Saly Lee: Ceramic artist and arts educator at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum

You have to be creative to not just teach people about art, but also to teach people to make personal connections through art.
. . . You have to have authenticity as well as content to connect people with the culture that you are teaching about.

-Saly Lee

You have been in California now for a year and a half working as the Public Arts Program Coordinator at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. What has your initial experience in California been—as an artist, as an arts educator, and in general?

I think about this question almost every day. Since I moved here, I have not been really active making art. I still try to do little things every day such as book art, but since I moved a year and a half ago, it has been really difficult to have that creative outlet. But then again, I get to meet so many incredible people almost every day [at the Asian Art Museum]: local artists and the artists that we invite from all over the world. Everyone has such an interesting, incredible story to tell. So on the one hand, I feel that I am more immersed in the art world, but one part is a little frustrating because I really do want to work on clay and ceramics. It is just that circumstances are not really allowing me to do that. So in part it is frustrating and in part it is really fascinating to meet all of those people.

The Bay Area—the city of San Francisco, Berkeley, etc.—is a lot larger than any of the places that I have lived, even including Busan [in South Korea]. It [Busan] is a big city, but when you live in one place for a long time you kind of develop a small town attitude. You get to know the city well, so it gets smaller and smaller. So, San Francisco and the Bay Area have been really challenging just because they are so large—the city is large and there are all of those little towns around San Francisco. Of course, just getting to know people is a challenge. I am trying to get more involved in the art world—especially museum work. It has been getting better, but when I first arrived it was really intimidating. I never felt it before. Eugene, Oregon is such a nice little college town. Seattle also has a small town feeling, which I really, really enjoy so it has been difficult. But, now I am getting to know more people and more places. I think that San Francisco is growing on me.

Going back to your childhood in South Korea, did you always want to be an artist? What or who have been your major artistic influences? Did the fact of your mother’s being an artist influence you in any way?

My mom is probably the most important person who has influenced me artistically and personally.

I do not think that I really consciously wanted to be an artist [as a child], but I knew that it was part of my life—even when I was young and was not really doing anything artistic . . . In a vague, undefined way, I wanted to do something with education and art . . . I thought that art and teaching would be an exciting way to live. I never really wanted to have a nine-to-five job—even when I was in elementary school. But until I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I never really had any formal art education other than doing little art projects with my mom. She used to have a little studio at home and when she became a professor she always had a studio at her school, so I used to stop by every day to talk to her and to see her work. That really influenced me to make the decision that I really wanted to be an artist.

My mom is a painter and because I consider her one of the greatest artists that I know, I never really wanted to have the same medium as an artist. In a way, the medium of ceramics was decided for me, but I think that it is a great choice for me. I really like the fact that it can be both fine art and utilitarian, functional art.

[To explain how it was “chosen” for me,] in Korea if you want to study art you have to take a standardized test comprised of things like basic drawing and color composition. Even if you decide what you are going to study, such as ceramics, it is the same thing—you have to go through all of that. Also, my parents influenced me. My dad was a huge fan of traditional Korean and Japanese pottery. He used to have all kinds of [art] books at home—these were our regular books—and I used to read about the history of art everyday. He had the Cambridge art history books, which were a lot of fun to read. When the time came when I had to decide on a major, my dad and mom kind of pushed me towards studying ceramics. I never really consciously thought, “I want to become a potter,” but I just wanted to do art and ceramics was the medium. In Korean universities, you have to declare your major when you are applying for admission. Since I did not want to study painting or graphic design (a major for which you are guaranteed to get a job after graduation), I thought ceramics was the next best subject for me.

[I have two brothers who became engineers.] My younger brother is actually very artistic. He and I used to do a lot of Japanese manga-style drawings together. Actually, he would have been really good if he had ever gone into something like graphic design. But at the end of high school when he was preparing for his college exam, he decided that being an artist is not really a stable occupation for a guy, so he kind of dropped it. He did choose textile engineering, so when he was in college and graduate school he did a lot of marketing and graphic design classes, so he is still kind of in touch with his artistic side.

You have an M.F.A. in Ceramic Art from the University of Iowa. Please tell me more about your work as a ceramic artist. Have you worked extensively with other media?

Until five or six years ago, I thought of myself as a full-time artist and a part-time teacher. And now I feel that I am a full-time educator and a part-time artist.

At first as an artist, I was more interested in sculptural, more abstract ceramics. I used to think a lot about my self identity, not just as an individual person but as a person who belonged to a strong tradition of ceramics going back 2000 years in Korea. As that changed, my work became more personal. I started making more functional—or rather more functional-looking—things, more utilitarian things such as teapots and cups. So, right now I am more interested in creating something that is useful as well as beautiful. That is one of the strengths of ceramics as a medium. The question that I usually think about when looking at the structure of a teapot is, “How can I make this more characteristic of me?” Then, because I am dealing with the more functional aspect of ceramics I get to play with more colors and decorative techniques. That is really fun. Before, I was doing more sculptural work—very abstract. I used to stick everything in a wood-fired kiln and hope for the best. Now it is more deliberate. Colors, lines, and other decorative techniques are more important now. I have not worked extensively with other artistic media, but I love objects with function, so that is why I really love book-binding art. I used to do more book binding and now I am trying to get back to that. I have kind of dabbled in everything: textiles, jewelry, book binding, water colors, ink painting, calligraphy . . . I love learning so I have tried almost everything, but I always go back to ceramics.

At what point did you decided to become an arts educator? How did your experience at with the University of Oregon’s
Arts and Administration program shape your vision as an educator?

It came to me as an epiphany all of a sudden. When you are an artist you basically live in a little bubble. You make your art and show it to people, but you never get to interact with people. That is at least how I understood it. So, one day I realized that I wanted to work with more people, I wanted to influence more people. One day I just realized that I wanted to influence people through art. That is why I decided to pursue a second degree: Museum Studies and Arts Administration. At first I was more interested in creating artistic venues, such as setting up a gallery or curating a show. I also love writing about art, so I wanted to learn more about art critique. But when I was in school I started interning with the Education Department at the University of Oregon’s museum. Museum education just felt right to me. It allowed me to have a job where I was part artist and part educator. You have to be creative to not just teach people about art, but also to teach people to make personal connections through art. That is the most appealing part of the job to me. So after my internship I took more museum education classes and got more hands-on experience. Then I was able to get a job with the Seattle Asian Art Museum and now I am here [in San Francisco].

Lisa Abia-Smith was my boss at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. She is the museum’s Director of Education. Her approach to education is very open—you do not really preach [a message] to people, you let them feel whatever they can get out of art. People usually have some kind of expectation when coming to the museum—they learn what they want to learn. So, what I learned by working with Lisa and through my classes at school is that you have give people choices. Different people have different learning styles, expectations, and educational backgrounds. What I learned then was to keep an open mind and offer diverse programs for different people. That became the basis of my job philosophy.

At the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum you constantly have to learn new things as exhibitions change and you develop teaching materials and activities associated with them. What is the approach that you take to learning about the subject of an exhibition and then how do you translate that into educational programming for the public?

As with everything else, you have to study first. I think that is the most exciting part of my job—I get to learn new things every three months. There are lots of resources available. There are books, lectures, and articles that the curators recommend. You can also google almost anything. I start by researching the basic things that I have to know about a subject and then I try to find some kind of common ground with the people who visit the museum . . . Most of the visitors to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco are interested in learning and they want an art activity that is authentic, not just in terms of the artistic materials but they want an activity that is directly from the culture that they are learning about. I keep striving to create better activities, not just skimming off the top with a cheap craft activity, such as creating a paper-roll totem pole that does nothing to teach about its significance in Native American culture. You have to have authenticity as well as content to connect people with the culture that you are teaching about.

In Seattle, a big part of your job was working with groups of K-12 students. How is it different to create an activity for K-12 students and their teachers as opposed to an activity for a public program?

As a school program educator, you have a set amount of time and you have set objectives in your lesson so you stick very close to that. You have to make the connection very clear and then you go straight to the point. You have about 40 minutes to do the activity. So, in that way it is a little more formulaic because you have to have goals to get across to the students. For a public program, it is pretty much open ended. We just provide materials and directions, but what people get out of the activity and what they learn are up to them. That is why authenticity is such an important thing at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

What are some of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences that you have had as an arts educator?

In my job, you have to move very quickly. Once a program is done you have to prepare for the next one and the next one, so I do not really linger too long over the past programs. If there was something seriously wrong with the coordination of a program you have to learn from it, but otherwise you do not really think about it too much. Also, you have to be flexible in terms of scheduling and being able to change the set up on the spot. I have learned to read audiences and presenters and to change plans according to the situation.

I think that the most rewarding moment is when the artists who you have worked so closely with express, “This is the best program ever!” Or when a museum visitor comes up to you and says, “I have learned so much about this culture. I did not know anything about this before and now seen a lecture/demonstration and have talked about it. Now I have an appreciation for this art form or culture.” That is the most exciting kind of moment, especially with family visitors. They are so excited to experience the art-making process.

What are some of the projects that you have coming up in the near future?

In my personal life, as I said, I am planning to do more book art. And then I am taking Japanese language class. That is one of the things about this job and the institutional culture [of the museum]—you just want to learn more. At the museum, now that we have a new exhibition coming up in October, I am learning about Burmese puppetry. We are inviting a Burmese puppet troupe. We also have a Korean culture day coming up. This is actually one of my initiatives here, to start to plan at least two cultural events per year. The Korean culture day will be the first cultural event focusing on a specific country . . . Now, as a department we are trying to do cultural days for underrepresented countries such as Korea and the Philippines . . . That is a really exciting project for me.

To learn more about the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s Department of Education, visit their Web site . A full listing of museum events is available online.

Interview Details: September 26, 2009. San Francisco, CA. Sarah Lin Bhatia.

Teapot images by Mia Vollkommer at AKAR.

All other images courtesy Saly Lee.

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Nayo Ulloa: Kena virtuoso, composer, and Andean music scholar

To let people know more about the music of the Andes and Peru—that is my big goal. Part of my academic training has to do with that. . . . There was kind of a revival of Andean music that began in the 60s-70s and lasted until about the 90s. Now it has kind of fizzled out. I lived right through that moment and am kind of a product of it. . . . When I go back to Peru the people are not there [who are playing Andean music]. They are my age or older. The younger generation is not doing it. It is kind of lost. So I want to leave documentation through recordings and writing.

-Nayo Ulloa

Where in Peru did you grow up? What was your early musical training and what and who influenced you musically in your youth?

I grew up in Peru, in Comas. I was born in Northern Peru—Trujillo—and my parents moved to Lima—Comas is a district of Lima—when I was about four years old. So, all of my memories of growing up are of Comas, not of Trujillo. I was born there, but I have no memories of it at all. Comas was an area that people moved to and started taking over. This [type of phenomena of taking over an area of land] is very common in Latin America, but I do not see it here. Because they do not have developments that are as organized, people move from the north, south, or from the Andes. Most people go to Lima and in that process, since there are no places that are organized—just some abandoned areas—they start taking over and building up communities. Comas was the big thing at that time. It was a large, large area, but it was completely undeveloped. It was nothing—nothing. It was just dusty hills with absolutely nothing. No water, no sewer—nothing. So I grew up in Comas. Actually, there was no running water or plumbing until I was about 12 years old. It was a big development. Because it was big, it kept growing and growing and growing. When we got there it was at the very beginning of this invasión [the taking over of the land] as they call it . . . When I was about 12 years old the government started developing the area. Everyone participated in doing the digging, putting in water, and all of that. I remember a big celebration. I was about 12 or 13 the first time lights and water went on. But interestingly enough, when I think back I only remember fun times. I had no idea that we were living in such poor conditions—truly. We played a lot. There was no television or refrigerators—nothing, so you do not know any better. You have no idea. You make the best of it.

I always liked music, but the first time I saw somebody perform live was when they were doing some work making roads or something. I was about seven or eight. My father bought me a guitar because I liked music . . . but I did not know what to do with it. It was hanging—I remember that I had it hanging from the ceiling. I would just pluck at it, but did not know what to do. And then one day one of the workers in the streets was doing some roadwork. I was with my guitar just playing with it. He could see that I did not know how to play it or tune it well. He played it—he played very well. I was very impressed with his performance. That was the first time that I saw somebody play live guitar. Besides that I had seen drummers playing. The tamale vendors in Peru, most of them are African-Peruvian, go along playing the drums, dancing, and selling tamales. So when you hear some conga drums and dancing, you know there is a tamale vendor coming by . . .

From a very young age, I wanted to learn more about music. My father found me a guitar teacher when I was about 12 years old and I studied that for about three or four years with him. He was very good and was a classically trained guitarist. So, I had that when I was about 12 or 13. Then in school, that was the first time I began playing the kena. I was about 13. Again, this was a poor area of Peru—very poor—so you did not have any of the Western European instruments. They were way beyond our financial means, but they had kenas. The instructor who was teaching the kena developed a way to make them out of PVC pipes. He got hundreds made for the school, so that was the first time that I started playing the kena. For some reason I started playing it and just had a great ability for it. This first teacher that I had—he is still alive—his name is Freddy Flores. He was my very first musical teacher in high school.

The other major influence in my musical life and it continues even now is Jaime—Jaime Diaz Orihuela. He was my mentor. I met him when I was about 16. I was playing in the streets to get some money. That actually was very good for me—I practiced. I did that through my college years in Peru. I would go to school and then go play music. I met Jaime in the streets. He is a very accomplished musician—one of the best Peruvian musicians. At that time, he was the director of the National Symphony. I knew his name, but I did not know him personally. When I met him in the streets he did not tell me who he was. He just told me that I played well and he asked me if I could read music and I said, “Very poorly.” He said, “You play very well so you should learn how to read music.” At that time, I did not pay much attention. I thought, “Well, I can play.” I was very young and could not see much value in it. Jaime gave me his first name and his phone number. Interestingly enough, just a few months later the opportunity came for me to accompany some dancers, but they had everything written down in music. They ran into me in the streets and said, “Can you read music?” And I said, “Yes!” I could read very slowly. So, I went to see Jaime. He became my mentor. That was a very powerful moment and I will never forget it. His wall was full of awards and diplomas and pictures of the symphony. I could not play I was so nervous. He is 84 now. I talk with him—he is still my mentor. His music is beautiful. One of my goals is to really let people know about his music. He has about 40 songs and he wrote a concerto especially for me that I have performed in Peru. He is the most influential musician in my life. He is one of those nationalistic composers. He composes classical music, but with a national, Peruvian, South American flavor to it.

When did you come to California? Was it your musical career that brought you here?

I came to California in 1982. At that time I was going to college in Peru. I was studying language and literature. I wanted to study music actually, but there was no music in college. They just began offering it a few years ago. There was no musical training possible except for going to the conservatory, which was extremely exclusive. It was prohibited for my family—there was no way that I could get in. They had no programs with grants, you had to pay. Some academies were very expensive. So music education in college exists now, but it did not exist in my time. I studied literature. To support myself through college I would play music. I would play in the streets. Also when I came to college, Andean music became very popular for tourists, so there were a lot of clubs started called peñas. I played in those just about every night, Wednesday through Saturday. In one of those peñas I met three American women doing a tour doing a tour of Peru and Bolivia learning more about Andean music. One of them was doing a Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology at Berkeley. I met them and they brought me here mostly with the assistance of the ethnomusicologist.

So that is why I came, I was brought here and taught music at different places. I played a lot. Andean music was very popular at that time, so up to three to five years of my life I did nothing but travel . . . performing concerts all over the United States.

[Originally,] I had no intention to come here. I wanted to go to Europe. A lot of people were going to France . . . In Latin America you do not see the best part of the United States. You really do not see it—you see only the ugly side. When you live here you see that there is a lot of good. But in Latin America sometimes you do not see that good part. You see the companies coming exploiting the villagers—you only see the bully.

Where do the types of flute that you play originate from and what are their basic characteristics?

One of flutes is called a kena. It is a pre-Columbian flute. The kena and pan flutes that have been found go back to about 200-300 A.D. Those are the oldest that have been found at archaeological sites. It [the kena] is an instrument that has been around for a long, long time—not exactly the way that it is now. The instruments that have been found have two, three, and four tones—up to five tones, rarely more than that. This instrument that I am playing has seven tones, so it has a European scale. It definitely has a European influence—not the instrument, but the scale that we use.

In the project [composing the music for the film Mi Chacra] that I just did I purposely stayed away from that [European] scale. I used mostly pentatonic (five tones), and sometimes less—four-note or three-note scales—which seemed to be more common at that [pre-Columbian] time. Nobody knows because the music was not recorded or notated, but the instruments say that they were using about three or four tones. A lot of the Andean music that you hear even now, when you get deeper into areas where people have not had contact with the rest of the world, tends to be kind of like that too. [It is] simpler, but the rhythm is nice and complex.

Kenas are in all of the Andean areas: Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. That is the area of most of the indigenous cultures. Actually, older than the Incas were the Aymaras and another group, the Quitos. Because the Incas were the power of the time, we tend to say “Incan” music. They kind of get the glory of it. The Incas were a little bit like the Romans in Europe. They were the dominant culture for about 300 years, but they were not necessarily the creators of the art and music. A lot of it comes from the Aymaras actually—and Quitos too. The Incas, like the Romans, conquered a lot of people and left them alone to do their own thing. They encouraged people to preserve their own cultures, so they kept them happy. They just collected taxes and tribute. The Incas were more like warriors, organizers, and politicians. They improved the religion and language. They did not do as much musically. As far as we can go back, they had music but it seemed to be more like hymns, rituals, and dances. Some of the more romantic music comes from the Aymaras, from Bolivia around the Titicaca Lake. But, the kena was common to all of those areas around the lake. The Aymara played the kena as well, but mostly they played the sikus (pan flute). That is the instrument even now that the Aymara are extremely good at. They play the music in big troupes and dance around.

The kena was kind of an unaccompanied instrument. One of the reasons why I am doing this project is that a lot of the surviving documents that were mostly done by the Spaniards—the colonialists (they have drawings of the culture that are the closest that you can get to what it was like)—depict people playing the kena usually by themselves or maybe with a little drum next to them. You do not see ensembles of kenas and definitely not string instruments—they did not exist—just percussion and kenas.

What is your overall vision or mission for your musical work?

To let people know more about the music of the Andes and Peru—that is my big goal. Part of my academic training has to do with that. I want to communicate some of that knowledge by writing books and articles about the music. Even though I knew quite a bit before [going to graduate school] now I have the academic tools. I am learning through history that this moment will never repeat itself. My experience is unique and will never repeat. There was kind of a revival of Andean music that began in the 60s-70s and lasted until about the 90s. Now it has kind of fizzled out. I lived right through that moment and am kind of a product of it. If I had been born 10 years before or even 10 years later I would have missed it. When I go back to Peru the people are not there [who are playing Andean music]. They are my age or older. The younger generation is not doing it. It is kind of lost. So I want to leave documentation through recordings and writing. That is my big goal in terms of Peru.

One of my other goals is just to encourage people to play and listen to music—children and adults.

What is your experience as a musician in San Jose?

San Jose is big, of course. There are opportunities, you just have to look for and find the right places. For musicians like me who do not play commercial music there is a small area [of opportunity]. There are people who are interested it is just that it is a smaller group. In some ways it is better because they are a little more focused and a little more loyal when they find you. The opportunities are there to be created. They are not calling you necessarily, but you can create a lot of opportunities.

In terms of major advertising [or publicity] in the newspapers, that does not happen often. You have to do something big and dramatic, like presenting the music for this documentary because it is news. They want something dramatic. When I first came to the United States I got a lot of attention. One of the “best kena players in the world” showing up—people liked that. Some people will say “he is the best” and I get more attention. Honestly, I do not like that publicity as much because I play, but I am the product of what other people have created over hundreds of years. I do not like that accolade as much. I just play an instrument that has been around for 1000 years and a lot of the music that I play has been created by anonymous people, not by me, but there seems to be a fascination with individual accomplishment. It may be universal, but in the United States it is probably more so than in other societies. You want to see who the best is—the second best, who cares? You almost have to inflate yourself; you have to create an aura.

The opportunities are there to be created, but they are not knocking on the door for us. The internet has helped a lot—even with sales. A lot of my record sales are digital sales. It is not a lot of money, but every month I receive some money from digital sales. Interestingly enough, on the first CD that I did the songs that sell the most are the quiet ones. There are three quiet ones on the entire album and those sell the most. So this new album [of the music from Mi Chacra] may sell well [laughs].

Are there many other Peruvian musicians or other people who play and study Peruvian music here in California?

There are many, many Peruvians, Bolivians and Ecuadorians—many, many people. But it is a tradition that you learn by ear—very few have academic training. For the ones who came from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador the opportunities are not there [to study music]. Most of them would like to study I am sure. It is a tradition that until lately in the last 15 to 20 years was just considered a folk art, there was no training. Even now, there is very little training. But there are many players that play very well and that are very accomplished. The thing about academic training is to be able to expand. Without the training you get to a point where you are kind of just going in circles. You need to see something else, to look in other places.

So there are many, many musicians and also other styles. For kena itself, there are a lot of players. But the market has diminished—most of it has to do with finance because the government does not have a lot of money. There used to be a lot of grants when I first came in the 80s. Grants from [the State of] California for what they would call artist-in-residence programs. They would pay you; they would match the fees. I had that for a few years. Now that is gone. And with money being tight, people do not want to spend money on entertainment.

There are a lot of players worldwide. I see fewer and fewer younger people. When you have been playing for a while you need training. For as much ability as you may have you need guidance and training. I am lucky that I met some great musicians who pushed me and opened my eyes at a younger age. Some people do not have that.

Nayo Ulloa’s Web site,, contains samples of his music and information about a scholarship foundation that he and his family established for primary- and secondary-school students in Comas.

He is working on releasing the music for Mi Chacra,, in the coming year.

Interview Details: August 30, 2009. San Jose, CA. Sarah Lin Bhatia.

Images courtesy Nayo Ulloa.

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Eddie Diaz: Artistic Director of the San Jose Flamenco Society

Then when I came to the United States I became very interested in the guitar. At that time I was more into the electric guitar, blues, rock, and jazz until I heard flamenco guitar. If you like guitar, flamenco guitarists are into a very, very high level of technique. I love technique and I love people that play with feeling and that is really what flamenco is—a lot of technique and feeling, a lot of soul.

-Eddie Diaz

To start off, where in Spain did flamenco originate, when in history did it begin to emerge, and what cultural influences have shaped it into the art form that it is today?

Flamenco is so old that the real roots are not really known, but we can trace them starting in India. Then from there, there are different beliefs. Some people believe that it went through Arabia, Morocco, Africa, and then up into Andalusia. Other people believe that it came down through the north of Spain and ended up in Andalusia. Definitely it ended up in Andalusia, which is the south of Spain. And from there it is from the gypsies. They always have been persecuted throughout history and finally settled up in the hills of Andalusia. And from there flamenco started taking form, carrying all of the influences from Moorish, Moroccan, African, and Indian music, from all of the different Middle Eastern countries. That is the beauty of flamenco—having all of those influences. It really came from the gypsies. This is their art—they are the ones who originated it and they are the ones who do it better than anyone else. Up until this date, it still belongs to the gypsies. They are still the kings of flamenco.

What is some of the basic terminology that fans of flamenco music and dance should be familiar with?

The most famous one, the one that everybody knows is olé. This is a cheer like “come on.” Most of the time, you use it to encourage the performers or the students. In the art itself, there is palmas, which is handclapping. It is a very important aspect of flamenco. It is very important, very complicated—most people would think that doing handclapping/palmas would be very basic. There are actually very few people in the world or here in the United States who can do handclapping for flamenco. Baile is the dance, cante is the singing, and toque is the guitar playing. Those phrases are always associated with flamenco. There is one very important one: duende. Duende has different meanings. One of the meanings is for when there is a performance that is so incredible that the spirit of the artist is carried through the audience. Then they say that is duende. Duende means “ghost,” meaning that there is a ghost that takes over the whole theater, because the artists are so into the music that it carries them to the audience, that they become one—like being possessed. So, duende is very important—very, very important—in flamenco. Having duende also means having the art, having the spirit of flamenco—being flamenco, knowing the art really well. Being a great musician, that is all part of duende. So, that is probably one of the most important phrases of flamenco: duende. They use that a lot for different aspects of flamenco; it is a very beautiful word too.

The history of Anita Sheer, the San Jose Flamenco Society’s founder, is intriguing. What was her background and how did she come to establish the Society in San Jose?

I think when she was 11 or 13 years old, she was living in New York and was very interested in guitar. And at that time, for many, many years in the United States one of the most famous guitarists from Spain was Carlos Montoya. Most Americans know of him or used to—I do not know nowadays. Anita looked in the Yellow Book and she saw that he lived in New York, and so she went and found out where his house was. She went and knocked at the door. His wife opened the door and Anita said that she wanted to study guitar with Carlos Montoya. He came out and he said, “No, I don’t teach—I don’t give lessons.” So, then she asked him if he could play something for her. Here was this little girl and he thought, “How cute.” He came and played for her. So, she left and went home and learned the piece that Carlos Montoya had just played. She came back and showed it to him and he was just so amazed by it that he did take her as one of his pupils, and she has been the only one who Carlos Montoya ever taught. So from then on, she started learning and becoming really good. She was a composer, piano player, flamenco guitarist, and singer, and then she got into folk music. She did tour with some of the greats, like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Simon and Garfunkel. She was doing a lot of the festivals in the early Sixties. She also had a lot of TV appearances. At the age of 14, she was on the Johnny Carson Show. She did a lot of TV commercials. She toured Europe. She got a lot of fame in England in the early Sixties, so then she put out a folk album—very, very beautiful—and she put out a couple of flamenco albums.

Then she came to the United States. She came to settle in the Bay Area. And that was 25 years ago. Then she started the Flamenco Society, a non-profit organization promoting the art of flamenco like what we do now. It was run by a Board of Directors, getting support from the City of San José. She set up the dance academy that we still continue. She was the guitar instructor at that time. She started bringing in a lot of great artists—she brought a lot of the greats like Sabicas, Juan Serrano, Los Romeros, and José Greco. She worked with Carlos Montoya—more of the traditional people who were the greatest artists at that time.

She passed away 13 years ago—she died of cancer very unexpectedly. From then on, I have carried on what she had been doing. It was a very beautiful thing that she did and I wanted it just to continue . . . And we are still here.

She was a very incredible performer—very talented. There are not that many females that sing flamenco and play guitar. She was also a professor at De Anza College. She would teach flamenco there and they were very popular classes—really popular classes. There was so much demand that it would take about a year just to get into the classes that she was teaching.

There were recordings that she did right before she died. She was finishing an album that has never been published because of copyright issues, which is too bad because I think that it would have been a successful recording.

What is the mission of the Society? Have the mission and focus of its activities evolved over the 23 years that it has been in existence?

The Society started out promoting the art of flamenco, and we do this through teaching classes. We have from Beginning Flamenco to Advanced. We do informal performances called juergas. That is another word very popular in flamenco, which has a different meaning here in the United States. In Spain, a juerga is when people meet informally and it turns into a jam session . . . Like in a patio, a gypsy will come out and start playing the guitar. And then another one will come out and start singing. And then another one will come out and start dancing—three days later there are 20 musicians jamming. That is what is what a juerga is—really an informal jam session. Over here we do it more formally at a theater, which is not a juerga. We do have audience participation, so that is the part that we use as a juerga, but it is more formal.

The Society has evolved now into promoting more of the bigger artists from Spain. Before we used to work more with the people who were coming to the United States, but now we actually go to Spain and bring some of the greatest. We have worked with the traditional to the new, modern flamenco guitarists, from Paco de Lucia, who is probably the most well-know flamenco guitarist in the world, to all the great young guitarists—like Vicente Amigo, Gerardo Nunez, and Canizares—dancers, singers, and groups that come out of Spain. So, our mission is still educating the public through dance and guitar classes. We also do workshops on castanets, palmas/handclapping, guitar, and cante/singing—so anything related to flamenco. So, our mission continues, just promoting the art through formal concerts, juergas, and educating the public.

When the Flamenco Society was founded were there many flamenco organizations in California–or even the United States—at that time?

No, there were not that many and still up to this day there are not that many. There are some organizations that come and go, but they are not as organized. The dancers are usually the ones that start an organization, but they come and go. The Flamenco Society is very unique because we are organized with a Board of Directors, with a budget supported by grants, and with an office and studios. Usually the Artistic Director is the main performer and dances in the shows. In this case, I do play the guitar, but I am not a professional flamenco guitarist so I do not take part in the shows. I used to, but I do not do that anymore, so now I am more into organizing the shows, doing the administration, hiring the artists, putting the shows together—but not putting myself in the show like most other Artistic Directors do.

Is flamenco as it is performed in the United States divergent from what one would experience in Spain and, if so, what are some of the ways that it has been adapted by American performers?

Yes, it is very different. For one thing, the flamenco gypsies are not here. This is the gypsies’ art. They are in Spain and there is no way to come to the same stature of what the gypsies do. For them, it is not only an art—it is a way of living. They do it as a lifestyle; they do not do it because it is something for entertainment. They have been doing it since they were born. Before they are born they already have duende. It is in them—it is in their blood. This is something that they do all their lives with their families, something that they carry on. So how can you compete with something like that? In the United States, most people just do it occasionally. Over there you have it constantly. You are listening to it, they are talking about it, and performing. It is all around you.

Over here, you just go to a class one or twice a week and you know only a few people who do it, so of course it is going to be different. But, at the same time, there are some great artists here in the Bay Area. What they do usually is to go to Spain to absorb the art. Usually they go once a year or more. Many of the artists here have lived in Spain for many, many years and have absorbed a lot.

There is a place called Morón de la Frontera, which is in the South of Spain. There was an American called Donn Pohren who went there and opened up a flamenco ranch. He set up classes and great flamenco artists at this ranch. Flamenco has different sounds depending on the region. So in this region, the flamenco has a “Morón de la Frontera sound.” A lot of the artists from the United States [in the Sixties] went over there to study at Donn Pohren’s ranch. That was a big thing for flamenco in that region. Most of them [the American artists] stuck with that sound and came back over here with the Morón sound and artists, so this became kind of a duplication of what was going on in Morón. A lot of those artists are not around any more. Now there is a new and different sound and new artists, but for a while a lot of the artists in the Bay Area were influenced by the Morón de la Frontera flamenco sound. They are still around and still performing, but they kind of got stuck on that sound. Things have changed now and it is different. We have some great artists here and some very great dancers. One of our new instructors for the Society is named Fanny [Ara] and right now she is getting very popular. She is going to tour in South America. Her name is becoming very, very well known as a flamenco dancer.

There is great art despite of how hard it is here in the United States in that we do not have as many people as there are in Spain. For the audience it is very hard because they are only going to see a few shows. Here [in the South Bay] there are very few shows on a regular basis. Otherwise, you have to go to San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland. There are some shows there, but usually it is the same people presenting the same artists because that is where they live and that is where their organization is. Santa Cruz is another good place for flamenco. The Bay Area is one of the best places in the United States for flamenco. Now, Washington, D.C. and Miami have really developed. Now places like New Mexico are really good, as well as Chicago. Washington, D.C. and Miami are the prime places for flamenco. It is getting harder in the Bay Area because to bring people from Spain is very costly and it is a long trip. It is easy for them to come into Washington, D.C. and Miami. For them to come here costs more money. We are missing out on a lot of the artists coming here unless the Society or another organization brings them. That is part of what we do when we can.

Please tell me a little bit about your background with flamenco.

I was born in Colombia, in South America. I lived there until I was 14. Most people associate flamenco with Latin America, but it is not true. I am sure that there are a lot of flamenco aficionados in Latin American countries like Colombia, but it is not a music that most people would listen to. You become familiar with it because of Spain, the mother country that we admire and love the music of, but it is something that you just hear on the radio once in a while. You may see shows here and there, but it is not really something that you are really involved in. It was just a music that I heard, but did not really know what it was. It did not mean much to me.

Then when I came to the United States I became very interested in the guitar. At that time I was more into the electric guitar, blues, rock, and jazz until I heard flamenco guitar. If you like guitar, flamenco guitarists are into a very, very high level of technique. I love technique and I love people that play with feeling and that is really what flamenco is—a lot of technique and feeling, a lot of soul. And I heard flamenco guitar and thought, “What is that?” From there on, I wanted to investigate more about flamenco. All through the years I had bought a lot of flamenco recordings, but I do not know why. It might have been in me somehow. I really became interested in what flamenco was. Then when I became really infatuated with it, one day I just packed up—I was single at that time with no kids—and went to Spain. I took a backpack and said, “I’m going to Spain to find flamenco.” I went to all of the places where I had heard there was flamenco and walked around the streets asking people where to find it. I listened to a lot of the real stuff and picked up a lot of recordings. Then I came back and saw an ad in the newspaper from the Flamenco Society that they were having a show and they also wanted people to join the Board. I did not even know who they were. I just called them and said that I wanted to be part of the Board. They said, “Come and see our show and we will talk to you.” I went and watched their shows from there on and I was in love with it. I became a volunteer and then I became part of the Board of Directors. Then I started working closely with Anita Sheer. By the time that she passed away, it was a natural thing for me to take part in the artistic side of things. At that time, I was studying with Anita. I started taking flamenco guitar classes and going to Spain about once a year. I also came back and took part in various flamenco groups for a while. I did a couple of solo flamenco performances. After I became Artistic Director, I became more involved with the administration and left the playing part of it. I work hiring the artists instead of being one of the artists.

Who comprises the Society’s students and audiences?

We have a very wide range of students, from eight years old to a very advanced age. There are males and females—mostly females. There is not really one particular age and there are all from different backgrounds. One of our instructors, Koko de la Isla, is Japanese. Flamenco in Japan is another story. That is where it is most popular—more than in Spain. Various flamenco artists from Spain go to Japan.

For the guitar classes, most of the students are males. Mostly they are younger—maybe from 18 to 33. For the singing classes, the students are more elderly. Usually males are the ones who study that. As far as the audience for our performances goes, usually it is an audience between 30 to 80 years old. Most of them are Americans. These are people who have gone to Spain. They may have seen flamenco shows and they like it. They want to come here and hear it. They see an ad in the paper and want to find out more about it. There are also a lot of the family members of the students. We like to target more of a younger audience and have been trying to do more outreach to 14 to 15 year old high school kids. But, that is kind of hard. What attracts them is not so much of the dancing, which more of the other people like. The younger people like more of the music. They want to see more of the groups and guitarists. It is kind of a harder audience to keep interested. That is why we have to be variable in what we do to give people what they want, but at the same time educate people about the different aspects of flamenco, that it is not just dance.

There is so much in flamenco. The real flamenco is cante—dancing came later on. Originally flamenco was only done with cante—singing—that was called flamenco. There were no guitarists. All that they used were the palmas—the handclapping—for many, many years. Then after that came the guitarists and then the dancing. If you are a real flamenco aficionado, someone who really knows the art, what you are really going to be interested in is the cante. It is something that you have to acquire a taste for. The more that you learn, the more that you are going to develop a taste for it. It is like a good wine, something that you really have to know. If you really understand flamenco, then you are going to understand the singing. It is incredible. Flamenco singing is something very beautiful, very amazing. You do not have to know the language because a lot of times even if you know the language, you do not understand what they are saying, but sometimes it makes it more interesting to know the language. It does help with singing to know it. The accents are another thing. There are different flamenco singers that have different accents, from different regions that have different sounds. Flamenco is very complicated—really one of the most complicated forms of music. Probably Indian music is the only other form of music that I can think of that is harder than flamenco. That is where some of flamenco’s influences came from. There is also a little resemblance in the dancing. As I mentioned, we can trace flamenco to India. Most flamenco artists love Indian music because of the resemblance in the sound and the feeling of the music.

Where do you see the Society in another 20 years?

We will continue to present the greatest and newest flamenco artists from Spain. Flamenco has evolution. In 20 years we do not know what flamenco is going to be. Hopefully it is going to still be the kind of art that we are going to want to continue to promote. A lot of what we do is to bring the new artists who are well-known in Spain, but who do not have a name until we get them out of the country. We bring them here and introduce them to our audiences in the United States. From there, a lot of people become big fans of the people who are already big in Spain. They do not know of them until we bring them here. We want to continue that legacy, to bring some of the greats from Spain and give them exposure here in the United States. Getting exposure here is a big thing because it is such a big country. A lot of flamenco artists want to come here because of the large numbers of people who hear of them. When they come here and tour it is very good for them and for the audience—it is a two-way thing. We want to continue that and to continue giving classes.

The dream for us would be to have a whole center for flamenco where we have, all in one location, our studios; offices; a store where you can go buy CDs, dresses, castanets—everything related to flamenco; a restaurant where people can come and have Spanish food; and a theater. There is one similar place in San Francisco where they have a restaurant and a theater where they perform. It is run by a Spanish organization. I would like to have a place where people come in and they feel that they are in Spain, in Andalusia. They can be in downtown San José, but when they are in the center they feel that they are in Spain. I would love to do something like that. Hopefully, maybe someday we will.

Learn more about the San José Flamenco Society’s history, classes, and upcoming events by visiting their Web site.

Interview Details: August 29, 2009. San Jose, CA. Sarah Lin Bhatia.

Images courtesy Eddie Diaz.

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