Traditional Artist Profiles

Meet some of Montgomery County’s talented traditional artists!

Sarah Xie and Mei Wang are sisters-in-law who share a love of Beijing Opera. This mutual affection inspired them to become two of the founding members of the DC Beauty of Beijing Opera Ltd. (DCBBO), a nonprofit organization that strives to promote Beijing Opera through performances and education. Beijing, or Peking, Opera emerged in the 18th century and involves singing, speaking, dancing, miming, and acrobatics. The stories told in performances of Beijing Opera are rooted in Chinese history. Therefore, the performances are both a form of entertainment and education.

Sarah Xie grew up in a family of Beijing Opera fans and practiced performing at home. 

When she came to the United States to study electrical engineering in 1987, she met professional Beijing Opera performers who encouraged her to practice more seriously. She became a member of the Chinese Opera Company of Greater Washington, D.C. in 2003 before helping to establish the DCBBO. Mei Wang, on the other hand, did not become interested in Beijing Opera until she met Xie. She became involved in 2005 when a Beijing Opera show needed another performer and Xie recommended her for the part.  

Xie believes that it is essential to share and preserve Beijing Opera. She says:

[Because] we’re fans of Beijing Opera . . . [DCBBO] started from there and then we [thought] about [how] we should do more than just to satisfy ourselves, [but] to let people know it because this is really the arts. This actually has been 200 years of history [and] right now [it] is world heritage. It’s identified as [intangible] world heritage.

Wang says that the DCBBO shares the Beijing Opera tradition through lectures, performances, and interaction so that audiences can learn not only about the art form, but about Chinese culture, history, and philosophy. Most of their audience members are non-Chinese students who may not otherwise be exposed to Beijing Opera. Xie and Wang believe this presents an important opportunity to share the beauty and rich history of the art form with residents of other nations. 

However, the Beijing Opera tradition can present challenges to new audiences. For example, the language used in Chinese Opera is different from Mandarin or Cantonese.  Wang compares it to how much of Western Opera is generally sung in Italian rather than English. She says that while the language used in Beijing Opera is closer to Mandarin, she estimates that 99 out of 100 Mandarin speakers would not understand what the performers are saying. To provide cross-cultural translation, the DCBBO members include Mandarin and English subtitles in their performances, a gargantuan task that involves translating both words and the overall essence of the original dialogue. However, this hard work allows the art form to be more accessible to audiences.

While Xie and Wang fear for the future of Beijing Opera, they have hope that it will continue. They find that many in Washington D.C. and Maryland have expressed interest in Beijing Opera. Other areas in the eastern United States also have a strong Beijing Opera presence. The DCBBO often receives help from performers and musicians from Philadelphia and the New York area for their performances. Many Beijing Opera performers and musicians also support each other by traveling to watch others’ performances. These reciprocal relationships help promote and sustain Beijing Opera in the United States. The interest continues with younger people, as well. The DCBBO works with a group of college students in New York City who are involved with Beijing Opera. Additionally, members of another group with whom the DCBBO is affiliated in New York have been able to reconnect to their Chinese heritage and culture through practicing and performing Beijing Opera. These examples highlight the importance of Beijing Opera to Chinese identity in diaspora.  

Authored by Allie Stanich

Josanne Francis is an accomplished steelpan performer, educator, and nonprofit director who takes influence from calypso, reggae, jazz, classical, and Hindustani music. She has performed at many venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Francis is the former Executive Director of the Cultural Academy for Excellence (CAFE) and teaches through her nonprofit, Steel on Wheels. 

Francis grew up in Trinidad, where the steelpan has cultural significance as Trinidad’s national instrument. She began learning how to play the steelpan when she was eight years old after her mother found an ad for a beginner’s class at her community’s pan yard, a space where people practice and rehearse steelpan music. 

Once she entered primary school, she enrolled in a steelpan class. Later, she joined the steelpan ensemble in her secondary school, became captain of the ensemble, and began arranging music. One of her first significant performances was playing with the Starlift Steel Band at a legendary music competition called Panorama during the 2005 carnival season. Since she loved teaching and performing music, she decided that she wanted to pursue the steel pan as her career. 

When Francis was 19 years old, she left Trinidad and moved to the United States to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education.  Her undergraduate training exposed her to different percussion styles and instruments, which she teaches to her students today. After receiving a Master’s of Music Degree from Northern Illinois University, she began working for CAFE and has been in Maryland ever since.

As an educator, Francis is an advocate for first teaching music by rote before teaching students to read music, since she finds it more difficult to go back and teach students aural skills. She also values cultural relevance when it comes to teaching. In her words, culturally relevant instruction is when students can understand the learning material from their own background.  She applies cultural relevance to her teaching approach by doing things that are relevant to the students’ culture that they can easily understand and relate to while still getting the content she wants them to learn. Francis explains: 

You have to understand the environment that the students are in when they are not at school . . . also, when they are in school, you have to understand their cultural backgrounds and understand how all these different things in the environment come together and impact them and how they . . . act or how they take in information. So yes, as an educator, you have to learn and understand your students and their backgrounds.

Francis expands her educational outreach through her nonprofit organization, Steel on Wheels.  Steel on Wheels brings instruments, materials, teaching lessons, and qualified steelpan instructors to schools that may not be able to afford the equipment to teach the steelpan.  Francis’s purpose for starting Steel on Wheels was to make steelpan education more accessible and to create more opportunities for steelpan educators.  Through Steel on Wheels, she has been able to complete residencies at places like the Good Hope Recreation Center in Montgomery County, Maryland. Because of the pandemic, the program has been put on hold, but Francis has been using the time to work on the program’s curriculum.   

Today, Francis is pursuing a doctoral program for music education. She also hopes to work with the education system in Trinidad. Her desire is that Trinidadian students will have more exposure to music and the option to major in music education. When asked about why music education is important to her, Francis says:

It’s important to me because I know I have, I believe I have this gift of teaching and with knowing music . . . I like to transfer the information and it just makes me feel good seeing the students perform and not, not regurgitate, but apply everything that I’m teaching them. And let’s be honest [about] the way this world is right now. We need things like we need arts education . . . and art is a very, very, very important part of just being human. So [I] just feel like . . . it is my duty to do this.  

Authored by Allie Stanich

Daya Ravi is a performer and educator who has kept the tradition of Bharatanatyam Indian classical dance alive in Maryland through the Natraj School of Indian Dance. Bharatanatyam is one of eight styles of Indian classical dance and originated in the Tamil Nadu state of southern India. The dance style is a divine and ancient art, which was created by the gods and passed down through a text that Bharatanatyam Indian classical dancers follow to this day. Because Ravi lived in southern India, she learned Bharatanatyam from great teachers and gurus. 

When a student enrolls at the Natraj School of Indian Dance, Ravi expects them to work hard and dedicate themselves to the art form for ten years. Ravi estimates that 75 percent of her students stay at the school and complete the ten years of training. Only then can they perform a final debut performance. Ravi not only teaches students to dance, but she also strives to teach them the values, origins, and ties to Hinduism within the dance tradition so that her students can better connect to the art form. Ravi is a strict follower to her tradition and expects her students to attend class in the correct attire and to maintain respect. All the while, she deeply cares for her students:

When a child joins my dance class . . . I say I have adopted you here. It’s not just a dance teacher and student relationship here, it’s more than that. I will discipline you, I [will] correct you, I [will] do everything, and that’s how a good teacher is. And that’s [what] my teachers did for me. I have all their lessons in my body [and those lessons and values have] taken me a long way.

Ravi’s motivation for starting Natraj School of Indian Dance has always been to make a positive impact on her students’ lives by instilling devotion in their hearts and teaching them customs, values, and traditions associated with Bharatanatyam. She goes above and beyond to help her students and other young artists by negotiating financial barriers and giving new musicians the chance to perform with her students, which has helped advance many of their careers. Her students have performed at festivals and venues such as the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution, Wolf Trap, and the Washington, D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival. Beyond aesthetics and entertainment, Ravi believes that the purpose of art is to serve and inspire others. She tells her students that they have a responsibility to fully connect with themselves in order to connect with their audience, including those who may attend a performance to get their minds off their troubles. Since 2000, Ravi and her students have used their performances to give back to the community by donating all of the proceeds from the school’s annual dance programs to hospitals and charities.

Many of her students have expressed gratitude for her teachings about dance, Hinduism, and Indian culture because her classes help them connect to their culture. Ravi estimates that 99 percent of her students are born in the U.S. and some have a great desire to reconnect to their roots, which may or may not be taught at home. The lessons that she provides for her students transcend Hinduism at times, drawing on other religions and cultures, too.  She will sometimes research songs related to other cultures so that she can give all her students the experience to connect to their own religions in her classes.  

When she is not teaching dance, Ravi works as a paraeducator, a role that allows her to work with autistic children alongside licensed teachers. She has always wanted to connect with kids and believes that dance is one avenue to do just that:

If I put them to music and they could dance to that, [they would be] venting out their energy positively and they’re learning an art form and at the same time it’s for them.  So this is where I do intend to take this art form not just for art . . . but more as a therapy, more as making a difference in people’s [lives], be it anybody from people from our culture to background to . . . special needs kids, to everybody.

During her time as a dance teacher, Ravi has made a great impact on hundreds of students. Some students even go on to become Bharatanatyam teachers themselves – a fact that Ravi points to as evidence that she has “passed on the torch” to the next generation. Ravi says that she is always learning, even as a teacher, and says that you only stop learning when you stop being open. For her, Bharatanatyam is a lifelong dedication to learning that is not just an outward technique, but a spiritual technique that helps dancers connect to their souls.

Authored by Allie Stanich

David Julian Gray is a klezmer musician and the founder of the group Klezcentricity in Silver Spring, Maryland.  He was also a founding member of The Klezmorim—one of the first bands to spark the revival of klezmer music in the United States. Klezmer music is associated with Eastern European Jewish traditions, especially those of the Ashkenazi Jewish community. Once popular in the early 20th century, klezmer’s acclaim faded in the 1930s. The genre regained popularity in the 1970s and 80s, largely due to the rise of The Klezmorim. The Klezmorim was founded in Berkeley, California in 1975 and rose to national recognition during its 12-year run. The group was signed to a record deal by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, nominated for a Grammy Award, and performed at two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1983.  

Gray grew up near New York City area and was initially inspired by the music of The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, and the electric blues. He moved to Philadelphia in his teens with the goal of becoming a blues musician and popstar. However, he was also interested in Jewish music at the time and admired musicians such as Andy Statman and Dave Tarras.  Later, when he moved to northern California, a co-founder of The Klezmorim named Lev Liberman convinced Gray to join the band.  Gray says that the goal of The Klezmorim was to revitalize klezmer music and to showcase its beautiful repertoire because it deserved more attention.  

The Klezmorim began playing at folk clubs and folk festivals since, according to Gray, much of the Jewish community was not interested in klezmer at the time, and their record deal with Arhoolie Records supported the band’s credibility with folk music audiences. While recording their first album and playing a monthly gig at the Freight and Salvage, they were approached by Dr. Martin Schwartz from the University of California, Berkeley. Schwartz invited the band to his home and began playing records of klezmer music, providing constructive criticism for where the band could improve their performances of the klezmer style and their musicianship. For two years, Dr. Schwartz helped the band by collecting klezmer music, studying it, and then coaching them to gain a more authentic sound.  

In 1977, Gray decided to devote his life to klezmer music. His goal was to ensure that the music he played was true to the klezmer tradition and to make the genre popular again. Today, even though playing klezmer music is not his day-job, Gray still identifies as a musician and says that his music comes first: 

Even though I have this nice day job at NPR I like, which is what brought me to Maryland . . . first of all, I’m a musician.  I have to do it.  It’s like eating . . . I gotta play and I gotta play for people. [It’s] not just enough to practice . . . playing in a jam session.  Playing for a crowd . . . you need that energy, you need that back and forth.

After Gray moved to Maryland in 1996, he decided to form a klezmer band in the Washington, DC area. His friend, Ari Davidow, introduced him to Wendy Morrison, an accordion player. Gray and Morrison found that they worked together well and began playing gigs. Not long after, the duo added Richard Sidel, an electric bass and cello player, to the band and Klezcentricity was born. The original trio played together for 17 years, until Sidel’s unfortunate passing in 2015. Nevertheless, the band continues on with new members to this day. 

Gray says that he loves to play weddings because of the energy in the environment and because they allow him to take more risks and improvise in a way that he would never be able to on a concert stage. In fact, he describes the hallmark of great music as when:

You get into a groove . . . set up certain expectations . . . and then you start going where everybody thinks you’re gonna go and you go someplace else.  And the challenge is to do that in a way that’s musically satisfying, that really works musically, and that may also be supportable [and] defensible in the tradition you’re in, even if it opens up a whole new door to another world.

Gray does not despair for the future of klezmer music because of contemporary musicians such as Seth Kibel, Joel Rubin, and other klezmer bands. He is optimistic that the tradition will continue to flourish.

Authored by Allie Stanich