Riffat Sultana: “Music Is in My Blood, My Soul”

I admire people whose lives are fueled by passion and are undefeated in the face of obstacles. Pakistani vocalist Riffat Sultana, who received a standing ovation after her performance at the Skirball last week, is one such person. When I began to plan concerts that could be presented in association with Women Hold Up Half the Sky, Riffat instantly came to mind. During her visit to Los Angeles, I got a chance to talk to her and learn much more about her personal journey.


Riffat and her new acoustic ensemble during soundcheck at the Skirball. During the concert, her deep and modulating voice and ecstatic singing were enthralling.

Riffat Sultana did not always have the freedom to sing. Although she is the daughter of esteemed classical Hindustani (North Indian) vocalist Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and raised in a family of musicians that goes back eleven generations, she was forbidden to study classical ragas and perform in public because of her gender. Her brothers were taken under her father’s tutelage, but she and her sisters were denied his vast musical knowledge. For Riffat, the prohibition to sing was a torment.

The status of women in Pakistan varies considerably depending on the woman’s class, whether she lives in a rural or urban area, the state of socio-economic development where she lives, and the impact of tribal, feudal, and social customs on her life. What is generally true is that Pakistani culture considers it inappropriate for a woman—at least one from a “respectable” family—to perform publicly. Ironically, Riffat’s father taught one of the greatest Sufi singers of all times, a female, Abida Parveen! Then again, Abida’s case is rare: her father, legendary singer Ustad Ghulam Haider, decided when she was only five years old that she, a daughter, would inherit the family tradition instead of his sons. Thank goodness even the strictest of gender codes allow for an exception or two! Continue reading

Straight from the Kitchen of Grand’Mere Adeline

Ever notice that wonderfully fragrant rosemary grows right outside the Skirball entrance? It's an inspiration for a lot of my cooking.

The sense of smell is said to be the strongest memory trigger, and having spent a considerable amount of time breathing in aromas in my Grand’Mere Adeline’s kitchen back in Ohio, I can attest to that. Just the scent of a Thanksgiving turkey prepared just like she used to make it so many years ago takes me back to moments I will never forget.

Grand’Mere Adeline was the queen of the kitchen. Preparation for the holidays started in September. With a blended family culinary history that included Scottish shortbreads, Hungarian pastries, and chicken-and-matzo-ball soup, recipes were handed down through the generations. A select few were adapted from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but if (and only if) they met Grand’Mere’s highest of standards. The one thing we were assured of was that every morsel of food on her bountiful table was lovingly prepared by her and her alone.

The warmth emanating from the oven as the turkey roasted within. The mouth-watering smell of freshly baked bread cooling on the counter. The windows of Grand’Mere’s tiny kitchen wet with steam from the boiling of potatoes and rutabagas. These are details I can still close my eyes and recall vividly. Continue reading

Sleepers, Awake!

Last month the Skirball opened Women Hold Up Half the Sky, inspired by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf, 2009), by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

The idea for the exhibition started with this issue of The New York Times Magazine:

Women Hold Up Half the Sky

My well-worn copy of The New York Times Magazine, “Saving the World’s Women” special issue, August 23, 2009, pictured here inside the gallery. Photo by Thomas Schirtz.

Both the cover photograph and the caption arrested my attention: a portrait of a woman named Goretti Nyabenda of Burundi, who “transformed her life with a $2 microloan.”

Two dollars? That tiny amount can transform a life? Now I read the headline: “Why Women’s Rights Are the Cause of Our Time.” That stopped me, too. Despite a dim awareness that the abuse and neglect of women are still prevalent in many parts of the world, I wasn’t in the habit of thinking that could change. For as little as $2?  Hmmm. Continue reading

Introducing SkirBlog!

Welcome to SkirBlog, just another way into the Skirball. Photo by John Elder.

A few weeks ago, a woman from the East African nation of Burundi found herself visiting our newest exhibition, Women Hold Up Half the Sky. She was part of a small entourage traveling with the African Union Ambassador to the U.S. As the group walked through the gallery with the Skirball’s Museum Director, Robert Kirschner, the Burundian woman suddenly stopped in her tracks, listening intently. She thought she must be imagining it, for what she heard were the voices of girls singing a traditional Burundian lullaby. Where was that sound coming from, so far away from home? Bob assured her that the music was in fact part of the commissioned audio installation Amplify, by multimedia artist Ben Rubin, designed specifically to amplify the voices of women and girls that often go unheard. Moved by the idea of the project and the music from her homeland, our visitor asked if she could listen again.

This story quickly made its way around the Skirball, as stories tend to do around here. On any given day, at any moment—while grabbing a cup of coffee, rushing across the courtyard for a meeting, working a lecture or concert—any one of us staff or volunteers hears about… well, all sorts of things. Baby hummingbirds abandoned on campus and lovingly rescued by security staff and Noah’s Ark facilitators. A shy teen who found his voice participating in the Skirball’s spoken-word residency and, on the last day of the program, read a surprisingly emotional poem before a crowd of fellow high schoolers. A curator’s eye-opening visit to the L.A. home of a legendary émigré artist whose lesser-known work in film may well be the subject of an upcoming exhibition (spoiler alert not needed; we’ll tell you about it when we can). Negotiations underway for a double-bill concert starring Algerian Jewish pianist Maurice El Medioni and Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, whose joint album Descarga Oriental blew our programming team away. Continue reading