Conversations with Artists

Photo of Barry Bergey, NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts, interviewing musician, composer and activist Roberto Martinez. Barry and Roberto sit upon two colorful, striped chairs behind a coffee table. Barry sits to the viewer’s right.


Barry Bergey, NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts (right), interviews musician, composer and activist Roberto Martinez. Photo by Ron Thomas

Roberto Martinez started playing in public in 1954 when and his wife’s uncle formed the duet of “Los Trobadores” in Denver, CO. In 1960, he moved to Albuquerque, NM and formed the group of Los Reyes de Albuquerque. In 1964 the group recorded a corrido he had composed and it became an instant hit. Since then he and his group have performed through the United States including the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, the Museum of American History, the Wolf Trap Barns and three national tours of the NCTA’s “Raices Musicales” tours. He has received numerous awards, the most recent ones being the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (1999), Hilos Culturales Distinguished Traditional Hispanic Folk Artist (2000) and the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award (2003). In 2003, Martinez donated recordings that he had produced under his MORE label over 35 years to the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkway Records. He continues to take his group to senior centers and social service agencies throughout northern New Mexico.

Martinez described growing up in the rugged mountains of Northern New Mexico. As a “depression baby” born in 1929, he drew a picture in words of a home without indoor plumbing or electricity, but with a richness of culture, tradition and hospitality. Because of geographic isolation, the Spanish culture, religion and language of his ancestors were preserved. “We still hang on to our traditions and our way of living,” Martinez added. He noted that his father sang while he worked.  

After serving in the Airforce, marrying, starting a family, and living in Denver and New Mexico, Martinez composed a corrido about a man who was killed during the Vietnam War. Though this song, he said, launched his career, it wasn’t until 1982, when the Arts Endowment recognized him and other members of his group as accomplished folk musicians that “things really started to happen.” Bergey mentioned that the Heritage Fellowship Award that Martinez received in 2003 was actually given to both Martinez and his son—the first father and son pair so honored. Martinez expressed his pride that all five children and two grandchildren are musically gifted. He credited his wife Ramona and thanked her for being the strength of the family.

Currently, with grants from New Mexico Arts and the Arts Endowment, his group conducts approximately 208 presentations/classes a year in senior centers, nursing homes, adult day care facilities, homeless shelters, child daycare centers, detention centers and prisons. “My group dares to tread where nobody dares to go,” Martinez joked. He shared his belief that the arts are very beneficial for older adults. Martinez thanked the Arts Endowment for giving him the opportunity to make people happy and to communicate the value and beauty of his culture: “Anybody can dance the Mexican hat dance, but our objective has been to make people feel better and to preserve, perpetuate and promote our traditional Hispanic music and culture. “


Amatullah Saleem, Dancer and Storyteller, Elders Share the Arts, Brooklyn, NY , interviewed by Douglas Sontag, Director, Office of Special Initiatives, National Endowment for the Arts

Photo of Douglas Sonntag, NEA Director of Dance, interviewing black dancer and storyteller Amatullah Saleem. Doug and Amatullah sit upon two colorful, striped chairs behind a coffee table. Doug sits to the viewer’s right.


Douglas Sonntag, NEA Director of Dance (right), interviews dancer and storyteller Amatullah Saleem. Photo by Ron Thomas

Amatullah Saleem studied at the Katherine Dunham School of Theatre and Cultural Arts in New York, NY, under master teacher Syvilla Fort and others. Following a European tour with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, she freelanced in theatres, nightclubs and television. Upon returning to the United States, Saleem opened the Pyramid Dance Studio in Soho-East, New York, NY. She also taught dance at the Hudson Guild and Goddard-Riverside Community Centers, Henry Street Settlement and Summer-Theatre-Workshops for the first “Street Scene Community Arts Projects” sponsored through the New York City Recreation Department. Later, Saleem migrated south to accept the position of Dance/Music Specialist for the City Recreation Department of Winston-Salem, NC. There she produced the African Folk Arts Festival, an annual citywide project, for six years. She also founded and was Artistic Director of the regional dance troupe, Otesha Dance and Music Ensemble. Upon her return to New York and while teaching dance to elementary students at Muhammad University of Islam, she wrote and produced the children’s musical, A Reflection of the Harlem Renaissance. Saleem graduated from Empire State College and transformed her short stories to become a storyteller with the Pearls of Wisdom, a project of Elders Share the Arts. She is a member of the African Folk Heritage Circle, Inc., and the National Association of Black Storytellers.

Saleem, who was raised both in Winston-Salem, NC, and Harlem, first realized that dance was a profession when her Mother took her to see the 1943 movie, Cabin in the Sky with the Katherine Dunham dancers. She credited her training at the Katherine Dunham School of Theatre and Cultural Arts for increasing her courage. Her talent and newfound confidence led her to Europe for over ten years to dance; it was difficult for an African-American dancer to have a career on Broadway. In later years, back in the U.S., Saleem received a degree in Dance Studies and interned with Elders Share the Arts. She joined their Pearls of Wisdom, which launched her career as a storyteller. Pearls of Wisdom are community-based, multicultural elders who pass on their stories of heritage, humor, courage and strength to diverse audiences throughout New York City and beyond.Saleem noted that she is now incorporating movement and songs into her stories, thus combining all of her artistic training.

In working in the schools, the Pearls of Wisdom are not only living history for the children and young adults, but are also surrogate grandparents. Saleem detailed the results of a survey of the kids’ attitudes toward older adults. Before interaction with Pearls of Wisdom, the words and phrases used to describe older adults included “walk slowly,” “grouchy,” “mean,” “they have money” and they “put their teeth in a glass.” After the students spent time with Pearls of Wisdom, their descriptions included “good people,” “not grouchy,” “good storytellers” and “they are pretty for old ladies.”

The Pearls of Wisdom also work with older adults, encouraging them to tell their stories and preserve their culture. It is important to talk with younger people, she told them, “They need to know your triumphs and your struggles.” “Young people look through the windows of our memories and find assurances that life is worth living and striving for. Life is worth putting your energy into—your effort. Life is precious. It is not to be wasted because it is very short,” she added.

Commenting that her “life has been the arts,” Saleem spoke passionately about the importance of being a “natural resource” for the community: “We have skills and experience, and we can speak to the community of our culture and history.” She expressed her sense of “standing on the shoulders of great Black artists” and her desire to be the shoulders on which future generations would stand. Her life, she explained has been about “striving to be the one who carries the torch.”


Samuel Menashe, Poet, New York, NY, interviewed by Dana Gioia, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

Photo of Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewing poet Samuel Menashe. The Chairman and Samuel sit upon two colorful, striped chairs behind a coffee table. Chairman Gioia sits to the viewer’s right.


Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (right), interviews poet Samuel Menashe. Photo by Ron Thomas

Samuel Menashe, Ph.D., was born in New York, NY, the only child of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants. Raised speaking both Yiddish and English, he attended public schools and finished two years of college before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he finished a bachelor’s degree at Queens College and then earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne. Menashe taught briefly at Bard College and Long Island University before living in California, Spain, England, Ireland and France. His literary career has been paradoxical. Largely overlooked by mainstream critics and anthologists, his work has never found a broad audience; yet his poetry has attracted the admiration of a diverse band of discerning poets and critics in England, Ireland and the United States. Menahse’s obscurity probably comes from his strict devotion to a single literary enterprise, perfecting the short poem—not the conventional short poem of 20 – 40 lines, but the very short poem. As anyone studying The Niche Narrows: New and Selected Poems (2000) will discover, few of his poems are longer than 10 lines. Menashe is essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed. His central themes are the unavoidable concerns of religious poetry—the tension between the soul and body, past and present, time and eternity. Menashe’s style is not merely compressed and evocative, but talismanic, visionary and symbolic. He often writes about the human body, but he is a poet who understands physical reality in relation to the metaphysical.

Before enlisting August 11, 1943, in the infantry, Menashe studied biochemistry in college for two-and-a-half years. After the war while living in Paris, he started writing short stories about his childhood and his experiences as a messenger between the company and his platoon serving in eastern France in front of the Maginot Line. In the middle of one night, he woke up and scribbled down his first poem. Menashe commented that he never expected to become a poet, “It was nothing that I aspired to.” Describing himself as a bohemian, he noted that he has taught intermittently, tutored French and waited tables. He still lives in a five-flight walk-up with the bathtub in the kitchen. Menashe shared his belief that that World War II made him realize that each day may be your last. “How,” he asked, “can you talk about next year when you don’t know if you’ll be alive?” “Each day is the only day,” he added.

Menashe expressed his gratitude to the Poetry Foundation for recently presenting him with an award for which he was perfectly qualified: “The Neglected Masters Award.” As part of this honor, he will be the first living poet to be published by the Library of America. Menashe explained that his first book was published in England, and it was another 10 years before he had a publisher in the United States. When asked if he was bitter about the lack of recognition over the years, Menashe said, “No. Fundamentally, I’m a happy fellow. I feel creative when I wash my socks. If you are enjoying life, you are creative.” Poetry,” he added, “has been a pretty good workout…. Being a poet has made me a pretty spry old man.” Menashe also shared the observation that “it is only the old who say you are as young as you feel.”