A stage performance via Heritage Arts Apprenticeship Program

Heritage Arts Apprenticeship Program Teaches Tradition, Celebrates Culture

by Chamidae Ford

The Center for Washington Cultural Traditions (CWCT), a Humanities Washington program, has partnered with the Washington State Arts Commission for their annual Heritage Arts Apprenticeship Program (HAAP). The year-long program allows an apprentice to spend 100 hours with a master artist over the next year, learning a traditional craft of their culture. 

“The central goal is to preserve and celebrate traditional practices that are either rare, endangered, or unique in Washington State,” Langston Collin Wilkins, director of the CWCT, said. “We really want to provide funding for artists to take time out of their lives and out of their busy schedules to secure the vitality of their cultural traditions.”

In the fourth year of its existence, HAAP has grown from supporting 10 groups or teams of artists to now being able to sponsor 16 different master/apprentice partnerships. Each partnership must apply and is then selected through an interview process by a panel of experts. 

“Each year, people will come from various backgrounds and various sectors of society who are preserving a wide variety of cultural practices, art forms, and traditions,” Wilkins said. 

The recipients represent a wide range of traditions and cultures. From Kagura, Coast Salish art and storytelling, Capoeira Angola, Gayageum, Haida cedar bark weaving, and Griot. 

Melba Mitchell Ayco will be teaching the art of Griot to Monique Franklin

“I come from a Gullah Geechee family, and so the Griots are very important to us, but we just call them storytellers,” Ayco said. “We tell the history of our families and we tell them what was good and bad. And using storytelling has always been in our culture, sort of like [how] we talk about folktales or fables that teach a lesson and to bring enlightenment.”

The partnership between Ayco and Franklin has been a long time in the making, the two having worked together on various projects over the years. HAAP generally expects applicants to come to the program as an agreed-upon team rather than pairing people together. 

“Ms. Melba has been kind of a mentor of mine over the years. And she’s an amazing Gullah Geechee storyteller. And I asked her if she’d be willing to take me under her wing, as she and I had started to do more projects together where I would be doing spoken word mixed in with dance, particularly around Black culture, Black history, Black rights, Black liberation,” Franklin said. “[I believed] this would be a really great opportunity for me to expand my craft. In my own way, I am a master poet, but I wanted to expand my storytelling, specifically in the African tradition of storytelling.”

Over the next year, Franklin aims to learn the art of twisting a story to create a better message while also adding comedy into her stories, a skill Ayco is well known for. 

Griots act as transmitters of information and providers of lessons while fostering a sense of understanding and community — something that Ayco has found to be universal in her travels. 

“Moving here I found that telling my stories, [they] are very linked to the same things that are happening to children now,” Ayco said. “So I don’t try to tell children about what they did wrong or anything. I just tell them my story so that they don’t feel like their situation is an isolated situation because it’s not. It may have a little different twist to it, but the fundamentals of that story are the same.”

Preserving this art form is important to Franklin because she believes there is a lack of communication within our communities.

“That style of storytelling has always been used to transmit the most important and sacred information in a society,” Franklin said. “And I feel that our society is troubled in many ways because we have an issue with communicating the most sacred and true information.”

Through this program, the sacred tradition of Griot storytelling and many other practices will be passed on to another generation. 

You can see Franklin perform this November at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, where she will be producing and starring in her first play, Mama’z Muezz

Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.

📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Heritage Arts Apprenticeship Program.

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