Striking a Chord: Notes on Supporting Musicians

RJ Smith

As a writer who often ponders music and its many audiences, I spend a lot of time thinking about how some artists thrive, while others don’t, in places far from their first home. As listeners, members of an audience, we hear something that feels real, powerful, to us, and we feel connected to the experience of someone who may seem not much like us. From this experience we have a single urgent response: how can we share this with the world? You’ve got to hear this…
In the summer of 2012, I was asked by the Durfee Foundation to take a look at the twelve-year history of this foundation’s Master Musicians Program. The Durfee sought out talented folk and indigenous musicians from around the world who lived in Los Angeles. They gave these artists financial assistance and, beyond that, made a concerted effort to keep traditions alive by underwriting a mentorship program and providing technical assistance to the musicians. The Durfee, too, heard the music and wanted folks outside the local Hmong and Armenian communities to hear it as well. They asked me, as a journalist and outsider, to take a look at the full arc of the Master Musicians Program. To see what worked well and what didn’t; to uncover the issues inherent in an effort to reach into a community to honor and support traditional practices.

There’s Something Beautiful Here: Master Musician Ponn Yinn

At home there was music. Ponn Yinn was born and raised in Cambodia, and when it came to music, Ponn Yinn was a natural. When he was sixteen, he joined an auspicious orchestra and within a few years was leading his own ensemble. In 1959, Yinn was appointed the lead musician and instructor for the Classical Symphony of the Army.

Master Musician Ponn Yinn

He played the flute and was a master of an ancient Khmer music known as Pin Peat — a percussive classical music. “Playing music is the only vocation I have ever known,” he said.

At home there was no peace. By 1976, Pol Pot had solidified his control of Cambodia and the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge was staging a genocidal transformation of the region. The “Killing Fields” were in effect, and musicians and intellectuals were considered suspect. Some estimates put the number of those killed by the regime at up to three million. It is believed that more than 90 percent of those capable of teaching Pin Peat were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. A thousand-year-old tradition was very nearly extinguished.

An elite musician, a member of state-sponsored orchestras, Yinn was at home among the royalty who ran Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge seized control. The very way he walked identified him as a refined individual, precisely the sort of person the Killing Fields were meant to extinguish. His bearing very nearly was his downfall. One day revolutionary militia approached him, demanding that he identify himself. Yinn claimed to be a steel worker, just a peasant who liked to play the flute in his spare time. Prove it, he was ordered.

Find me an instrument and I will.

The soldiers tauntingly presented him with an old bicycle, and demanded that Yinn make an instrument out of it while he begged for his life. The musician took the handlebars, made holes in them, and quickly played a folk song on the “flute” — one that a peasant might know, and one that seemed to support the story he had told the soldiers. “With this proof, they allowed me to live,” he later told an interviewer.

Yinn was taken to a camp where he worked in the rice paddies and was made to play his instrument while victims were taken and killed by the Khmer Rouge.

On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese Army rolled into Kampuchea (as Cambodia had been renamed), eventually forcing the Khmer Rouge out. Crossing minefields on foot, Yinn safely made it to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979.

A year later he moved to Silver Springs, Maryland, before settling in Long Beach, California, home to the largest community of ethnic Khmer outside Cambodia, in 1984. In Long Beach, Yinn formed the first Pin Peat ensemble in California in 1986, saying, “My lifetime goal is to strengthen and expand this orchestra and ensure the survival of Cambodia’s musical heritage.” He liked to watch soccer and boxing on television. He made music with a Long Beach neighbor he first met in the camps.

How do you gauge the vitality of a musical tradition when it languishes in exile? Easier to tell when a form is on the edge of extinction. Yet through the work of the Durfee and the efforts of Yinn, Pin Peat was more alive in Southern California than it had been just a few years before.

Working with Durfee, Yinn selected several apprentices to study closely with him and learn the music of the Cambodian reed flute. Because Pin Peat is not written, and can be expressly improvisational, it behooved those working with Yinn to spend as much time as possible listening to him and repeating what he did, and through that finding their own style through long, repetitious sessions. Pin Peat lived for centuries in Cambodia exactly through this process of aural transmission. Now, in the South Bay of Southern California, it was coming to life again.

The spark needed to make a tradition leap from one generation at home to the next in a corner of the world far from home, that spark is an unpredictable event. The Durfee sought to trigger it whenever they could. At the very least, they gave a tradition a chance to be passed on to a handful of willing students.

An Experiment in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is many things. Here are two of them: (1) a place structurally designed to keep members of a dominant group from having to make contact with those they wish to stay away from; (2) one of the most astonishingly diverse cities in the world. There’s a problem, or an opportunity, implicit in these two realities.

The city is an intermittently functional mix of the established and just-off-the-bus arrivals, a tangle of tongues and faiths and secrets. There are many ways a culture shares information, the set of stories about who its people are and how they stayed alive in a new place. But chief among them is through the making of music. With sound, all things are possible.

In 1997, the Durfee Foundation, a small family foundation based in Santa Monica, California, became interested in creating a program in Los Angeles that would invest in music education in the city. That led to a lengthy examination of how the musical culture of the city could be affected by a single foundation. There were already established and important institutions such as the Colburn School of Music, the LA Philharmonic, and the Master Chorale, suggesting that traditional Western classical music was in reasonably good hands at the moment. At the same time, all around us, LA was making music in its backyards, at cookouts, in public parks and jam sessions in church halls. We are surrounded by people who are tutored in transplanted traditions. People making a living outside of academia, or maybe barely making a living at all, but holding on to a set of traditions and ways of playing that have the power to transform the moment.

Over twelve years, the Durfee Foundation helped some forty master musicians and sixty apprentices refine their craft and their vision. They helped just some of the traditions, alive but obscured in Los Angeles, to be passed on to a subsequent generation. In 2009, the foundation decided to retire the Master Musicians Program.

What defines a great player from a really talented journeyman? How do you measure success over the two-year life of a fellowship? And by what standards does one gauge a successful master-apprentice relationship, one that keeps a cultural legacy alive in the land of sunshine and traffic? These were crucial questions that members of the Durfee Foundation board thought about every day for twelve years.

The Mentor and the Apprentice: Checo Alonso

Sergio Alonso strolls into the Montebello coffee shop wearing a baseball cap and uniform. He’s just come from a band rehearsal, and is en route to a son’s little league practice. Downtime is not in the forecast. “Just call me Checo — everyone does,” he says, settling into a chair.

Checo Alonso

Alonso is a busy guy, no doubt. He is steeped in the folk harp music of the southern coast of Veracruz, as well as the western states of Michoacán and Jalisco — both the jarocho and mariachi traditions. He has a seat in Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, a Grammy Award–winning group. Alonso teaches music at San Fernando High School and has developed mariachi programs for teaching in public schools as well as held numerous harp workshops. He has performed with everyone from Caetano Veloso to Ozomatli. His talent, along with his drive, has made him an important innovator and, simultaneously — not to mention paradoxically — a preservationist in the lore-steeped field of mariachi. Alonso has helped to show how the harp was once one of the building blocks of mariachi; he has also helped to bring it back into the modern scene, and expand the definition of what a mariachi is. “I think he brought the harp back from basically dying out,” says Willie Acuña, a notable player on his own and Alonso’s apprentice during the time Alonso was a Durfee Master Musician.

“Ask any harpist and they’ll know all about him. Checo shed a new light on a dying art form. The harp just wasn’t considered viable in mariachi anymore. Nobody knew how to write for it and few knew how to play or teach it.”

His 2006 Durfee Foundation grant allowed Alonso to make a recording that would bring together some of the greatest musicians working in numerous traditions in Southern California. The result, Lluvia de Cuerdas, was released in 2010. Alonso spent several years working on the arrangements and researching harp history. “It was to educate not just a would-be harpist but the arrangers and composers who have a lot to say about whether the harp exists in music, because they are or are not making music for the harp,” he explains.

Pin Peat was a court music favored by the leaders who moved Cambodia toward democracy. Mariachi is woven into popular culture in Mexico, and has penetrated some educational institutions in California. Indeed, it was UCLA that helped steer Alonso to the harp and folk sounds. Nati Cano was the director of the famed group Mariachi Los Camperos, and is probably the most important preserver of the tradition in the United States. He taught at UCLA, and it was his direction that helped inspire Alonso to play traditional Mexican music. Another UCLA instructor, Jesús Guzmán, who followed Cano as Los Camperos’ musical director, also taught at UCLA. By encountering both these virtuosos while attending the university, Alonso explains that his musical coordinates were reoriented.

This is the strength of the master/apprentice tradition today: when resources are devoted to it, and when the tradition in question is considered a vital part of musical culture by a larger institution, much can be passed on. It is much harder, and the results comparably harder to measure, when an individual organization takes on the mission of engendering master/apprentice relationships.

Acuña credits Alonso with teaching not just the technical demands of the form but, maybe even more important, the emotional underpinnings of mariachi: “With a lot of Western classical traditional musicians, there’s a lot of competition about playing the correct style, doing it the way that it’s been written down. But in folk we have this freedom to expand that, and use more self-expression. That’s one thing I’ve really picked up from Checo.

“The traditional arts, folk music, it’s not something that you can necessarily standardize, nor should it be. You might have a violinist playing in the Italian style for years because a conductor has dictated it. But on the harp, every person has their own style. That’s one of the things that came through with my time with Checo. I believe it, and now it’s something that I pass on to my own students.”

Only a Simple Musician: Pirayeh Pourafar

“When you are a child, you are really honest. The music, painting, whatever children do, it is so much more meaningful.” Pirayeh Pourafar says that she is unsettled, even while her bearing displays self-confidence. “ ‘Master Musician’ is a nice title, I’m honored to have that, but I’m trying to be a child musician.” Textiles and masks from around the world decorate the walls of her modest westside LA courtyard home. She offers a guest tea and a plate of dates and cookies.

Pirayeh Pourafar

Pourafar plays the tar, the long-necked lute that is played in Iran and the countries of the Caucasus region. And she learned it almost by accident, encountering the instrument because, she says, her father thought it might be interesting to see what his daughter came up with. Born into a Russian-Iranian family, Pourafar did not come from a musical lineage, although there were some amateur players she heard growing up. Girls were not encouraged to pick up an instrument, either. “In Iran, especially when I was growing up, music was kind of, I won’t say forbidden but it wasn’t very respected,” she says. “My father, on the other hand, was very, very open-minded, and he thought music gave another dimension in anybody’s life. And he talked to me, he said, ‘Why don’t you try to become a musician? If you don’t like it it’s okay, but if you like it, it will be another life for you!’ ”

He signed her up for the Royal National Music Conservatory of Tehran when she was nine. She learned the Persian Radif, the body of melodies that have been passed down from generation to generation, on the tar. “The more I played, the more I liked it. And here I am.” “Here” being one-third membership in the Lian Ensemble. The Lian Ensemble channels centuries of Persian music through a mysticism that feels modern, universal. It also sometimes feels like free jazz, as its musicians navigate improvisation and the Radif to emblazon an ever-expanding sense of now.

There is an old musical tradition that is not native to Los Angeles, but one the city can surely claim as its own. It is the informal bring-your-instrument get-together known as the jam session.

Much of the music Pourafar plays these days seems steeped — consciously or not — in the aesthetic of the jam session. Folks from around the world play with the Lian Ensemble on record and live. “The more you know yourself, the less you fear from interaction with others,” she says simply.

As it happens, the Durfee Foundation has staged jam sessions of their own. Having empowered any number of terrific musicians in a wide variety of styles, the foundation realized they had a chance to literally bring them together in a room, and see what would happen. Early in the history of the Master Musicians Program, the Durfee began assembling three-day-long summer Music Institutes. They gave masters a chance to talk about their art and backgrounds, either informally or in staged conversations.

“Some people may consider themselves as ambassadors of a particular tradition. I don’t give myself that weight,” Pourafar says. “I love Persian music, I think it’s a beautiful music; I love Persian poetry — Rumi, Hafez. And,” she shrugs, “as long as I feel the same way, I play. But if tomorrow I feel that maybe it’s not that great, I won’t do it.… But I am not the ambassador. I am only a simple musician.”

This view is some distance from that of Yinn Ponn or Checo Alonso. For them, cultural connection provides a sustenance that fuels their work. One senses from Pourafar that being a modern artist provides most of what she requires.

I’ll Make It for You: César Castro

Everything happens around the little box. It’s like the step in the park that an orator stands on. Only the tarima, as this stomp box is called in Veracruz, has an even more important function. The tarima doesn’t just give you a platform, it gives you a beat, a place around which dancers can move.

César Castro

In the fandango of Veracruz, a state on the east coast of Mexico, there are dancers and poets and singers and musicians, all coming together in a room, often a bar or a restaurant, and creating a scene. People flow together, expecting to show off, to be amused and transported. They come to join with the crowd, and for a moment or two, rise above it. The influences are Spanish and Indian and African; they all flow together in Veracruz, where they formed the fandango.

A dominant music played at these functions was son jarocho, a gently rollicking sound powered by a variety of guitars, including the jarana (an eight-string rhythm guitar). If you have heard “La Bamba,” you have heard the most famous son jarocho song to hit north of the border.

Growing up in Veracruz, a young man named César Castro barely heard the son jarocho, from a distance. He comes from a family of ranchers, and out in the country he might have heard the music of the fandango. Then again, he might not have, for the fandango was a grown-up situation, it was where adults gathered and were expected to have their stuff together.

What pulled him into fandango was, first, the attention of a great music teacher. One day after school, the thirteen-year-old Castro was looking for a friend to play soccer with. He was pointed to a rehearsal room where his friend was getting a music lesson; while he waited, Castro idly picked up a jarana and gave it a strum. “Literally, after the first chord, I said ‘I love it,’ ” he remembers. “It made me feel good, made me feel happy. I asked this teacher what I had to do to learn the instrument. The teacher said, ‘Come here Tuesday and Thursday and you can practice with me.’ So that’s what I did.”

The teacher showed Castro how to play the jarana. But more than that, he talked about his own experiences as a musician, and about how he had made a living playing the son jarocho in Veracruz for decades. The teacher explained: “I can teach you notes. But the sense of those notes — all those experiences around the music — that’s what makes sense of the music in the end.”

“And in that little music room he was doing that, creating a world that I could understand,” says Castro.

Castro moved to Los Angeles in 2003, a growing master of the jarana, as well as the guitarra de son (a melody guitar with four strings) and its bass equivalent, the leona. He is a respected luthier, or instrument maker, who today constructs the jarana by request — “Imagine one and I’ll make it for you.” In Mexico they are typically built of Spanish cedar, though in LA he often substitutes mahogany.

Son jarocho has been played in Los Angeles for a long time. But something interesting is happening here, and in some other places recently. In the past ten years, the fandango has come to the city, and is taking root in Southern California.

Castro has the zeal of someone who believes in a social mission, and the calm smarts of a thriving artisan. Which makes sense, because Castro is both craftsman and missionary.

In 2008, Castro became a fellow in the Durfee Foundation’s Master Musicians Program. More than for most recipients, for him the challenge was to settle on a few big things to accomplish from a field of numerous goals. He selected an apprentice, Alexandro Hernandez, who was more active on the local social scene than was Castro, a young father with a business to run. In the process of settling into a routine as a teacher, Castro began to feel how he was passing on what one of his teachers, Gilberto Gutiérrez, had taught him. Namely, that “any musician can pick the notes, but how to produce them in a son jarocho way? How to participate with your music in a fandango? It was hard!,” says Castro. Holding the attention of the room, and then having to go back to your daily life. “It’s like getting a massage and then going into the traffic on the freeway — half an hour later life is hard again.”

The Durfee Foundation, especially in the latter years of the Master Musicians Program, made a great effort to help musicians find entry points to audiences. There were field trips to recording studios, and seminars in building a media kit. There was discussion of using social media to promote one’s music and performances. Castro has shown how useful new media can be in getting one’s music out.

The foundation also facilitated a number of performances, including shows with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, featuring ambitious interactions between Durfee masters and musicians from a classical Western context. Concerts at the Getty Center presented Durfee masters to listeners who might not otherwise have come across these sounds. It was a gratifying experience for listeners and musicians, but if the goal was to build audiences, these efforts made clear how difficult a goal that can be for a foundation to take on. What happens after a concert is over? Has momentum been established? Is another performance on the schedule? More graspable was the ongoing, thorough success in empowering musicians to do what they know how to do best. With her grant, Pourafar bought a tar. These are expensive; what’s more essential than a good instrument?

Sometimes the reward is more ephemeral. There is a gathering of Persian ladies every Tuesday in Los Angeles, a social event called a Shab e Sher. Mani Bolouri, a Durfee fellow from 2008, is a master of the kemancheh and gheychak (spiked and bow fiddles). He performed for ten years with the National Radio and Television Orchestra of Tehran, and all over the world. And every week, Bolouri plays at these small poetry get-togethers, he says, “even though they don’t pay me at all. I’m not even doing a favor for them, because I enjoy it, too.

“It’s not a party; they gather and everybody recites poems in Farsi. So of course music would add good spirit to this night.

“Giving and getting at the same time — I think that’s the definition of me as an artist in this life. It’s my duty to these people. I feel very proud of it because I have this legacy, I have this treasure that’s been given to me and I can give it to anybody without losing it.”

Major and Minor: How It Played for the Foundation

Across the arc of the program’s history, a number of specific grantmaking challenges came into focus for Durfee.

First, there was the task of finding the broadest possible selection of eligible master musicians. Some cultures in Southern California are more networked than others, and spreading the word that a foundation is looking for talented musicians might elicit a much bigger response among one cultural group than it would in another.

In addition, it was evident that there was no single, reliable yardstick by which to measure a master musician in traditions that were oral, nonacademic, and thrived in folk contexts. To attempt to weigh strengths and select the best candidates for the program, the foundation turned to an intricate network of advisors — presenters, musicians, academics, and community leaders. It was a laborious and slow-going endeavor, but one that yielded good results.

A second challenge was finding master musicians who had an interest and capacity to teach. Not every artist is equally skilled at performance and instruction. Whenever possible, the musicians were asked to enlist their own adult apprentices, with whom they would work over the two years of their fellowship. What typically unfolded was an intense and enriching experience. Friendships were forged; apprentices sometimes graduated to being professional peers. “I’m in awe of the dedication shown over the long term by those in this program,” said Executive Director Claire Peeps. “And I’m in awe of the level of craft that comes from endless practice and repetition. When you hear it, it is utterly transporting.”

But finding the right apprentices was sometimes puzzling. Always, the goal was that cultural content — history, traditions, and practices — would be transmitted from teacher to apprentice. Also crucial was the desire to nurture “true successors” — students who were capable of continuing the work of the musicians with whom they studied, and hungry to fulfill that mission. This meant supporting artists to work with their own family members — children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews — as they were the ones with the closest cultural connections to the music. It took a few conversations among Durfee board members to become confident about the strategy, as it runs counter to most American business thinking, and certainly to philanthropy. But eventually family-based fellowships became a mainstay of the program.

As the program grew and took on an increasingly diverse array of musical traditions, it became clear how different each Durfee fellow’s needs and goals would be. An interest in having access to concert and tour professionals — bookers, publicists, gatekeepers — was repeatedly expressed. Much else was not. One musician wanted help establishing an Internet profile, while another might want to make a demo recording to use as a calling card. For some, the assistance let them buy a new instrument, or go home to study the tradition.

“Every master musician and apprenticeship was its own cottage industry,” says Durfee trustee Jonathan Newkirk. He witnessed the spectrum of talent and needs up close: at Studio Atlantis, a recording facility run by Newkirk, masters experienced a state-of-the-art studio and produced recordings that they could use as calling cards.

“These musicians were often coming from a home studio and were now working at a half-million-dollar console board,” says Newkirk. “They had lots of questions.” The interaction was an education in both directions. The staff at Atlantis were used to working with the likes of Ice Cube and Slash. Now they were working with Japanese samisen virtuosos and African drummers. One musician arrived with a cow’s jawbone tucked under his arm. He pulled out a stick and began working the row of teeth, as the mandible became a percussion instrument. An engineer on duty that day struggled to figure out how to mic a jawbone, something he had never done before. It was a surprising, but satisfying, challenge.

It seemed like a simple enough plan: find masters within their culture and subsidize their teaching, help them pass it down. But there were bumps in the road, and the staff was beset by existential doubts.

“A two-year apprenticeship is a grantmaking construct,” notes Peeps, “not a law of learning. You don’t become a master in the span of two years.” The foundation wrestled with conflicting desires — to sustain successful apprenticeships for longer periods of time, versus supporting a greater number of musicians.

Like the length of the fellowship, the financial scale of the award was another grantmaking construct that didn’t readily align with each artist’s needs. There were instances in which the Durfee grant had a destabilizing effect on the life of an artist who was otherwise living well below the poverty line. This was particularly painful when the fellowship came to an end, and the checks stopped coming. The artists’ lack of experience with the grantmaking world, often combined with language barriers, aggravated the risk of such disequilibrium. The fellowship award was $25,000 per year when the program launched in 1997, but it was decreased to $15,000 per year a few years later. This was the first and only time in the Durfee Foundation’s history that a program started with a larger grant and made it smaller.

There was also the challenge of gauging the impact and influence of the awards. Musical growth was always the goal — but how to define growth? If growth is refining one’s study of music or mastery of an instrument, how well can an observer from a foundation evaluate this?

Assuming you could achieve your goals, what is the value of preserving folkways replanted in a postindustrial world? As Durfee Music Foundation Coordinator Julia Carnahan notes, “You’ve got this desire to have traditions deeply rooted and passed on — but in reality culture is always morphing. Some things are going to be lost while others live by changing dramatically. There is no way to control the outcome, and no way to say with certainty what ways are good or bad.”

Still, many wonderful things were accomplished: a Nigerian drummer introduced his teachings to public school students; an avid Persian student of limited resources was able to get free lessons; the role of the harp in mariachi music was brought to the fore in a dazzling recording. The very diversity of these accomplishments shows the complexity of the mission and, perhaps, the difficulty in establishing a set of desired, measurable outcomes. For any funder going forward, the experience of the Durfee Foundation shows both the satisfaction and frustration to be encountered.

It was time to step back and reassess. The faltering economy led to much reevaluation, and, in 2009, the decision was made to retire the Master Musicians Program.

In the end, there was a lot more certainty that the program was making the right gestures than that it could claim victory. “One of the privileges of working in a small foundation,” says Peeps, “is that you can fly under the radar. You can tweak and tinker and readjust. We had the opportunity to experiment a lot over the twelve years of the program, to stick with it while trying new things. We weren’t there yet, but it felt that we were getting pretty close. To come to an end has been bittersweet. The program was wonderful while it lasted, but there remain so many musicians and communities whom it hadn’t yet touched, and who still merit support.”

Despite discussion among grantmakers about the need to support traditional artists, few are out there making it happen. “We need to reinvent the Fund for Folk Culture,” says Melanie Beene of Community Initiatives. “It’s complicated work,” adds Peeps, “but funders need not go it alone. There are experienced agencies like the Alliance of California Traditional Arts, First Peoples Fund, Appalshop, the Craft Emergency and Relief Fund, and the Smithsonian who can serve as intermediaries. And there are knowledgeable people in communities all over the US who can be valuable regional partners.”

As the Durfee Foundation retires the Master Musicians Program, an opportunity remains for others to pursue. I spent my summer talking to talented artists from around the planet, artisans who have found ways to make the most out of the limited means before them. They survive. If institutions exhibit anything like the creativity and resourcefulness these musicians embody, then something more can happen. They can thrive.