What We Talk About When We Talk About Traditional Arts: Speaking with Lily Kharrazi of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts

By Rob Taylor


When many of us come to California, we come with the goal of embracing the new and leaving our histories behind us. Our state seems to be one of perpetual reinvention, with new technologies, new cultures, new modes of living and new forms of art. We don’t come to California with the goal of embracing tradition, we come to smash it.

But we aren’t here long before we discover that for many others, tradition abides. Throughout California, cultural communities sustain and revive their cultural forms for future generations. Immigrant communities perpetuate the art and culture of their people in their new home. Even communities breaking down traditional gender and sexuality norms create shared cultural practices that become traditions within their community. If we take the time to look closely, we see that tradition not only abides, but that it grows—strengthening communities through art-making, while at the same time challenging “tradition-smashing” notions of what it means to create new art.

The Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) is a statewide organization that supports these tradition bearers by providing advocacy, resources and connections for folk artists and their communities. Based in Fresno, with field offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Watsonville, ACTA manages programs that support mentorship of young traditional artists, professional development opportunities for traditional arts organizations and funding for organizations to support projects in the traditional arts.

Master artist from Guinea, Alseny Soumah teaches a free class to high school students during the Lahydi Dance & Drum Festival. Workshops with visiting master artists from Guinea and other areas of West Africa provide an immersion experience for the participants and an opportunity for master artists in the diaspora to convene with each other. Photo by L. Kharrazi, 2012
Master artist from Guinea, Alseny Soumah teaches a free class to high school students during the Lahydi Dance & Drum Festival. Photo by L. Kharrazi, 2012

This last program is called the Living Cultures grant program, and it’s managed by Lily Kharrazi from ACTA’s San Francisco office. Lily has a master’s degree in dance ethnology from UCLA, and came to ACTA after a long history of working with traditional and culturally-specific dance as program director for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. When we sit down to talk, the very first thing we discuss is what we talk about when we talk about traditional arts.

“People sometimes approach us (ACTA) and say ‘I’m doing this piece in collaboration with a cultural community, so I’m doing a cultural piece.’ Invariably, the piece is a contemporary piece which is fitted with ethnic markers.”  Referencing a culture or tradition within a work doesn’t magically make the work representative of that culture or tradition—it’s about the work being embedded in a culture or tradition.

Lily directs me to ACTA’s definition of Traditional Arts, which states in part that they are “those art forms that are learned as part of the cultural life of a group of people whose members share a common heritage, language, religion, occupation or region.”

“It can get a little muddy–we’ve supported a House and Ball festival in Los Angeles, and the Fresh Meat Festival in San Francisco,” and she states that in both cases, a strong case was made that the work funded was rooted in established cultural traditions within the LGBTQ community.

I think the most interesting element of how ACTA understands traditional arts is the relation of the artist to the art form. Rather than primarily being the expression of a personal vision, traditional artists “express a collective wisdom, rather than a personal aesthetic.”

Lily says that she’s seen instances where “chorographers gave the choreographer credit line to their guru or teacher.” For most of us, attributing the work to their guru or teacher means that it isn’t new work—it’s a restaging of a past work. But within the context of their culture, “they were creating new work in that they were taking something old, interpreting it, and bringing themselves into the work.”

Our discussion eventually comes around to funding, as it often does: Lily states that, “In the large scheme, we’re not talking about abundant funding for dance of any kind. But where dance is rooted in a community, be it ethnic, religious, or what we’re calling non-western, that funding scheme is miniscule, it’s a percent of a percent.”

Adding to the reality that traditional artists are funded at a lower percentage is that funders are most often interested in funding new work, and it’s very hard for traditional artists to make their case for new work in an arts-funding model that uses western standards of art-making as a basis for comparison. For example, “it’s hard for a dancer from Oaxaca to enter that forum and say they want to create new work based on their culture and their region.”

The barriers that exist for that artist aren’t malicious, but they do seem to be systematic. Examples Lily gives me (and which I’ve heard before myself) include “we just don’t know how to judge that,” or “this doesn’t look like what I understand a dance company to look like.” This is an issue that ACTA tries to rectify, not only through funding but through advocacy.

Lily argues that in mainstream American culture: “we hold ‘stage ready’ as the pinnacle of art-making but that’s such a narrow concept.” For traditional artists it’s very often “not solely about the aesthetics of art–it’s about well-being, it’s about sociological reasons, it’s about becoming strong as a community so you can respond to the other challenges that are there.”

ACTA frequently works with artists in farm working communities, and Lily speaks of the dedication shown by tradition bearers to sustaining their art. “People who work six days a week during harvest times were spending the entire seventh day creating and teaching arts. That’s how central the arts are to these communities.” Although this work is not created to be shown in a theater or displayed in a gallery, the intrinsic value of this work should be considered equal to art that is created with those outcomes in mind.

It’s not only newcomers whose work has been neglected. Many African-American artists with long histories in California who work in traditional arts have a challenge finding support from mainstream art funders.

One of the groups ACTA have supported in the past is Omnira Projects, a group that uses traditional song and movement from Lucumi and Ifa spiritual practices of West Africa in public performances.

“They are unincorporated and not non-profit—so they don’t have access to many of the traditional funding sources,” Lily tells me, “and there are so many barriers to funding in terms of their fluid genre, in terms of lack of knowledge about these traditions, and because they don’t have a certain organizational model or budget…but they are able to access ACTA—this is our niche.”

Samoan Fireknife dance artist demonstrates his skill at an ACTA supported project at the Pacific Island Ethnic Arts Museum in Long Beach, CA. Photo by K. Kugay, 2010
Samoan Fireknife dance artist demonstrates his skill at an ACTA supported project at the Pacific Island Ethnic Arts Museum in Long Beach, CA. Photo by K. Kugay, 2010

Thinking about barriers to access, I ask Lily about the outreach ACTA does to reach these communities and artists. As one would expect, the work is slow, and it can take years to find ways to support a group in the way they need.

Despite the promises of social media: “outreach requires one-on-one personal contact to connect with traditional artists. After many contacts, a group may put in an application that may not be funded, but they can get feedback, and then another year may result in them getting funded. It’s relationship building. There’s no shortcut. It’s about trust.”

One of ACTA’s current areas of outreach is to farmworker communities in the Coachella Valley, and as Lily describes some of that process, it sounds both incredibly exciting and incredibly daunting: “When we reach out, we ask them to identify their own cultural treasures and assets. They start by pointing to the ladies who make traditional  foods, the most impactful clergy, etc. Once they begin to identify the cultural treasures, inevitably there are artists in that group, because in these communities artists are cherished people. Artists are the connectors. Artists distill and carry the community’s traditions in their own way.”

One can’t look at the communities ACTA works with and not walk away with an expanded definition of what constitutes art-making. As Lily describes it to me, “it’s not just the dance, it’s the music, it’s the costumes, it’s the folk tale, it’s the meal—it’s everything within a context.”

“You can’t separate Flamenco from the song, you can’t separate Hula from the chant—those are intertwined concepts. They are only broken apart because in the western frame we see them as different.”

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Lily about the place of traditional artists in the funding spectrum and whether it’s stronger now than it has been in the past. She answers slowly and deliberately: “We live in complicated times. The census shows a country of changing demographics and we encounter people from different cultures every day. It’s not something that is going to happen—it has happened. The political conversation has been focused on demonizing people from different cultures, making it contentious and dividing us.

“Funders in the arts are willing to embrace the conversation differently, and the conversation is slow, and it’s clunky, because we’re developing the language and it touches on so many issues—equity issues, social justice issues. It’s a huge responsibility, and it’s daunting, but at least it’s more front and center, there’s an effort by funders to grapple with it and do better.

“I welcome the focus and the attention, and I hope something can come of it.”

More information about ACTA, including the Living Cultures grant, can be found at actaonline.org

Rob Taylor also spent a long time at that San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, including one year working with Lily. Experiences there taught him that traditional food and traditional dance and music are often also intertwined concepts.

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of In Dance.

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.