NEA Arts Magazine

A Night To Remember

The 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows Concert


Treme Brass Band

The Treme Brass Band opened the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert with a parade through the concert hall aisles. Photo by Tom Pich.

A celebration was underway as members of New Orleans's Treme Brass Band paraded through the aisles of the Music Center at Strathmore. The audience enthusiastically joined in, jumping to its feet and clapping hands in time with the bass drum as the band mounted the stage. So began the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert.

Produced in partnership with the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the annual concert is the culmination of the new Fellows' awards week in Washington, DC. The Music Center was a first-time host for the 2006 concert, which featured performances and craft demonstrations by the Fellows.

Emceed by Public Radio International radio host Nick Spitzer, the concert's first act included cuatro maker and player Diomede Matos, who performed with his students, the Camacho Brothers, and his son Pucho; and blues pianist Henry Gray, backed by a four-piece band and demonstrating his legendary barrelhouse style.

Invoking a centuries-old family tradition, Finnish kentele player Wilho Saari demonstrated his skill on the 36-string lap harp. Saari's great-great-grandmother "Kantele Kreeta" originally popularized the instrument in 19th-century Finland.

Welcomed to the stage by her singing granddaughters, Haida traditional weaver Delores Churchill also appeared in the program's first half. Churchill noted that she had been a bookkeeper until age 45. "Then I became insane and became an artist," she recalled, prompting applause from the audience.

As Spitzer introduced Tewa linguist and storyteller Esther Martinez, he said, "Language is the music of the storyteller." Accompanied by her daughter and grandson, Martinez taught Spitzer to say a few words in Tewa and shared passages from her favorite stories.

Tight harmonies and sonic fingering are the hallmarks of bluegrass and gospel artist Doyle Lawson who, with his band Quicksilver, wowed the crowd in the program's second half. Dressed in a vibrant yellow suit, kumu hula George Na'ope brought Hawaii to the mainland, playing ukulele with his band after a traditional dance performance by some of his students.

Master santero Charles Carillo shared the stage with his blue-tinged portrait of San Rafael. Bess Lomax Hawes honoree Nancy Sweezey also shared the stage -- with a slideshow of photos from her decades long career as an advocate for the folk and traditional arts. The evening's final performer, gospel and rhythm and-blues artist Mavis Staples, kept things up-tempo as Spitzer called the 2006 class of NEA National Heritage Fellows to the stage for a group bow. The concert ended as it began, with the audience applauding, dancing, and hollering for more.

In the pages that follow, a brief biography of each Fellow is presented along with an excerpt from interviews that the NEA has conducted with the artists. Read full versions of the interviews at heritage/Heritage06/NHFIntro.html.