In an atmosphere of xenophobia and divisiveness that has recently defined America, blues harmonica virtuoso and hometown legend Phil Wiggins pointed to the class of the 2017 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows, among whom he was also honored, as the true face of this nation.
“It’s not the home these guys waving Confederate flags talking about taking the country back,” said Wiggins, a resident of Takoma Park, Md., pointing to the six other National Heritage Fellows onstage who hailed from Armenia via Azerbaijan, Puerto Rico, Texas/Mexico, Alaska, Appalachian Tennessee and Iowa. “This is the home that makes this great country that I call home.”
All of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship artists are U.S. citizens.
The annual awards program began with rehearsals for the culminating concert and included workshops, the official awards ceremony and formal dinner at the Library of Congress, and numerous receptions. And it was evident from the tearful acceptance speeches during the actual donning of the medals, that the award is particularly significant to the recipients, who can be visual or performing artists in folk or traditional genres.
The 2017 class included Wiggins; Norik Astvatsaturov, a sculptor of Armenian descent who practices the tradition of Armenian Repoussé metal art; Conjunto accordionist and bandleader Eva Ybarra; Modesto Cepeda, maestro of the African-derived Bomba and Plena dancing and drumming from Puerto Rico; buck dancer Thomas Maupin from Tennessee; and Missouri-style fiddler and master of the Danish button accordion Dwight Lamb, who also won the Bess Lomax Hawes Prize for reviving the Danish button accordion in Denmark, where the tradition had been lost.
Also honored were Anna Brown Ehlers, a Chilkat weaver of wool and cedar wood blankets, who was surprised by a member of her clan with an honorary song, drummed and sung in the native tongue.
Two of the honorees, Ella Jenkins of Chicago and Cyril Pahinui of Hawai’i, were unable to make the trip, but were represented by colleagues and family to receive the coveted honors.
Ella Jenkins, the first woman to record children’s music and the longest recording artist on Smithsonian Folkways Records, at 93-years-old, was unable to make the trip, but had one of her musicians, Dan Zanes and Haitian-American singer Claudia Eliaza, give samples of her music. Her repertoire included songs she learned from the Freedom Riders which found their way into children’s music through her. Before Jenkins, the genre of children’s music did not exist on recordings.
Also absent was Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Cyril Pahinui, who couldn’t make the long trip due to health reasons, but was represented by two apprentices, Jeff Peterman and Sean Robbins. The duo demonstrated the guitar-tuning technique and sang songs in the indigenous language.
But perhaps most admirable was Modesto Cepeda, who at age 79, traveled through Hurricane Irma as it churned through the Caribbean and Florida to receive his honor. Accompanied by a multigenerational myriad of family members, who also make up his troupe Cimiento Puertorricaño, Cepeda is the founder of the first school in Puerto Rico dedicated to continuing the authentic tradition of Bomba music, a style developed by enslaved Africans in Puerto Rico to celebrate on weekends and holidays.
The visually stunning dance, where the women are dressed in flowing long white dresses with voluminous circular skirts, and the men in white suits with fedoras, combines vigorous drumming on barrel drums with energetic African-derived dance moves.
Wiggins closed out the concert with his group, the Chesapeake Sheiks, which played samples of the Piedmont style of blues that he and his partner, the late John Cephas, became well-known for. Cephas & Wiggins formed in 1977, and together became two of the world’s best-known performers of Piedmont blues.
“I’m pretty amazed to be standing here this evening,” Wiggins said. “I could never imagine when I was a kid when I was trying to make music, that this 3-inches of metal and wood would take me all the way to Antarctica.
“When I left home to go to college, I went to live with my uncle in New Jersey,” he said. “My mother [originally from Alabama] gave me this patch quilt to take with me. They didn’t have an extra bedroom so I slept on the floor under that quilt for two years.
“I’m happy to be part of this celebration because it celebrates what that patch quilt symbolizes,” Wiggins said. “It symbolizes this patch quilt of beautiful deep cultures from all over the world that make up this country.”
The NEA National Heritage Fellowship has been awarded to the master folk and traditional artists of this country for the past 35 years. This year’s concert, as well as earlier concerts, can be viewed on the National Endowment for the Arts website (www.arts.gov).