Billy Ramirez, master, and Rachel Rodriguez and Khe Cruther, apprentices, of Antioch, have been selected as a master/apprentice team who will take part in the Tennessee Arts Commission Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.
The new initiative is designed to encourage the survival, continued development and proliferation of the state’s diverse folklife traditions, especially those that are rare or endangered. Billy Ramirez, lead drummer of the Nashvillebased Caribbean band Revolfusion, will teach Rachel Rodriguez and Khe Crutcher to become congueras, or congas players, in a traditional Afro-Caribbean style.
“The Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program was created with a focus on preserving folklife and ethnic practices like Afro-Caribbean drumming that are rare in Tennessee, thus helping ensure that they are an important part of our state’s artistic diversity,” said Dr. Bradley Hanson, Tennessee Arts Commission Director of Folklife and the state’s folklorist.
Puerto Rican native Ramirez learned how to play the congas at age 10 from his cousin, and was already playing congas in a band by age 12. After moving to Tennessee in 1999, Ramirez played congas as well as djembe, cajon and auxiliary percussion for a series of bands, including two he initiated and led: Kaciques in 2008 and Revolfusion in 2011.
“These bands play a variety of Caribbean traditional and popular music,” Ramirez explains, “and the members are from various parts of the Caribbean.”
It is important to train talented local musicians in congas because, he explains, “the congas are being replaced by electronic devices since it takes years to learn them. There are few congueros in Middle TN.”
Rodriguez has a strong background in Mexican and Tex Mex music and, since coming to Nashville, has been an avid learner of other genres of Latino music as well. Crutcher, whose roots are in traditional old-time and Kentucky bluegrass, has also expanded her musical interests to Latino music since coming to Nashville.
They plan to perform at Latino music club Sambuca in Nashville and Las Fajitas restaurant in Antioch.
West African music, especially percussion, is the founding bedrock for many musical forms that have developed in Tennessee, including blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll. It has also influenced old-time, bluegrass and country music. Mawuko and Dean plan a public performance at the Bessie Smith Culture Center towards the end of their work together.
They will also participate in an exhibit at the Tennessee Arts Commission Gallery in the Spring of 2017. “These folklife practices are valuable to Tennessee communities, especially in our rural regions. They help fulfill an authentic sense of place and truly enliven the cultural landscape for locals and visitors alike,” said Dr. Shawn Pitts, President of the Tennessee Folklore Society and a Tennessee Arts Commission board member. A total of eight diverse teams of master traditional artists and apprentices have been chosen to participate in this inaugural year, selected by a panel of specialists in traditional arts and folklife.
Each team is committed to preserving a traditional folklife art form that is deeply rooted in their cultural heritage. The teams will embark on one-on-one training for a six-month period. Each master artist is an exceptionally skilled tradition bearer. The master artists awarded this recognition from the Tennessee Arts Commission are considered experts in their artistry from fellow artists, community members, and folk arts leaders. Selected by the master artist from within their local artist community, each apprentice is a talented student who desires to strengthen his or her abilities.
The awarded apprentices each demonstrate outstanding aptitude and potential in the chosen traditional art form. Such practices include traditional music, visual art, crafts, dance, foodways, calendar and life-cycle customs, and occupational skills.
Traditional art forms are learned and passed down informally by imitation, word of mouth, observation or performance in cultural communities that share family, ethnic, tribal, regional, occupational or religious identity.
“Tennessee is home to a wealth of creative talent and rich traditions. This initiative is important because these traditional arts help define Tennessee’s cultural heritage and keeps these highly skilled artisans working in their communities. In many Tennessee communities, folklife is central to local identity and enhances livability and the pride in place,” said Anne B. Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission.