Master artists hold essential elements of culture and tradition in their artforms. The passing down of these artforms to new generations ensures a continuity of expression not only of craft but also of the language, stories, and rituals that comprise the heart of culture. In an age of digital speed and diminishing attention spans, this kind of careful, methodical, and thorough learning is so valuable.

Dr. Maribel Alvarez, folklorist and executive director of SFA.

The Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA) is currently accepting nominations for its annual Master-Apprentice Artist Award, which supports master traditional artists and their apprentices. This year SFA will make 9 awards to pairs of Arizona-based artists or tradition bearers. Master artists receive $2500 and their apprentices $500 to engage in learning and transmission of traditional knowledge.

In anticipation of the May 11, 2018, nomination deadline, SFA has allowed us to share the following excerpt from an interview with Rod Ambrose, 2016 recipient of the Master-Apprentice Award. As a storyteller who pulls from the oral traditions of West Africa, Ambrose has visited hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools, universities, and community colleges throughout Arizona. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, he now lives in Glendale, where he runs the Talking Drum Performance Studio Network.

An Interview with Storyteller Rod Ambrose, 2016 SFA Master Artist

(Excerpted with permission. Read the full interview in BorderLore, the e-journal of the Southwest Folklife Alliance)

BorderLore: Can you share some experiences from your youth that inspired you in the traditional art of storytelling?

Rod Ambrose: I’m a product of generational chain of storytellers. It actually starts with my great grandmother. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I spent a lot of time with her because everyone else in the house was working. It was a blue collar Chicago family. We were stuck with each other. She was a diabetic and I had to get up at 5:30 every morning and give her an insulin shot and fix her breakfast according to a special chart. She taught me how to drink coffee. And over coffee, she would talk to me. She was a very quiet, solemn little lady. So it surprised my mom how much she’d actually shared with me, because the old woman rarely talked to anyone else about these things. So, Mama Rosie, I think, led me to believe that these stories were sort of our secret.

She told me how our family migrated from the South from Alabama and Arkansas to Chicago around the turn of the century. She was married at 15 years old, given in marriage to an older man, the Right Reverend Robert Lee Williams. That was something they did during those times. Once they landed in Chicago she pulled her 15 brothers and sisters, one and two at a time, up to the windy city with her.

A curious thing was that my grandma, Magnolia, told me about this great migration story from the south to the north from the front of the buckboard wagon in which she rode. They traveled with horses, and chickens, and cows and goats. But initially it was her mother, my great grammy Mama Rosie who told me the story from the top front seat of that same buckboard looking down the road ahead. When I turned seventeen, my beloved Mama Rosie passed quietly away while I sat curled up in a chair by her bedside. Following her home-going ceremony, my grandma Magnolia continued the storytelling tradition that night trying to console me. I lay face down sobbing in Mama Rosie’s empty bed. She softly patted my back as she shared her memories of sobbing so hard as she rode the back of that buck board flap because they were leaving the only home she knew, where she and about nine of her brothers and sisters had been born.  It did occur to me one day, that I was hearing this story from two different generations, each seeing the world from their own vantage points and therefore expressing the shared experience from different perspectives.

I loved all things poetic and I love literature. This was fostered in me by my mom. My mother read to me every single night: the English literary classics, Chaucer, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Longfellow, until I was old enough to read to her but she was an excellent reader. My favorite poem for her to read was “Hiawatha’s Song.” Her voice was as smooth and sweet as honey!

B: Can you take us through a brief history of storytelling in the African-American tradition?

RA: Within last 10 years I have recognized my work as part of the griot tradition. In ancient Ghana, the griots or storytellers were the media, the journalists. People depended on them to go from village to village to tell the news. They had to be an oral archivist, someone who knew the history of the villages — who was born when and who died when. As it became more formal, they took instruments like the kora and talking drum, which they used to advertise from miles and miles away, “I’m on my way.” The griot would also bring messages from the king to the provinces.

At first, I didn’t know that what I was doing was storytelling. I simply transmitted the experiences that interested me and connected them to a past that folks may not have learned about from their own families. In the years to follow, I began to resemble the ancient griots as I shared my personal experiences from the Civil Rights movement and the 20th century message from an African American king, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I think storytellers are an amalgam of that cultural exchange, from back then. It was an oral culture, and you had to have a phenomenal memory. You had to know how to be an entertainer to engage folks and keep them interested.

In my community we learned at church from the preacher who was the inspired storyteller. He would transmit the stories of the Bible and engage the congregation in the telling. Those things impacted and influenced me. I knew that I loved music and songs, and those were forms of story telling. A good ballad, a good R&B song, a good rock song — them low down dirty blues and all that cool jazz, they all have stories and messages in them!

Storytelling was also big at the barber shop. They didn’t have any filters there. If you were a kid of 10 or 12 years, boy, you were immediately immersed in the latest gossip in hip talk! It was all about the neighborhood and who was doing what to whom and what relationships were busting up and why and who had what new bad-assed car! That was the most fun.

B: What are the main themes of the stories you tell these days?

RA: These days, the main themes of the stories we tell are addressing in addition to ancient Aesop Fables, Anansi, the Spider, and numerous old favorites. My project, the “Talking Drum Story Program,” works to connect African born artists with African American born artists. We deal with 21st Century issues, like Civil Rights, mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter, the criminalization of poverty, and others.

B: As a recipient of the SFA Master-Apprentice Award, you are you working with Billy Ramsey to pass on the tradition of storytelling. Can you tell us about him and your work together?

RA: My choice for apprentice, Mr. Billy “Issim Dark” Ramsey, happens to be among the most talented, brilliant and dedicated performers that I have had the good fortune to work with during my 50 years of storytelling-community theater experience.

Billy kept finding me throughout the years. Like a sponge he’d soak up my many writing and performance sessions. His own father passed away when he was still a young boy. Billy’s Mom, a lay preacher, told me that her son just loved the work I was doing with folks and asked if I would take him with me when I was doing these things. I agreed. The rest is local legend.

Billy is the co-founder of BPV (Black Poet Ventures), and there are few poets or spoken word artists as popular in this state. He is the only other local artist that I know who has conducted storytelling workshops with 3rd through 8th graders, taught high school teens poetry slams, and performed extensively as I have in the city and state.

2017 Master-Apprentice Award Nominations

Artists are first nominated by peers within their community, cultural institutions, apprentices, or by self-nomination. Applicants include a wide variety of traditional artists, including but not limited to: artisans: weavers, basket makers, jewelers, mask makers; occupational folklife practitioners: adobe brick makers, leather workers, ironworkers; oral tradition practitioners: storytellers, musicians, poets; and performing arts practitioners: dancers, traditional garment makers, ritual object makers.

The deadline to nominate artists has been extended to May 11, 2018

Artists are selected by a panel and awarded for their knowledge, dedication, and commitment to passing on living traditions from our region and beyond. The program is supported by the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Surdna Foundation, and matched by individual gifts from local donors.

For more information on the nomination process, visit sessions will be held as requested by communities or individuals.

SFA is an affiliate non-profit organization of the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the parent-producing agent of the annual Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival.

Banner Image: Photo by Steven Meckler, courtesy Southwest Folklife Alliance