Published May 18, 2022
Brad Hatch with his apprentice David Onks (left), with traditional Patawomeck eel pots made from split white oak. Photo courtesy Brad Hatch.

2023 marks twenty years of the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program! The program was established in 2002 and the 2022-2023 cohort is the twentieth class of mentor artists and their apprentices.

As COVID has forever changed the way we work and learn, the Apprenticeship Program is also evolving. This year, for the first time, the Virginia Folklife Program is supporting a cross-ocean partnership: Isha M Renta Lopez of Fredericksburg, VA, and founding director of Semilla Cultural, will apprentice with Margarita “Tata” Sanchez Cepeda, a master of bomba dance in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Semilla Cultural recently received a Virginia Humanities grant.) Enslaved West Africans on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations created the foundation of bomba in the 1600s, and the art form continues to develop, transform, and connect the island to its African heritage today. Bomba is defined by its percussion, including barriles de bomba—drums originally made from rum barrels, a maraca and the cuás (a pair of wood sticks). Sanchez Cepeda, a highly esteemed dancer and teacher in Puerto Rico, shared, “I have followed Isha’s work for some time, and what has caught my attention is the intensity and passion she puts into it. In my case, I never thought I was going to dance bomba full-time, but life brought me here, and there’s nothing that satisfies me more than to do this with the respect and love it deserves.” Save the date of Saturday, October 8, when the two will perform with Semilla Cultural in the Folklife Area of the Richmond Folk Festival. The festival will also feature other apprentices from the last two years, when in-person programming was paused.

“All my work is focused on my ancestors and thinking about all those taken from their land against their will. I do this with respect and responsibility, I do it with love, but bomba is also filled with tragedy.”

Margarita “Tata” Sanchez Cepeda

The 2022-23 Apprenticeship Program cohort also demonstrates how traditions migrate, are adopted by new people, and transform. Bernadette Lark of Roanoke, VA, hails from Allendale County, SC, and, as she puts it, “was born into the Gullah-Geechee culture.” Gullah-Geechee people are descendants of enslaved West and Central Africans who worked on coastal rice, cotton, and indigo plantations in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia. The isolation of these coastal communities enabled enslaved people to protect and practice many traditions from Africa, and it also led to the development of Gullah, a unique creole language. Lark will be teaching Gullah Geechee-style gospel singing to Alanjha Harris, which also means teaching her Gullah lyrics. “As the daughter of a pastor and missionary, both also vocalists and musicians, I learned this tradition as it is a part of who I am,” said Lark.

Joshua Purnell of Norfolk, VA, discovered blues dancing at a local community meet up, but noticed he was often the only African American. Falling in love with this kind of social dancing, Purnell is going to use his apprenticeship to increase his understanding of the roots of this tradition. “I hope to spread the art of blues dancing and revitalize it in not only the local African American community, but all of Hampton Roads Virginia, and ultimately all of Virginia,” explains Purnell.

Margarita “Tata” Sanchez Cepeda (left) will train Isha M Renta Lopez of Fredericksburg, VA, in Puerto Rican bomba dance. Photos courtesy the artists.

Sometimes just a few individuals carry traditional knowledge for their broader communities. Danny “Brad” Hatch, a member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia, learned how to make eel pots from the two remaining tribe members with experience in this craft of weaving white oak splits into a submergible basket trap. Hatch will be training David Onks, a young tribe member, in the tradition, and the two are also collaborating on teaching a course to other tribe members. While eel pots have a symbolic, rather than functional, purpose today, Hatch acknowledges these vessels hold deep meaning, saying, “The eel pot serves as a reminder of [Patawomeck] resilience and how our lives are inexorably linked to the waters and forests of our homeland.”

Betty Vornbrock (left) and Sharon Andreucci (right), her old time fiddle apprentice. Photo courtesy the artists.

2022-2023 Mentor Folk Artists & Apprentices

  • Kazem Davoudian of Sterling, an experienced ustad (master artist, in Persian), will teach Alexander Sabet of Washington, DC how to play classical Iranian music on the tar, a traditional long-necked string instrument
  • Danny “Brad” Hatch of Fredericksburg, VA, will be teaching David Onks, a fellow Patawomeck tribal member, how to construct Patawomeck-style split oak eel pots (basket traps)
  • Elizabeth LaPrelle of Smyth County, a ballad singer and banjo player, will be teaching Appalachian ballad singing to Elsa Howell of Roanoke
  • Bernadette Lark, originally from coastal South Carolina but now living in Roanoke, will teach her vocal student Alanjha Harris Gullah-Geechee-style southern gospel singing
  • Joshua Purnell of Norfolk will teach Tom Norris and other members of the Hampton Roads dance community styles of blues dancing, while resurfacing its traditional African American roots
  • Margarita “Tata” Sanchez Cepeda, a renowned master bomba dancer in Puerto Rico, will work with Isha M Renta Lopez of Fredericksburg, VA, both in person and over Zoom. Renta Lopez is the founding director of Semilla Cultural, a non-profit dedicated to Puerto Rican arts and culture
  • Daniel Smith of Lynchburg will teach violin making and repair to Richard Maxham of Alexandria
  • Betty Vornbrock of Carroll County will teach Sharon Andreucci of Galax Appalachian old time fiddle, with particular attention to the styles of SW Virginia and women players of the broader region

Introducing: Apprenticeship Documentary Film Screenings

In this twentieth year of the Apprenticeship Program, Virginia Folklife is also launching a new way to honor these artists and the traditions they represent in their own communities. On June 15, we will premiere In Good Keeping in 2022, a feature-length documentary celebrating the 2021-2022 cohort at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol. Join us for screenings in Virginia Beach and Fork Union later this summer! Find more information here and sign up for our newsletter to receive future event announcements.

VIRGINIA FOLKLIFE APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAM

Since 2002, the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program has drawn from a wide range of communities and traditional folkways to pair more than 150 experienced master artists with dedicated apprentices for one-on-one, nine-month learning experiences, in order to help ensure that particular art forms are passed on in ways that are conscious of history and faithful to tradition. The master artists are selected from applicants in all forms of traditional, expressive culture in Virginia—from decoy carving to fiddle making, from boat building to quilt making, from country ham curing to old-time banjo playing, from African American gospel singing to Mexican folk dancing. The Folklife Apprenticeship Program helps to ensure that Virginia’s treasured folkways continue to receive new life and vibrancy, engage new learners, and reinvigorate master practitioners. The Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program receives funding support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts Program.

VIRGINIA FOLKLIFE PROGRAM

The Virginia Folklife Program, a program of Virginia Humanities, is the state center for the documentation, presentation, celebration, and support of Virginia’s rich cultural heritage. Whether sung or told, hand-crafted or performed, Virginia’s rich folklife refers to those “arts of everyday life” that reflect a sense of traditional knowledge and connection to community. Visit VirginiaFolklife.org for more information.

VIRGINIA HUMANITIES

Virginia Humanities is the state humanities council. We aim to tell the stories of all Virginians—or, better yet, find ways for people to tell their own stories. We want Virginians to connect with their history and culture and, in doing that, we hope we’ll all get to know each other a little better. Virginia Humanities is headquartered in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia but our work covers the Commonwealth. Founded in 1974, we are one of fifty-six humanities councils created by Congress with money and support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to make the humanities available to all Americans. To learn more visit VirginiaHumanities.org.

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