Bluegrass Rhapsody with Poet Anthony Ceballos
As music genres go, bluegrass is all its own. Its melodies and messages spring from a particular soil: the hardscrabble land of rural Appalachia.
The poet Anthony Ceballos hails from a very different place. His artistry is born from a number of things, including his mixed ancestry. From his mother’s side, he is a first-generation descendant of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and from his father’s side he is Latinx.
In the upcoming performance, Bluegrass Rhapsody (October 23, 7:30pm – 8:30pm, Antonello Hall), the MacPhail Spotlight Series will present bluegrass inspired compositions as Ceballos weaves in his own poetic narrative.
It might seem like an unlikely pairing but that’s by design.
“We want to bring together different artists and offer them a common space to create something unique,” says Mischa Santora, the artistic director of the Spotlight concert series. “It’s an opportunity to tell a compelling story, one that’s relevant to a world that’s changing.”
As a city, Minneapolis has been grappling with its own difficult history, the effects of which can still be felt today. In the wake of the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, MacPhail wanted to use its platform to highlight the rich contributions of local Black artists. For the upcoming iteration, Santora wanted to include the voices of local Indigenous artists. He has never seen an attempt to incorporate such serious and urgent Indigenous themes on the classical concert stage.
This is when he reached out to Ceballos, who suggested other local Native artists with whom to collaborate and ways to make this year’s series reflective of issues important to the local Native community.
“Minneapolis has a long and complicated history of interacting and coexisting with Indigenous tribes,” Santora says. Minneapolis sits on Dakota land and is home to a large population of Dakota, Lakota and Ojibwe, whose histories and realities have been deeply affected and altered by colonial-settlerism.
“It’s a difficult subject. But if we learned anything from last year, it’s that we shouldn’t shy away from things that are difficult. I think we have a responsibility to respond to the times that we live in.”
Part of that response is bringing artists together on the Spotlight stage.
“There’s so much separation in the world today,” Ceballos says. “There’s political distance, distance catalyzed by technology, social media and so much more. At this event we’re taking two styles that may seem distant and we’re working together. We’re finding moments of connection. Bridges between things not often in the same space to create something unique. Something wonderful and from the hearts of everyone involved.”
The themes Ceballos grapples within his writing— childhood trauma, racial identity, addiction, financial hardship, growing up without a father, what it means to be Indigenous in 2021, among others—are experiences he finds can be understood by many people, whether or not they identify as Indigenous.
“I write a lot about generational trauma, a symptom of colonial settlerism,” Ceballos says. “It’s about the difficulties my grandparents went through and what my mother saw as she was growing up. How that translated to me as a child without the words to understand her pain. It’s about me trying to reconcile that heaviness now, at 31 years old.”
The concert will unfold in three sections: a string circle (violin, viola, and cello), an American Haiku (viola and cello), and a traditional fiddle repertoire (viola and violin). The music will surround Ceballos’ words, filling the spaces between and beside them.
The format itself will be a departure from most classical concerts. “I want everyone who’s performing to sit on stage the entire time,” Santora says. “I’ll be on stage the entire time. There will be a true shared space experience. And then we will all take a bow together, like a theater group.”
This theatrical element is a particular thrill for Ceballos. “It really allows me to stretch myself in a more performative way, not just as a reader of poetry but something more,” he says. “I’ve recently started calling myself a performance poet because the auditory experience of the poem is so important to me. Now I have a chance to see how my own narration can work with a larger ensemble, with all the other elements, to create this meaningful and cohesive whole.”
Santora met Ceballos through Birchbark Books and Native Arts, the independent bookstore where Ceballos works. Owned by the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich, the place is “a locus for Indigenous intellectual life,” according to its website. Erdrich has written many stories about her Ojibwe heritage and her last novel, The Night Watchman, won a Pulitzer Prize. Her writing has brought Native realities into the larger, national dialogue, paving the way for writers like Ceballos.
“I love writing for the page,” he says. “A poem can be visual art on the page. Sometimes just recognizing the way the language and words are positioned can be beautiful.”
But in the future, he plans to delve deeper into performances like this one.
“There is a very musical element to the poetry I write,” he says. “As I’m actively writing, there’s a natural emphasis on rhythm and cadence. Each syllable has its own sound. Each poem has its own sound. It’s not exactly a song, but it also is. When you are reading poetry out loud, there’s just you and the words being spoken. Not a lot else. And that is extremely special.”
Bluegrass Rhapsody is the first Spotlight performance of the 2021-22 season in a series of three. The second will take place in February with poet Sasha Suarez (White Earth Ojibwe) and the third in April with Rosie Peters (Lakota) accompanied by guitarist James Everest. “Usually, each concert has its own theme,” Santora says. “But all three of these are connected by one larger arc.” That arc being our country’s difficult history with its Indigenous population.