The Arts

Famed violinist tells the story of forgotten composers for Black History at NC A&T

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When Tami Lee Hughes picked up her first violin at the age of four, she had no idea that 20 years later she would be the instrumental voice for forgotten African-American composers. But that’s exactly where her hard work and long journey has brought her.

After playing with her first “toy,” training with a master teacher at the age of 12 and majoring in music at the University of Minnesota, famed violinist Hughes (who has since debuted with the National Symphony Orchestra) went on a journey to find her voice as a musician. And what she found was not only her own voice, but the voice of more than a dozen African-American composers who have been “lost in the folds of history.”

“I started to wonder if there were pieces that had been written by African-American composers (after college) because I had encountered maybe two during my entire 20-something years of studies,” Hughes said. “I ran across some really interesting things that had literally been forgotten.”

Hughes initially searched for forgotten works for about nine months, but says it’s become a continual, lifetime journey. The earliest composer Hughes encountered was Francis Johnson. “He was extremely famous during his time (1792-1844) and he was like the Michael Jackson of his time,” Hughes said. “He was a huge star. He was part of the first American band to tour overseas, period. This person is a pivotal figure in American music, and was the first African-American to have sheet music published, and yet he’s been completely forgotten. I had never even heard his name before.”

Hughes said she found a lot of “treasures,” like Francis Johnson on her search and her goal became to create an album of her performing their music so that she could bring their stories to the forefront, and also to record their music so that there would be a record of their work that would last even beyond herself.

And so her first solo album, Legacy: Violin Music of African Composers, was born and recorded by Albany Records in 2011.

Next week, Hughes will perform the Legacy show, a visual concert of her album, at North Carolina A&T State University in honor of Black History month and as part of the school’s Lyceum Series, which is dedicated to bringing the most provocative, culturally diverse programs to the university campus and surrounding community.

“Tami brings several things to the table that make her a good fit for our Lyceum Series,” said Carl Baker, who runs the program. “She is an African-American female that has risen to the top of the music world in her debut with the National Symphony Orchestra playing the violin. She has extensively toured the United States, Europe, and Central America, championing the music of African-American composers. And her solo album, Legacy: Violin Music of African Composers, was heralded as one of the top 10 albums of 2011 by all Music Guides.”

Baker said he is especially excited about including the concert as part of the school’s celebration of Black History Month because many of the university students “simply have not been exposed to this type of cultural experience.”

The show highlights African-American composers from the Antebellum Period, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement and modern times. Hughes also introduces each composer and their story, and reads a poem from an African-American artist before each composition. Hughes describes the concert as classical music infused with blues, gospel, hip-hop and jazz, all influences she grew up with in Louisiana.  “It’s music that people don’t know,” Hughes said. “They probably won’t hear it anywhere else…there is a richness of colors and sounds that come from these composers.”

To complement the musical performance of Hughes and her accompanying pianist Byron Sean, images of the people, places and events related to the African-American experience are projected on a backdrop.

“It’s so rewarding (to be able to perform this show),” Hughes said. “It takes years and years of training to get to the point in which an artist can do something like this. I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to do something like this, and I’m so excited to bring this history to life.”

Wanna go? North Carolina A&T State University will present Tami Lee Hughes in her rendition of “The Legacy Show,” at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23, in the Richard B. Harrison Auditorium on the university’s campus. The show is free and open to the public. For more information call 336-334-7571 or visit ncat.edu/events.

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