well… how are you?
R.V.B. – I’m good. We have a nice hot day up here. How is it down by you?
E.W. – It’s actually been an amazing summer. It’s been kind of cool for Georgia. It’s been raining everyday and my garden is exploding.
R.V.B. – You don’t sound like you’re from Georgia?
E.W. – I’m originally from Switzerland. We moved to upstate New York near Syracuse when I was 4 and lived there for 10 years and then moved to North Carolina. I’ve been in the Southeast since 1966.
R.V.B. – Thank you for taking this time with me. Your resume is very impressive. When did you start singing?
E.W. – I probably started singing before I was born. My mother was singing in a choir in Switzerland when she was carrying me. They say that I sang before I started talking, so I’ve been singing all of my life. I’ve always loved singing but I never thought about doing it as a career. I was really into languages and I didn’t want to ruin the joy of singing by studying it. I always did music for pleasure. I was a French Major in college and I studied in France for a year. I was all set to be a translator, or interpreter, but then I got sidetracked into theatre. The kind of theatre I got sidetracked into was theatre reflective of community. I read an article that intrigued me about playwright Rebecca Ranson. Do you remember Joanne Little and the song Sweet Honey in the Rock wrote about her? She was in jail in Washington, North Carolina for defending herself against sexual assault by a guard and Rebecca Ranson was doing theatre with the women in the prison there. Rebecca’s work gave me a revelation about the arts: there are two things called “Theatre.” One is purely for entertainment, while the other is for communities to tell their stories. I ended up meeting Rebecca, and acting in a play she was writing called “Desperados”. It was a powerful experience, which led me to an organization called “Alternate ROOTS“. ROOTS became, and still is, my artistic family. ROOTS is a coalition of artists who work at the intersection of arts and activism. I found out about them in 1979 when the organization was just a year old. Through the artists I met in ROOTS, I realized I could make a living making music. I wanted to contribute to change and connect to people through my music. I learned how theater and dance companies do their work through residencies and creating relationships with the communities where they are working. So I began working in schools and community centers, teaching classes, writing songs, and organizing concerts. It was a way of sustaining myself as an artist and doing work that left an effect on the community.
R.V.B. – It’s the best of both worlds. You’re doing something you like and you’re doing it for a good cause.
E.W. – I’m one of the luckiest people in the world because I’ve made my entire adult living as a singer. At ROOTS, I met some folks from Roadside Theatre in Kentucky, and they said “What is something that you have to offer that is unique to you?” I speak five languages fluently so that became my “hook.” I created “A Musical Trip Around the World,” which I took to schools and communities all over the South and beyond. I taught songs from many different cultures and created new songs to address concerns or tell stories about community life. It was a combination of getting kids and adults excited about global music, and also writing songs about what they were studying or interested in or concerned about. A few years ago I was at Lady’s Island Elementary School on Lady’s Island in South Carolina, where the Gullah/Geechee culture is alive and well. They wanted me to write a school song with the 4th graders. The school mascot is the osprey. There are osprey nests in the lights of the sports fields… so the osprey was a part of the song as were some lovely phrases in Gullah. We wrote a song with 17 verses, and of course the students memorized all 17 verses because they had created it, and we performed it at a big community festival. It’s just been a really interesting trajectory for my music.
R.V.B. – That’s fantastic.
You were involved with the Robert Shaw Chorale?
E.W. – I sang with Mr. Shaw for around 20 years. Mr. Shaw moved to Atlanta, and became the conductor for The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). He also conducted the ASO Chorus and Chamber Chorus (ASOCC) – I was in both. Mr. Shaw revolutionized choral music. He played the chorus as his instrument. The techniques that he developed to conduct a chorus are now used by choral directors around the world. He was an amazing man. When I went to Nicaragua with my band in the 80’s, we raised all the money for the trip, and Mr. Shaw and his wife were among the supporters. He was very socially engaged and outspoken.
R.V.B. – I’ve read a lot about him and it was obviously great for the city of Atlanta for him to move down there and set up shop.
E.W. – Absolutely. It was like having a fantastic voice lesson every Monday evening!
R.V.B. – You performed outside of Georgia with Mr. Shaw, right?
E.W. – Yes. The Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, which I was also in, was the resident choir at Spivey Hall, here in Atlanta – for a few years. And we did a yearly series at Carnegie Hall in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Mr. Shaw passed away in 1998 right after my father passed. It felt like losing two fathers, two mentors.
R.V.B. – I’m sure playing at Carnegie Hall was a great honor for you.
E.W. – Unbelievable… walking into that space. You know how a musical instrument gets better with age? It absorbs the music into the wood… the guitar, cello, violin. In Carnegie Hall, I literally felt the years of music that were in the walls. It was palpable. I’ve never felt anything like that before. It was so exciting singing there. We were there many times but the excitement never diminished.
R.V.B. – Certain places have that aura, like the Ryman theatre in Nashville.
E.W. There are also a lot of lesser-known places like that in small towns around the country. For example, in the ‘80s I was touring with my band “The Small Family Orchestra” and we were on the roster of the Southern Arts Federation. Thanks to that connection we played in many beautiful and “unknown” places around the Southeast. One place that stands out in my memory is the Fort Payne Opera House in Alabama. It’s a gorgeous space and there are quite a few treasures like that in the South. They have that magic from the music that’s been played there. Of course Carnegie is in a category of its own.
R.V.B. – I see that you were involved with the Clearwater Festival. It’s a beautiful setting for a festival.
E.W. – The Clearwater Festival was wonderful. You know they built the Sloop Clearwater to help clean up the Hudson River. So in addition to the Festival, they initiated the Pumpkin Sail. Every October the Sloop Clearwater would spend 3 weeks sailing from Albany down the Hudson River to New York City. On weekdays the boat would stop in the towns along the river and all the 4th graders from nearby towns would come and learn about the ecology of the river. The students would sing and hear the Stone Soup story, and then get to eat stone soup. There were musicians, jugglers, storytellers and clowns on board. My clown friend Stephen Stearns – founder of the New England Youth Theater – is the person who hooked me up with the Clearwater. It was so much fun. We sailed silently. Each weekend there was a festival. The first weekend was in Albany, the final weekend was in New York City and during the middle weekend the festival was in Beacon, where Pete and Toshi Seeger lived. At the festival in Beacon, Pete and Toshi were cooking and serving chili for the crowds!
R.V.B. – They were amazing people.
E.W. – Yes! I wrote a song with Pete. He wrote the words back in 1968. He went on a camping trip with his youngest granddaughter to an island in Maine. When they got there, there was a lot of trash on the beach. He was appalled and wrote a poem on a rock there. So the poem existed, and then Jim Musselman – his publisher – wrote some more words to it and they published it. Studs Terkel recited the poem on the CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone? It’s a compilation album with different musicians singing Pete’s songs. In the liner notes, Pete told the story about the camping trip and he said “I never found any music to this one so if you hear anything, go ahead.” In 2007, at the Folk Alliance Conference, the traveling musicians’ Local of the Musicians’ Union, Local 1000, organized a celebration for Pete’s 88th birthday. I wrote to Pete and asked him if he would approve the music I had written for his poem. We had a beautiful correspondence. His cards and letters are signed each with his little banjo sketch. We corresponded back and forth about four times. He liked the music and said “OK”. That was very thrilling. The song is called “Blessed Nation.” I recorded it on my CD “Valise,” and it has banjo on it of course!
R.V.B. – What a wonderful story. The letters are a nice keepsake.
You did some cultural ambassador work and you’ve traveled quite extensively. Can you give me a few travel stories?
E.W. – The languages propel me into interesting situations. In 1985, when the Sandinista Revolution was happening in Nicaragua, my friend Bill Fleming was organizing cultural exchanges with artists from the US and Nicaragua. He said “The Small Family Orchestra should go to Nicaragua.” So for about a year, we raised money through our concerts to pay for the trip. We went to Nicaragua in February of 1985, and it was such an inspiring and eye opening trip. We didn’t spend much time in Managua, the capitol. There were arts centers in every small town and village. We met with lots of artists and musicians, to hear stories and share songs. We also helped harvest coffee. They were trying to harvest the coffee quickly because the Contras were moving in from the north. The overwhelming feeling I had was, in a strange way, somewhat similar to being in Carnegie Hall. You could feel the excitement and creativity everywhere. It felt like the People truly had the power and were in charge of their own destiny after years of living under cruel dictatorships. Filmmaker George King went with us and made a film about the trip called “Notes from Nicaragua.”
Another travel story:
I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy. Back in the ‘80s, the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs (BCA) provided a lot of public funding for the arts. I had moved to Atlanta to start an ensemble theater called “The Theatrical Outfit.” We wrote all our own plays, and lived together in a big group house. The BCA awarded us two salaries as Artists-in-Residence, which we split 12 ways! The BCA invited three artists from Italy – painter/sculptor Michelangelo Pistoletto, theater artist Lionello Gennero and jazz trumpeter Enrico Rava – to work in Atlanta for a month. The BCA basically said “Any Atlanta artists who want to work with the Italians… here they are.”So my theatre company adopted Lionello, the theatre director, to do theater at the youth detention center, where we were working. All that month we would go over to where the Italians were staying and have these amazing dinners and cultural discussions. At the end of their month in Atlanta, there was a big performance called “Chair Stations,” directed by Michelangelo. All the artists that had been involved in the project were part of the production. Clark Atlanta University jazz band had been working with Enrico. And a lot of visual artists had done collaborations with Michelangelo. It was a wild kind of performance art “Spettacolo.” Then the Italians invited five of us from the Theatrical Outfit to come to Italy for the other half of the collaboration. So in the summer of 1979, I went to Italy with four of my theater colleagues. I had never been to Italy but I knew Paolo Zacchera, a young man who had been an exchange student in Valdosta Georgia, while I was living down there. So I wrote to him and said “I’m coming to Italy with some friends. Can we come and visit you?” He promptly replied, “Yes… come, bring all of your friends and stay as long as you want.” He was starting a farm to raise azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. We went to Lago Maggiore and stayed with him, where we were wined and dined, and then proceeded to Corniglia in the Cinque Terre, to join the Italian artists. There we created a wild performance on the three piazzas (town squares) perched on the steep mountainside over looking the Meditteranean Ocean. Everybody in the town – all of the sheep, all the children, all the adults were in the performance called “Opera Ahhh.” It was another grandiose “Spettacolo.” I wanted to return to Italy, and being the language fanatic that I am, I couldn’t go back without speaking Italian. So when I got back to Atlanta I enrolled in a class at Emory University. The teacher was from Rome and excited that somebody actually wanted to learn. For the next several years, I spent three to four months of the summer touring with my friend Laura Culver. She played cello, soprano saxophone, and the Brazilian berimbau. I played guitar and sang. Our duo “Hero Sandwich” had a really bizarre and eclectic repertoire. For example, Heitor Villa Lobos wrote “Bachianas Brasileras” for 8 cellos and voice, and Laura re-arranged it for 1 cello and voice. We did Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying’ Mercy”, and of course a Pete Seeger song. Every time we played a concert, there would be somebody in the audience who would invite us to another gig. Once we played on the Adriatic coast where glamorous super models from around the world were showing the latest fashions in belts and hats. We would work on Paolo’s azalea farm on Lago Maggiore in exchange for room and board, and then go off and do our gigs. It was wild and wonderful. I’ve made lifelong friends in Italy and still continue to go there as often as I can to visit, play concerts, and teach workshops (in Italian!).
In Atlanta and on tour, I teach community singing workshops called “An Impromptu Glorious Chorus™. One of my goals in life is to banish the horrible thing that’s happened to so many people in our western culture… who’ve been told that they can’t sing. There are people that say “My third grade teacher… or my church choir director… or my mom told me to just mouth along with the words.”
R.V.B. – America has studio-manufactured music now. If you don’t sound like that, then you can’t sing.
E.W. – Exactly. My workshops are a combination of a vocal workshop and a community sing. They are “low pressure and high pleasure,” open to singers of all styles and experiences, and I teach everything by ear, so there is no music reading. When I tour, I do concerts as well as workshops, and I often invite my workshop participants to sing on the concert.
R.V.B. – I gather you do these workshops in Georgia also.
E.W. – At home I teach class series, usually 6-8 weeks, so that we can go deeper into the music. I moved to Georgia in 1977 to start the Theatrical Outfit with a group of 12 artists – dancers, actors, directors, musicians. We just said “We’re each going to teach the others what we know how to do.”And to me they said “You’re gonna teach us singing.” I had never taught before, but I had had great music teachers all the way through public school and on into college. And then our theater decided to start offering classes to the public. So that’s how I started teaching these community singing classes. I originally called it “Singing for the non or quasi singer.” But of course I realized that title is diametrically opposed to my philosophy. There is no such thing as a non-singer! We’re all singers! So now my workshop is called An Impromptu Glorious Chorus™, and it’s been growing and evolving over the last almost 40 years. There’s a group of people that have been singing with me for years – and then new people come in – but it doesn’t start over every time a new class begins. It’s a kind of continuum… new people just fit in to where we are already. It’s like collective memory.
I’ve had this same experience in my own learning. I’ve been studying with Rhiannon, who sings in Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra. Rhiannon is a powerful performer and teacher. She’s been teaching for more than 40 years, and in 2008 she decided that she wanted to go deeper with her students. She started a program called “All The Way In.” It’s a year-long program for 16 singers from around the world who work together for a year. I was in that first group in 2008, and we met in three different places over the course of the year. We would have phone or skype meetings in-between gatherings. We studied vocal improvisation, which is the core of the program, as well as sound healing, collaboration, and performance. And then for the 2012 All the Way In, Rhiannon invited me to be a co-pilot, to help her hold the circle and to be mentored as a teacher. All the Way In was a life changing experience for me – vocally, compositionally, spiritually, collaborationally. Since 2008, the community of improvisational singers has grown exponentially, and I notice that, like in my classes, each group starts where the last group left off. The ever-growing group of singers is on the same trajectory and moving it forward collectively. The singers continue to be connected and form collaborations around the world. There is so much happening with community singing. Group singing has really exploded in recent years.
R.V.B. – The Arts have a lot of powerful benefits.
You represented the state of Georgia at the 25th Anniversary of the Kennedy Center.
E.W. – Yes, one of our Georgia Senators nominated me. The Kennedy Center has a wonderful program called “The Millennium Stage.” They provide music every single night of the year and audiences can enjoy the music for free before they go to a main stage show. After I played at the 25th anniversary (a different state was highlighted over 50 days!), I was invited back to play on the Millennium Stage a couple of times. I love working with other musicians and artists in other disciplines, and I have collaborators all over the country and abroad. At the Kennedy Center, I invited Ralph Gordon, a wonderful bassist from West Virginia, and my tap dancing friend Ann Kilkelly from Blacksburg VA to join me. At the time I had just recorded my album Open My Window – and there was a song on it called “Too Busy For The Blues.” I asked the audience if anyone would like to come up and jam with us. This guy came up and soared – we had so much fun. Actually I always collaborate with the audience at my concerts. I try to slip up behind them, so that they’re singing before they realize it. I know there are a lot of people who say “Oh, I hate sing-along’s. I don’t want to do that.” But I have sneaky ways to get them singing, and before you know it, the whole place is making music together. Have you ever seen Bobby McFerrin in concert?
R.V.B. – Only on YouTube videos.
E.W. – He doesn’t say a word. He just looks at the audience. He’ll divide the audience in half and give a melody to the right side and a counter melody to the left side. Then he conducts them and improvises over the whole. Not a word is spoken… it’s all music. It’s bodies to bodies, voices to voices, communicating.
I’ve learned from so many great teachers. Dr. Ysaye Barnwell is the bass singer in Sweet Honey in the Rock. I started studying with her in 1985 at the Augusta Heritage Workshops in West Virginia. She is a great composer and an expert in African American vocal music – and some African music as well. She has been an important mentor for me in the way that I teach. At Augusta I also got to study for a week with D.L. Menard, who passed away recently. He is known as “the Hank Williams of Cajun Music,” and is a wonderful songwriter and hilarious story teller. His song “La Porte en Arriere” (the Back Door) is a Cajun classic and we learned all 4 verses of tongue twisting Cajun French with him!
I’ve also studied extensively with Fred Onovwerosuoke, fondly known as “Fred O.” He grew up in Ghana, his parents are from Nigeria, he has traveled all over the African continent, and he speaks a million languages. He’s truly a walking encyclopedia of African vocal music, not to mention that he converses freely about Stravinsky, Chopin, and Hank Williams! He was on my faculty when I coordinated “Sing & Swing Week” at the Swannanoa Gatheringin North Carolina. The Gathering offers week-long programs where adults and families can come and study music based in Appalachian traditions. Sing & Swing was about community dancing, singing, and music making. After lunch everyone would join the African Chorus led by Fred O. Suddenly the whole room is in harmony, and you’re part of this incredibly beautiful experience.
I always say that when you are singing harmony, it’s 1 + 1 + 1 +1 = 1. Singers do a lot of “polychotic listening,” listening to many things at once. First we focus on our own voice – melody, rhythm, words. Next, our listening allows us to create a perfect unison with the other singers on our voice part. Then we open our ears to simultaneously hear what the other voice parts are doing. And then if we can, that last magic step is hearing the totality of the music, how all those pieces come together. When I’m teaching, I let people step into the center and silently listen, to move their ears around so they can hear the different parts. They hear how everything comes together as one song.
R.V.B. – It’s really amazing work that you’re doing. You’re a treasure down south. You’re well rounded in your teachings. You also help the less fortunate.
E.W. – I’m a lifelong learner. I’m always learning from inspiring teachers. Currently I teach at the Global Village Project (GVP), a special purpose accredited middle school here in Atlanta for teenage refugee girls with interrupted educations. The students are from Afghanistan, Burma, Congo, Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malaysia, Nepal, Somalia, and Syria. I use singing to teach English – our whole curriculum is about language acquisition. I teach them songs from the global peace and justice repertoire. We learn songs from the students’ cultures. And we write songs about things they are studying or subjects that grab their interest. I collaborate with other teachers to see what they’re teaching and we write songs about it. We’ve written songs about fractions. We’ve written songs about the water cycle. We’re now going into our ninth year and the school is becoming a model for teaching this particular population because there is a huge need. It’s really powerful. There was a small group of people who started GVP, and I sort of made up my job at the beginning. In the early years I raised my own salary. But now we are creating an arts-infused curriculum. We have drama with Playmaking for Girls, which is part of Synchronicity Theatre. Last year we had a wonderful Poetry Residency with slam poetry champion Theresa Davis. Our guests have included Czech circus artist Tomas Kubinek, Syrian American hiphop artist Omar Offendum, singers Terry Garthwaite, Becky Reardon, and Leah Song from Rising Appalachia. So much cool stuff is happening at the Global Village Project, so that is where a lot of my teaching energy is focused now.
R.V.B. – Do you have any other hobbies?
E.W. – I love swimming outdoors. I grew up swimming in a farm pond, and now I swim everyday because I live in a community with a little lake. When I feel the water around me, all my cares drift away!
I love to dance to live music – Zydeco and Cajun, Swing, and free form rock and roll dancing. I’m also a big gardener. I have a huge garden, and right now there is an explosion of tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplant, beans, and flowers. I grew up on a farm, so I’m still a farmer at heart. I’m a singing farmer!
R.V.B. – Very nice. I have a big garden myself. Thank you very much for talking with me. You do fantastic work and I’m sure you’re appreciated in the community. You have so many positive things going on. Any other projects?
E.W. – Yes! Michael Holmes, the Music Director at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Silver Spring MD and I have created “The Elise Witt Choral Series.” He has arranged over 20 of my songs for mixed choirs (SATB), women’s choirs (SSAA) and men’s choirs (TTBB). I’ve had some impressive choral groups perform my music, including Cantus, The Three Altos, and Malcolm Dalglish’s Ooolation Singers. Sometimes I am invited to do residencies with choruses, which is really fun. I hear my songs performed in full voice, and I get to solo with the choir, and conduct.
Another project that is really rocking my world is the trio “Natural Rhythms” with Terry Garthwaite (from the Joy of Cooking Band) and Becky Reardon (great songwriter from Taos NM). We met at a gathering of community song leaders who also write songs for community singing. The 3 of us hit it off right away, and now tour doing workshops and concerts of our original music. Working with them has really kicked my songwriting up several notches, and Terry helped me produce my most recent CD. Our three voices are super, super different, but when we sing together, there’s this magical synthesis.
R.V.B. – Have you done any writing this summer?
E.W. – I’m having a very quiet summer. I do a lot of my writing at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, a retreat center in the mountains of north Georgia. Most of the songs on my most recent CD “We’re All Born Singing” (Photo – We’re All BORN SINGING CD cover) were written there.
R.V.B. – Sounds like a nice writing retreat. Thanks for taking this time with me. As I said when I first contacted you, I saw your ad in a back issue of Sing Out.
E.W. – I know… that’s funny.
R.V.B. – I was thumbing through the magazine and I thought “This looks interesting…” and here we are!
E.W. – Thank you so much.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
For information contact musicguy247(at)aol(dot)com
Read the article and whole interview online at Imagining America – http://public.imaginingamerica.org/blog/article/our-global-roots-alternate-roots-artists-respond-to-immigration-in-the-deep-south/
Elise and the Global Village Project, along with Ecuadoran/New Orleans performance artist José Torres-Tama,are featured in this article for Public a Journal of Imagining America, exploring higher education and public engagement.
For the past 40 years, Alternate ROOTS has been a champion of, and resource for, artists, cultural workers, and progressive movement building in the southern United States. Immigration to the South has increased dramatically since the early nineties and this boom continues through the present. According to the Migration Policy Institute, four of the five states with the largest percentage growth of immigrants between 2000 and 2012 were in the South (Zong and Batalova 2015). As a network of artists committed to creating work rooted in community, place, tradition, or spirit, it is vital that we are allied with the South’s immigrant communities and invested in globally engaged creative practice domestically.
This year, two of Alternate ROOTS Partners in Action projects shine a light on the experiences of immigrant communities in the Deep South. Both artists are themselves multilingual immigrants. Elise Witt, a Swiss-born daughter of Nazi Germany survivors, serves as the director of music programs at the Global Village Project in Decatur, GA. Drawing on her 40-plus-year career as a musician, Witt is working with a team of educators and artists to develop curriculum that empowers teenage female refugee students to navigate their new world with confidence and creativity. In New Orleans, Ecuadorian-born, New York/New Jersey-raised Torres-Tama employs the poetry, visual, and performance art practices he has honed over decades to ensure that the enormous contributions Latina/o immigrants made to post-Katrina reconstruction are not forgotten. Earlier this year, Nicole Gurgel, ROOTS’ content developer, spoke with these longtime members about their globally engaged creative practices.
By bearing witness to immigrant experiences in the South, Witt and Torres-Tama’s collective body of work resists and complicates the black/white polemic that has long defined both the region and the nation’s racial paradigm. Positioning their work within the context of European colonization, cross-Atlantic slave trade, and late-twentieth-century US imperialism, Witt and Torres-Tama reveal the ways in which global conflict and resistance to it has been, and continues to be, woven into the fabric of the South. As artists, their work not only illuminates these issues, but also underscores the power and value of engaging with them through the arts.
Music as Metaphor
A Global Perspective on Harmony
I asked you to open this conversation by singing a song that resonates with the idea of globally engaged creative practice. Would you share one with us?
“English Is Weird” is a song that I wrote for my students at the Global Village Project (GVP). I wrote it to let my students know that my experience learning English parallels theirs, and that the reason they’re having a hard time learning English is that the language makes no sense—it is not logical! The song has four harmony parts. The first part is an exercise in articulation, “Lips, teeth, tip of the tongue, roof of the mouth, articulate.” The second part says, “My mouth feels funny when I speak English.” In the third part, we tell it like it is, “English is weird.” And the fourth part reflects my love of language as music, just the pure sounds: “I love to talk even when it doesn’t mean anything.” All four of these parts stack on top of each other in polyrhythmic harmony, a practice I find myself using a lot. After we’ve learned and enjoyed all these different parts, everyone comes together singing “listen, listen, listen” in four-part, interesting, not totally expected, harmony.
Would you introduce GVP and talk about the vision you hold for the music program?
GVP is a special-purpose middle school for teenage refugee girls from Afghanistan, Burma, Congo, Liberia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, Syria, and Central African Republic. It is truly the height of imperialistic irony when we welcome these refugees from precisely the countries where our global policies have led to war and chaos, creating millions of refugees. The students and their families live in the community of Clarkston, which has become the most diverse city in the entire United States. There are many challenges the families face upon arrival. But perhaps even more significant and overwhelming are the challenges they face once they have passed the six months of refugee aid, and are basically left on their own to support their families and pay back their passage. There are many agencies that have formed to help the refugees navigate systems like physical and mental health care, housing, transportation, and education. That is how the Global Village Project was born. GVP’s mission is “to develop a strong educational foundation for each student within a caring community using a strengths-based approach and intensive instruction in English language and literacy, academic subjects, and the arts.” So I’m using singing to teach English—and everything else! The school is in its sixth year, and I started teaching there halfway through their first year. Since then, I’ve been developing a music program that isn’t just a music program. It’s about creating an arts-integrated environment. It’s been a beautiful, amazing, interesting, and challenging journey for me, because I’m not formally trained as a music teacher, nor as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher. However, everything that I’ve done in my life up to this point has led me to this place. My training has been “in the field,” so it’s interesting to reflect on how I’m in the perfect place at the perfect time, both for myself in my development as an artist, and for the school in its development as an arts-integrated environment.
In what ways does your long career as a globally engaged artist inform your work at GVP?
When I say I’ve been led to do this work, what I’ve come from is many years as a teaching artist for arts councils and community organizations around the country, bringing concerts, workshops, and residencies to K–12 schools, as well as colleges and universities. The dual focus has always been getting students excited about language and culture through singing and creating our own original songs.
Would you share a story from this path?
In the early nineties I was invited to Dalton, Georgia, the “carpet capital of the world,” to spend a week doing concerts and workshops in each of the city’s elementary schools. What they failed to tell me before I arrived was that, over the preceding years, because of the carpet industry, the population had completely transformed. It was now somewhere between 60–80% Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom did not speak English. Luckily, Spanish is one of the languages I speak, and since my sponsors had not prepared me for this situation, I turned to the students for direction. Together we improvised a solution. We worked out a process of “changing channels”—switching back and forth between English and Spanish, translating back and forth. The thing that was interesting to me, and curious, was that the monolingual English speakers did not understand the concept of translation. They thought they were missing something every time we spoke in Spanish, whereas the Spanish speakers were used to this constant, everyday, all day long, translation process. Together, these students shifted that experience to create an understanding about language and translation between the bilingual and monolingual students. The solution that the students and I worked out is something I would like my work to be doing: to take English and Eurocentric culture out of the center, out of the central authority. My song “English Is Weird” seeks to do just that. It’s a way to clear the space, so that non-English speakers relate to the very real difficulty of learning this crazy weird English language, while English speakers can also appreciate the humor. It’s a good way to shift the center and open the circle.
Harmony is so important to your work. Can you talk about how harmony relates to your globally engaged practice?
In some way, all my work is about harmony, musical and global—it’s such a great metaphor for what we’re trying to create in the world. I define harmony as two or more parts that come together and are “pleasing” to the ear. Pleasing is in quotes because harmony is both subjective and cultural. What is pleasing to one ear may be strange to another. There are so many different kinds of harmony in the world, from central African rain forest chants and Bulgarian women’s tight note clusters to Tuvan throat singing, Tibetan monks’ chants, and Southern gospel music. The opportunities for exploring harmony around the world are endless. In all my workshops and classes with young people and adults, we explore music by improvising and we learn songs without written music, using our ears and our bodies. It is amazing how much faster and deeper singers learn when they are not attached to paper. I always give students the opportunity to experience “polychotic listening,” listening to more than one thing at a time. When we have learned a piece that has multiple harmony parts, one group at a time goes inside the circle to just listen, without singing. With eyes closed they move their ears around to the different parts, the layers, and how they fit together. I like the image of harmony as a braid. We begin with individual hairs. Next, we divide the hairs into three separate strands. Finally, we weave the strands into a braid. At this point, we can see both the whole and its parts. Likewise, in creating musical harmony, first there is a big group made up of individual voices, each voice with its unique colors and tones. Next we divide the big group into smaller groups, each group seeking to sound like one voice, a perfect unison. In a formal or traditional choir, this would be equivalent to soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Finally, we hear how those parts come together to create harmony, to create a song. And as singers, our ears can move back and forth from listening to our own individual part that we are singing, to hearing the whole, that is the song. Music is a beautiful metaphor for how we could live together, honoring our diversity while recognizing our common humanity. One plus one plus one equals one.
You’ve mentioned that, as a teacher, you incorporate the T’ai Chi philosophy that “every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher.” At GVP you’re in a classroom with young women from around the world. Could you speak about what you’re learning from your students?
Being at GVP has been an interesting shift from my previous educational work. In some ways, I’m doing the same thing, but in a mirror version. Before, I was getting English speakers excited about opening to other sounds, other cultures, other music. Now I’m using music to help English language learners open to the sounds, culture, and music of the language of this new world they inhabit, and to learn how to navigate their new world through sound. How do they create a color palette of sounds to call upon as they’re learning this new language? And how do they want to sound? It’s about this idea that language is music and music is a language.
There are songs that we create, where we bring in words and phrases from every student’s culture. I’m working with a group of about 35 students, in which there are probably 80 languages; most of my students speak at least three if not four, five, or six languages. Being a language fanatic, my goal has always been to learn all the languages in the world. Well, at GVP I’m at least adding some phrases in Oromo, Karen, Arabic, Lingala, Kirundi—the list goes on!
We created a song at the beginning of the school year to get to know each other. It’s a song of welcome. It was originally inspired by an artist friend of mine, Masanko Banda, who is from Malawi. He told me, “In Malawi, when we greet each other, we say ‘I see you with my eyes, I see you with my heart.'” I started thinking about that, and created a little chant using that phrase. On top of that I layered a harmony using the word “welcome.” Then students taught us how to say “welcome” in their cultures. And we started layering the words polyrhythmically together to create a vocal collage. This version uses Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, Oromo (from Ethiopia), Kirundi (from Burundi), Pashto (from Afghanistan), and Karen, Karenni, and Chin (from Burma). I love how all of these rhythms can fit together and become that braid of harmony, where we’re singing in different languages—they all interweave, and welcome us in. One plus one plus one equals one!
Bearing Witness to Latina/o Immigrants and the Post-Katrina Rebirth
Verde Extra Alien Green. Poem and performance by José Torres-Tama.
Click to open pdf of poem.
Your personal history is a global one. How has this informed your work as an artist?
Having been born in Ecuador, South America, and come of age in the United States of North America, I consider myself a bilingual native of the Hemispheric Americas. While I am a naturalized US citizen, I often feel like a man without a country, especially since the heightened persecution of Arab Americans, Muslims, and Latina/o immigrants in this post-9/11 landscape where the foreign born is cast as the alien other and dehumanized.
If we dare to be honest, the first true “illegal aliens” in the Americas were the European colonizers. This beacon of democracy, the United States of Amnesia, was founded on the near genocide of native people, the enslavement of Africans to build empire, and the appropriation of the northern territories of Mexico, from Texas to California, in order to manifest imperial destiny. This is not myth. This is the historical legacy kept in the shadows, but it haunts the nation. Thus, it has a tough time living up to its mythic propaganda as capital of the free world because this troubling history affects the racial divides today.
The country embraces forgetting and urges its people to forget, as well.
I prefer to remember, because knowing the past allows me to better negotiate my future. I dare to carry my immigrant status like a badge of honor, and my mother was brave enough to make the leap from Guayaquil to New York City with her only child, a suitcase full of hope, and barely a few words in English with which to negotiate our passage. Upon arrival into the United States through Miami, I was immediately designated as a Permanent Resident Alien and we were given our green cards to go with the “alien” motif.
Thus, the Latina/o immigrant experience, the underbelly of the American Dream mythology, and immigrants’ rights drive the thematic thrust of my work. Post-Hurricane Katrina, I have been on a creative crusade to make sure that Latinas/os and the immigrant workers, who have been a big part of our reconstruction, are acknowledged in the post-storm narratives.
Can you talk about the work you have been doing in New Orleans to ensure that this happens?
In the weeks, months, and years after Katrina, Latina/o immigrant laborers resurrected the city when it was in critical condition, on its deathbed. They cleaned out hotels, saved them from condemnation, and helped to reignite the engines of the tourist industry. They pulled out cadavers and cleaned the human waste from both the Morial Convention Center and the Superdome. Immigrants have been invaluable to our rebirth, but they suffer in the shadows. For many, it’s a science-fiction reality, and Latina/o immigrant workers here have become a ubiquitous labor force rendered invisible and suffering myriad human rights violations in the shadows. This is not unlike the millions of immigrant laborers across the country who pick the fruits and vegetables we all consume, bus the tables at restaurants, clean the corporate buildings in the late of night, and pick up the garbage in the early dawn—an army of laborers in the crevices, keeping the mega-matrix running. The “illegal aliens” label thrust upon undocumented people has dehumanized them for a system that readily exploits their labor.
In late October 2005, I met a young Puerto Rican man who told me he had worked for a contractor who promised to pay him and the other 300 men $3,600 for three weeks work. On the day before the big payday, the New Orleans Police Department raided their encampment—a gutted-out abandoned factory where they slept on cots. Acting like Immigration Agents on a raid, the police ran the workers away. This young man was the only one with citizenship papers, and when he confronted the contractor for his rightful pay, he was told that if he wanted his money he would have to go to Birmingham. He had no English to protest this violation and was left homeless. When I met him, he was with an even younger Mexican boy, maybe 17 years old, who was also a victim of this wage heist. Multiply $3,600 times 300 men, and you have more than a million in unpaid wages. This is one wage theft episode of hundreds taking place in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
If we ever have the courage to investigate these violations, the post-Katrina era for Latina/o immigrant laborers will mark one of the most significant periods of labor abuse in this country’s history. In the summer of 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that 80% of the post-Katrina immigrant laborers of New Orleans were victims of wage theft. That is an atrocious number, but not surprising for a city that was once a major slave port when cotton was king.
The group that has been doing incredible work to bring this message forward is the Congress of Day Laborers/El Congreso de Jornaleros, and they are actually immigrant reconstruction workers themselves. They have become protagonists and activists in their own fight for human rights because of the oppression they’ve experienced in the form of wage theft, police brutality, and deportations.
At a Congress of Day Laborers’ protest for International Workers’ Day on May 1, 2012, the wife of a day laborer gave emotional testimony that her husband suffered a Rodney King-style beating by Jefferson Parish policemen that February. After a week of searching, she finally located him in critical condition at a local hospital. Her husband was in a coma for two months from the beating, and his cranium had to be held together by multiple rods. Because of their undocumented status, they were afraid to report it. This fear and silence is common for immigrants who fear the authorities as much as they fear criminals who target them because they often carry cash on their persons from construction jobs.
I have been fortunate enough to bear witness to this contemporary civil rights movement, photographing and filming protests since 2010. My performance piece, ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS (2010), is informed by stories of immigrant laborers. With the blessing of the Congress of Day Laborers, I developed a series of drawings and photographic assemblages calledSomos Humanos/We Are Human (2013) that chronicles this movement of immigrant workers fighting for their human rights.
I think the best any artist can do is to bear witness. In the Latin American tradition, the artist has a social responsibility to document and articulate the people’s struggle—la lucha de la gente. My art is driven by social justice concerns, and I hope that my creative work can serve to expose these difficult truths as we approach the tenth anniversary of the storm.
Do I remember correctly that your Partners in Action Project involves a taco truck?
Yes, it’s called the ALIENS Taco Truck Theater Project. Post-Katrina, food trucks became ubiquitous in New Orleans. Some came in from Houston and most were initially established here to feed the laborers. And I just thought: the food truck would be a great way to mobilize this work and create un Teatro Sin Fronteras, a mobile theater without borders, bringing Tacos y Actos to immigrant audiences. The taco truck’s motto is, “No Guacamole for Immigrant Haters!” It’s about creating an outdoor dinner theater for immigrant communities outside the Eurocentric theater paradigm, creating a cultural platform to explore the challenges immigrant communities face, and inspiring immigrants to take the mobile stage and perform their personal stories—becoming protagonists in their cause and breaking the silence.
It’s very much inspired by El Teatro Campesino, the theatrical arm of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers’ Movement, and their tent shows on flatbed trucks in the sixties and seventies. Luis Valdez, El Teatro Campesino’s legendary founder, and his troupe went out in the fields and performed for immigrant farm workers, and made the plight of farm workers public with truck performances in front of California union halls. Valdez was actually inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca felt that theater was being taken hostage by the bourgeois, and would take his troupe on trucks and perform for gypsy workers in the olive groves in Granada. Basically, it’s a means to get the work to the people and into the barrios, and to create work about the heroic nature of immigrants who have been continuously diminished and dehumanized.
As a longtime ROOTS member, how does your work add to or challenge what it means to be an artist-activist in the South?
I first came to ROOTS in 2000, when Alice Lovelace, then Executive Director, asked me to attend the annual meeting. I was deeply grateful to Alice because she reached out to broaden the race conversation and to include artists from the growing Latina/o population in the Deep South.
We need to engage in a paradigm shift and include a larger population of color that is affected by the lingering legacy of systemic and institutionalized racist practices in the South. The current social justice struggle in the South is more than just a black and white struggle. Latina/o immigrants are being targeted with the same racist vitriol that was once exclusively directed at African Americans. Racism has diversified and other people of color experience the lingering legacy of institutionalized white supremacy that still haunts our black brothers and sisters in the Deep South.
In 2011, Georgia—where Alternate ROOTS is based—passed one of the most draconian anti-immigrant laws in the country. Modeled after Arizona’s SB1070, the Georgia law and Alabama’s anti-immigrant bill that followed were set up to attack the immigrant community. All Latinas/os became suspects—whether you were with or without papers. If you were a brown Mestizo Latina/o or “Latina/o-looking,” the local police in both states could stop you and ask for papers. In Alabama, teachers were asked to become informants and alert officials if they believed their grammar school students were undocumented. South Carolina also joined this new Confederacy, and passed it’s own “Juan Crow Law” in 2011, in order to redirect a racist agenda towards Latina/o immigrants. Even more disturbing is that the language adopted is these new anti-immigrant laws resembles language in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and 1850 that imposed penalties on those who aided and transported runaway slaves. Substitute “illegal aliens” for “fugitive slaves” and you have a haunting legacy.
You’ve been a practicing artist since the eighties. What cultural and political shifts or non-shifts have you witnessed over the course of your career?
Much of my work is investigating the vestiges of colonization and its lingering shadows. Globally, the United States has positioned itself as the epitome of democratic nations, but it dares not look in the mirror. In Latin America, throughout the twentieth century, the United States has propped up dictator after dictator to protect corporate interests: Pinochet in Chile, Somoza in Nicaragua, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, to name a few. The United States imposed Milton Friedman’s unfettered capitalism as “free market democracy” on our working class people and campesinos, and while the Swiss gave him a Nobel Prize, he gave Chile’s Pinochet capitalist brutality to supposedly eradicate communism. Naomi Klein calls it the “shock doctrine” in her New York Times best-selling tome (2007), and journalist Juan Gonzalez calls it the “harvest of empire” in his book (2000). The fallout is that millions of people are forced to migrate because US policies ravage our lands in Latin America and create economic and war refugees.
If we have any conscience at all, we need to ask ourselves, “What price are other people paying for the freedoms we enjoy as part of the empire?”
I’m a big believer in public activism and taking to the streets to collectively call out these injustices. It’s 2015, and having a multiracial president has not stopped the brutality against black and brown men. In fact, the biggest fallout towards people of color post-Obama was actually the brutalization of black men and immigrants across the country. And while Mr. Obama has decided to take executive action on Immigration Reform, this has not come from finally making good on his initial ’08 campaign promise, but because of relentless public demonstrations of millions of Latinas/os across the country. Young Dreamers and hundreds of undocumented people went on hunger strikes in front of the White House. Some chained themselves to its iron gates, shaming Obama’s administration and it’s brutal deportation apparatus. He’s deported more than two million immigrants—more than any other president before him. It’s a tragic metafiction reality that the multiracial son of an African immigrant ascends to the presidency and becomes the “Deporter-in-Chief.”
As an artist who’s socially engaged, I’m stunned by the dichotomies that persist in the so-called land of the free. And what we saw at the end of the year was the importance of taking it to the streets and challenging regressive beliefs. We have to question how far we have come when we still have to make a case that Black Lives Matter and that No Human Being Is Illegal!
We are all the people, and we are in desperate need of a major paradigm shift.
These creative, community-based projects emphasize the necessity of a global paradigm when developing publicly engaged art or scholarship with US communities. Globalized US communities are not a new demographic reality, but a continuation of this nation’s immigrant history and reflective of its global violences: colonization, slavery, and imperialism. Torres-Tama’s work documenting Latina/o immigrants’ civil rights battles in New Orleans underscores the ways in which the struggle of new peoples of color in this region mirrors older struggles. Wage theft and police brutality of immigrants, whose legal recourse is compromised by their citizenship status, is part of the legacy of state-sanctioned un(der)paid labor in the South. Witt’s work at the Global Village Project highlights the fact that the tens of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Decatur are from exactly those parts of the world where US policies have historically interfered, leading to war, chaos, and displacement. Both artists address the fact that institutional racism and anti-immigrant policies dehumanize entire groups of people whose labor is readily exploited by the same system that forces their migration and vilifies them upon arrival. Witt and Torres-Tama’s globally engaged practices speak to the necessity of evolving beyond the black/white racial paradigm so prevalent in the US imaginary, and examining the ways in which the old and continual struggle for civil rights in the South is reflected in the lives of these newly arrived Southerners.
As artists, Torres-Tama and Witt illuminate these truths aesthetically. Witt’s music and work at the Global Village Project reflects a complex, multiracial paradigm. Songs like the multilingual “I See You with My Heart” and the playfully critical “English Is Weird” create spaces of radical welcome. Through polyrhythm, what Witt calls “interesting, not totally expected harmonies,” and the belief that every voice has something to offer, her music affirms the possibility of multiple truths peacefully coexisting. Torres-Tama employs a vast repertoire of mediums—visual art, poetry, performance, and now a mobile Teatro Sin Fronteras—to bear witness to Latina/o immigrant experiences in the reconstruction of New Orleans. Locating these contemporary struggles within the long arch of US and Deep South history, he underscores the importance of holding the past and present together. In doing so, he echoes James Baldwin: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us . . . history is literally present in all that we do” (1985).
Torres-Tama and Witt shed light on struggle, while illuminating a principle that Alternate ROOTS holds dear: as artists, the beauty we seek is bound up with justice. Last November, ROOTS Executive Director Carlton Turner published an essay on Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog, whose title posed the question, “What Is Beauty Without Justice?” Acknowledging that aesthetics has a complex, hegemonic history, he describes ROOTS’s understanding of it as, “it’s not just where you end up, it’s also how you got there” (2014). This understanding of aesthetics—that process is as important as product and beauty devoid of justice is an empty prospect—is reflected in both Witt and Torres-Tama’s work. Torres-Tama’s Teatro Sin Fronteras almost literally reflects the idea of “it’s how you got there.” In meeting immigrant communities where they are, this mobile gallery and performance space emphasizes the power of art that is deeply embedded in and accessible to community. Witt “gets there” by building songs collectively, honoring every language and every person in the room. Through music and mobile teatro, these artists forge alliances with immigrant communities, create spaces of radical welcome, and bear witness to the beauty inherent in our struggle for justice.
Baldwin, James. 1985. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Gonzalez, Juan. 2000. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Penguin.
Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.
Turner, Carlton. 2014. “What Is Beauty Without Justice?” ARTSblog. Americans for the Arts. November 19. Accessed February 1, 2015.
Zong, Jie, and Jeanne Batalova. 2015. “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States,” Migration Information Source. Migration Policy Institute. February 26. Accessed February 26, 2015.
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Atlanta Composer And Educator: ‘We’re All Born Singing’