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The Ghost at the Embassy

21 Oct
The ceiling of the ballroom is covered in elaborate paintings.

The ceiling of the ballroom is covered in elaborate paintings.

The Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, D.C., is a beautiful mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in DuPont Circle. The four-story, fifty-room home was completed in 1903 for the Walsh-McLean family. In 1951, the first Indonesian Ambassador to the United States purchased it  to house the embassy.

Since then, many children of Indonesian diplomats have grown up here, learning traditional dance, playing gamelan, and creating mischief in its many nooks and crannies. Many also get to know the ghost.

Gio Soeprapto shares his memories of an unusual playmate:

See more photos→

Hugh Masekela at the Opera

8 Apr

hugh masekela
I met Hugh Masekela today!

The 75-year-old South African jazz artist made the rounds at a few Smithsonian locations, concluding with an interview in our office at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He talked about social justice and sustaining cultural heritage through music, with representatives from the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Howard University, WPFW and more.

He was explaining something about how historically Europe has preserved its arts much more thoroughly than Africa has. Offhandedly he said, “I was kicked out of an opera once,” the first opera he ever saw. I started recording.

He’s a sweet, funny guy. He gave everyone in the office hugs instead of shaking hands. And he also gave me a KDVS station ID!

Songs of the Arabbers

6 Jul

melvin diggs
This week I’ve been working at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival doing a variety of odd jobs. My supervisors caught wind of this blog and gave me a great assignment: interview the Baltimore-based fruit vendors, colloquially known as “Arabbers,” and record the songs they sing to attract customers.

The short article and audio featuring Tyrone Diggs-Bay were published on the festival blog today. Please check it out!

I also talked to Tyrone’s father, Melvin Diggs (above). He stands off to the side of the booth and completes all transactions. (“He likes to be in control of the cash,” Tyrone said.) He was a little shy about talking to me with my recorder, but I persuaded him to sing a song too:

My First Radio Documentary!

18 Jun

audacity multitrack
I think I’ve been working toward this for a really long time, and I’ve only realized it in the last few months. I’ve always wanted to be a journalist, but my interest and confidence in writing has waxed and waned. I’ve always loved sharing music, but you can only do so much storytelling with radio DJing.

Producing radio documentaries seems to be a culmination of so many skills I’ve been working to gather: recording music and atmospheric sounds, interviewing, writing narration, editing audio and creating a compelling story.

I met one of the hosts of “Feminist Magazine” while taking pledges for the KPFK fund drive last month. When I told her I studied journalism at USC, she invited me to contribute stories to the show. Right away I thought about Sharmi and Anal Cube, who were coming to L.A. in a couple weeks on a tour they described as “sweaty hairy femmes of color combing through the pubic U.S.”

So I worked it out with Sharmi, got the bands’ permission, went to two of their shows (but only recorded music at the second because I got smoked out at the first), brought them to the KPFK studios to record an interview, transcribed for days, edited for days. How do people do this every week?

The story aired today, and I got to hear myself through an actual radio, from outside the studio, for the first time ever. And I can’t wait to work on more.

You can hear it too!

A Mother’s Day Message

12 May

mom and me
When I record people’s voices, it’s usually for the pure novelty and silliness of it. I’ve always enjoyed eavesdropping, and the pocket-sized ability to document little snippets of other people’s lives and replay them for my own amusement opened up a whole new world of audio voyeurism.

It’s more daunting to think about audio recording as a real preservation of voices. When my grandma was recovering from a stroke, my cousin and I decided we better take the opportunity to interview her while we still could. We set up a recorder and asked her about growing up in the Philippines, moving to America, and if she really thought Obama could win the 2008 election just because he’s handsome. She turned out to be fine.

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer not long after, I knew I should do an audio interview with her, too. I knew I should ask her about growing up in Okinawa, crying when she first rode a boat across the Pacific Ocean and saw that the Golden Gate Bridge was not actually gold, and raising my brother and me — all stories I know but wish I could hear again and again.

For two years while my mom was fighting sickness, undergoing chemotherapy and altering her diet, I knew I needed to record her, but I couldn’t. It meant it would be my last chance to ask her questions I always wanted to ask. It meant admitting to myself that, soon, she wouldn’t be around to tell me stories.

The last time I talked to my mom, it was a Gmail video chat while I was in Okinawa and she was home in Sacramento. It was a short conversation — the sun had just come out after days of rain, so I showed off my new Japanese haircut and told her I better go to take a walk. I couldn’t have known that was it.

That was three years ago. I’ve searched Google in hopes that they secretly archive video chats (they don’t). I’ve gone through old cassette tapes in case of some long-lost home recordings (none, yet).

Each Mother’s Day, I try to find something to put on this blog in memory of my mom, but the only audio I’ve dug up is this from our home answering machine:

So here’s the real Mother’s Day message: Don’t wait. Don’t wait until your mom is sick or it’s your last chance. Document her voice now, frequently, whenever she wants to tell you tales about her life. Get a voice recorder, download a phone app, or unearth your Walkman, because these are stories worth preserving.

It’s nice to think you can rely on your memory of a person and everything they’ve ever told you, but, even if you can, it would be comforting to have some audio memories backed up.

Campus Crusade for Keyboards

30 Jan

christians at usc

Last week I sat down to read a book for class, appropriately Music Cultures in the United States, near this couple who I thought were singing songs in Korean.

After a few minutes, it was clear they were singing in English, but I still couldn’t tell why they were set up in such a strange spot on campus with a portable keyboard playing adult contemporary-type music.

When I got up to go back to the library, I briefly smiled at the woman, and 30 seconds later I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Excuse me, do you know God? Do you know Jesus?” she asked.

Oh, right.

I told her I would take her pamphlet if I could record them playing a song, but I like the singsonginess of her requisite pitch more than the music.

This Is Your Life comic

Calvin Johnson on the Occupy Movement

15 Nov

Calvin Johnson at The Smell

I tend to peg Calvin Johnson as such a writer of love songs and producer of rad records that I forget he’s also a pretty political guy. At The Smell on Sunday night, he described his experiences at a couple of occupation sites, including Occupy Los Angeles earlier that day.

Then he dedicated this song to all the occupiers:

(Shoulda changed it to “We’re 99% of the human race”!)


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