It was 1988, I was living in New York. Mira Nair’s award-winning movie Salaam Bombay! had just been released. I remember its strong impact on me and how I was riveted by the poignant and highly effective soundtrack which gave it another dimension. The score was by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the esteemed master of Karnatic (South Indian) violin.
Exploring further, I discovered not only Subramaniam’s Indian classical recordings, but also his East/West fusion works and cross-cultural collaborations. The recipient of many awards since a young age, and equally trained in classical Indian and Western music, Dr. L. Subramaniam is a prolific recording artist who has worked with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Zubin Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few. Continue reading
I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.
A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”
The Man Behind the Myth
My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.
Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading
Beginning in January, we present a new music series entitled “Journeys and Encounters,” featuring an eclectic line-up of global talents. Though they hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds and artistic traditions, their music-making demonstrates the beauty that emerges from openhearted cross-cultural exchange.
In 2012, I journeyed to Rwamagana, in rural Rwanda, and enjoyed firsthand the joy of connecting across cultures. I was visiting Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (the Kinyarwanda-Hebrew name, agahozo–shalom, translates roughly to “a place of peace where tears are dried”). Co-founded by my son Gideon Herscher, it is a residential community for orphans emotionally scarred by the genocide in Rwanda. One evening, Gideon brought his guitar to a gathering and sang a traditional Hebrew lullaby. The young teens listened attentively. Gideon invited them to sing a Rwandan lullaby, which they did at the top of their lungs. Continue reading
Creativity. Interpretation. Argument. Collaboration. These were just some of the skills utilized by our nation’s founders as they haggled, debated, and compromised their way to the formation of the American republic. The exhibition Creating the United States explores the work of the founders and their struggle to create a nation according to the principles of a free society and a populace with the power to govern itself. Working together, setting aside differences, and considering the future played key roles in establishing the country we now know.
Exploring similar processes is at the heart of the work of students at Granada Hills Charter High School who are participating in the Skirball’s 2012 In-School Residency, “Re-Creating the United States.” Working with Otis School of Art and Design faculty members Patty Kovic and Michele Jaquis, directors of the award-winning NEIGHBORGAPBRIDGE interdisciplinary design course, the students are thinking about how to communicate the relevancy of these skills and ideas to Skirball visitors. Continue reading
While working for the Skirball, I long hoped to curate a concert series entirely dedicated to cross-cultural collaborations. This idea was propelled into action when I first heard Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations by Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain. I was moved by the beauty of the songs, their soulful vocals and the unforced rapport between a Persian singer and an American blues artist, each securely anchored in their respective traditions.
The blues has influenced a number of Persian musicians, most notably Mohsen Namjoo, Kiosk, and Rana Farhan (click on the links to see video clips I especially like from each artist). But in the case of Mahsa and Mighty Sam, the encounter takes the form of a musical conversation. For me it works because melancholy, nostalgia, and longing are at the core of both traditional Persian and blues singing. Although stylistically different, it is the emotion conveyed by both singers that makes this musical marriage so fruitful. Mahsa and Mighty Sam explore the connection between their musical heritages with grace and fluidity.
Their collaboration goes beyond two people and in fact spans three continents: Norwegian producer and poet Erik Hillestad met Mahsa on a journey to Iran while working on the album Lullabies From the Axis of Evil. They ended up working on several recordings together and eventually met and befriended Persian poet Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari. The lyrics of Scent of Reunion and the newly released follow-up, A Deeper Tone of Longing, were written by the two poets, in Farsi and English, and set to music composed by Mahsa and Norwegian musicians Sigvart Dagsland and Knut Reiersrud. To give the English lyrics just the right voice, they could not have come up with a better collaborator than Mighty Sam McClain.
The songs on both albums are about love, longing, separation, reunion, and hope. In an interview, Mighty Sam explains how Mahsa’s singing touched him to the core and that he did not need to understand the words to hear and feel her. He chokes up when he reveals the project’s emotional and spiritual meaningfulness for him. In turn, Mahsa explains that both styles of music express sadness and yearning but also hope and aspiration. She discovered through this project that the human heart is one and this oneness is the conduit allowing them to sing so easily together.
Such is the beauty of music, an art form so fluid and universal that it speaks to us across, time, cultures, geography, politics, and language barriers. Music is healing, and in these times, a series based on the notion of connections without boundaries gives us more reason for hope and rejoicing. It is with anticipation that I look forward to the California premiere of Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain’s at the Skirball on Thursday, November 8.