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  1. Internationally renowned Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti was cast into the spotlight at age 16. Forced to grow up in the public eye, she often struggled. Now in her 30s, she looks back on those years with wry humor.
  2. The award-winning author Maaza Mengiste writes of an Ethiopian home she left behind, dismantling preconceptions and bringing to light some of that country’s rich past.
  3. Once a wanderer pursuing creative endeavors, Dick Boak followed his instincts and created a role in the evolution of the Martin Guitar company, all the while becoming an ever more skillful artisan himself.

Segments

10:18
  • Literature
Maaza Mengiste: Writing Home
Maaza Mengiste writes of an Ethiopian home she left behind, dismantling preconceptions and bringing the country’s rich past to light.
Season 5, Episode 26
Maaza Mengiste: Writing Home
07:39
  • Art & Design
  • Music
Dick Boak’s Eclectic Adventures
Once a wanderer pursuing creative endeavors, Dick Boak followed his instincts to a role in the evolution of the Martin Guitar company.
Season 5, Episode 26
Dick Boak’s Eclectic Adventures
08:37
  • Music
Nicola Benedetti: A Great Scot
Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti struggled to grow up in the public eye. Now in her 30s, she looks back with wry humor.
Season 5, Episode 26
Nicola Benedetti: A Great Scot

Transcript

Welcome to Articulate, insights into the human condition from great creative thinkers. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, The Roots of Creativity. The internationally renowned Scottish violinist, Nicola Benedetti, was cast into the spotlight at a very young age, and struggled growing up in the public eye. Now in her thirties, she reflects on those years as necessary growing pains.

Nicola Benedetti: I believed my violent playing and my musicianship is so much better than what everybody is hearing and that it’s in there somewhere.

The award-winning author, Maaza Mengiste, writes of an Ethiopian home she left behind.

Maaza Mengiste: Fiction tells a truth that history cannot. And I grabbed onto that, and I had that on a sticky note on my computer for those moments when I wavered.

And the artist Dick Boak became instrumental in the evolution of the Martin Guitar Company, by following his creative instincts wherever they led.

Dick Boak: Instead of clinging to what I was doing at any given time, I was quite willing to let it go and move onto the next thing.

That’s all ahead, on Articulate.

The internationally renowned Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti was cast into the spotlight at age 16, forced to grow up in the public eye, she often struggled. Now in her 30s, she looks back on those years with wry humor.

Scotland has, for its size, had a disproportionate impact on the world. It was a Scot who invented television, penicillin, and capitalism. But the Scots also take humility, nay, self-deprecation to new heights, or maybe new lows.

Nicola Benedetti: I mean, it’s like with my mum, I’ll tell her something about I don’t know, a class of kids that I taught that was in Scotland, or anything like that, and honestly, she goes through this thing which is like, “You see? We are, you know, we should be proud of ourselves, and I don’t understand why we’re not,” and I’m just like, “But you’re just doing exactly what it’s not necessary for us to do,” which is this shock horror that we’re actually good at something, and it’s that kind of almost disbelief at the level of achievement that is there in plain sight.

The internationally-acclaimed violinist Nicola Benedetti is one of the more recent examples of Scottish excellence. She first came to public attention in 2004 when at age 16 she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. Now in her early thirties, Benedetti is in demand and thriving, but she says you’d be wrong to assume that her journey followed a straight course.

Benedetti: Felt like this.

AJC: Really?

Benedetti: Like this. I mean, just without any exaggeration, that’s what it felt like. I mean, just constantly, constantly being put in a position that I didn’t quite feel ready for, and thinking can I make it, should I try it, failing. I mean, the reviews I got within those first three, four years of performing were amazingly awful.

AJC: Did you ever agree with them?

Benedetti: Oh, many times I agreed with them, yeah.

The low point came in 2008 when a 20-year-old Benedetti saw a review eviscerating her performance of the notoriously difficult Sibelius violin concerto, on night one of a six-date concert tour. It didn’t help her play it any better.

Benedetti: I just couldn’t.

AJC: It’s a beast, anyway.

Benedetti: It is a beast, but now I now can see that there were really clear reasons for why I couldn’t and thought I couldn’t play it. Like, for example, I was continuing to do bowings and fingerings that I would practice for hours on end that just didn’t suit me, and were not right for me. That six months was a real breaking point for me, and it was never that “I can’t do this,” it’s,  “I can’t continue doing this like this.” I knew and believed my violin playing and my musicianship is so much better than what everybody is hearing, and that it’s in there somewhere. I’m not making the right decisions to unlock it right now, but that it’s there.

The violin has been Nicola Benedetti’s near-constant companion throughout her life. At age four, she followed her older sister into lessons. Their mother, Francesca, had no musical education of her own and was never aiming to cultivate a prodigy or a pro, let alone two. Older sister Stephanie is a member of the acclaimed electronic group Clean Bandit. Now the ever pragmatic Mrs. Benedetti just wanted to teach her daughters about discipline.

Benedetti: Her whole motto in how she brought us up, me and my sister, was like “You can’t do 50 things. You’re not allowed to do every after-school club. That’s not an option available to you. You have to pick one, maybe two things, and you’re gonna make it through the difficult hurdles and if you don’t like it, you’re sure you don’t like it, then you do something else.” One time I didn’t want to, I really was fighting with my mom to practice, as in she was telling me to, and I was saying I didn’t want to, and she said, “Well you don’t have to play the violin at all like that’s fine.” My life was over in that moment. I mean, the fact that somebody could threaten that to me.

AJC: But was it a threat? Was it like, be great at it or stop?

Benedetti: No, it wasn’t. It just—

AJC: Just achieve your potential?

Benedetti: All she meant was you really don’t have to do this, but if you’re going to do it, practice is a part of playing the violin. I mean, I was maybe eight. And I was so offended by the fact that she could consider that I might not want to play the violin. And I’ve never had a real crisis moment of “Do I want to play or not.” Never, since then.

At age 10, Benedetti moved to England to attend the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School for young musicians in Surrey. At 15, she found an impressive champion and mentor in Maciej Rakowski, former leader of the English chamber orchestra. Throughout her classical violin studies, Benedetti says there was a constant echo, a warning, not to go messing around with anything folksy, but Benedetti did eventually start fiddling around with traditional music anyway in her 2014 collection “Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy.” In 2019, Nicola Benedetti teamed up with the celebrated American jazz composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who wrote a concerto and a five-piece dance suite for her at the Trace the Fiddles Migration across the Atlantic.

Benedetti: Learning about America through Wynton is in equal measures deeply uplifting and hopeful and deeply painful. And it’s filled to the brim with emotion over the story of America, and I don’t come across that type of consciousness in many other places. I think he has a very unique perspective on the story of this country.

Today, Nicola Benedetti is at once at the top of her game and just getting started. She says that with each day, she gets a little closer to figuring out who she is and what she needs.

Benedetti: Without it being a motion against something, I’m becoming more assured in clarifying what I’m for, and I think I’m not under the pressure and in the rush that I used to be because I’ve seen the development I’ve managed to make as a violinist alone, purely technically, in the last six months. I just played Sibelius’ violin concerto a month ago for the first time in about 10 years. And I can play that piece now. Just like, I can’t wait to tour it next year, and I can’t wait to record it, and I can’t wait, you know, I’m so excited about playing it. I’m 32. Nobody would have told me that I was gonna be making some of my biggest strides when I was 32. I’m more excited and calm and positive about my potential to develop than I’ve ever been.

The novelist Maaza Mengiste blends memory, discovery, and imagination, to reconnect with a homeland she’d feared she’d lost. Mengiste’s family left Ethiopia when she was a child, spending a few years in Nigeria, then Kenya, before moving to the US when she was seven, but her native land kept calling her back.

Maaza Mengiste: My earliest memories of Ethiopia, they were memories of family and love. But once the revolution came in in 1974, I was three years old, and I had very vivid memories of those years as well. My family didn’t want to talk about it at all, so the memory’s that I had were almost in a lockbox.

That lockbox was shut at age four when her family realized it was time to flee after emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a Marxist military coup. Anyone linked to his regime, especially the educated middle-class, was considered a person of interest. 

AJC: What was the breaking point for the family to leave?

Mengiste: There was one moment I remember in particular when I was outside playing, it was New Years, and we had these little sparklers, firecrackers, and what we were doing was throwing them up into the tree. It was at night. Of course, I wanted to do this, I’m holding one up, it’s great fun, it’s a beautiful sight in the dark to do that, and as we’re singing and getting ready to throw these up, the gunshots started right outside our gate. And I remember it was such a jarring sound for me, and so startling that I shook, and I dropped the firecracker, and it dropped on my foot and burned through the skin, and I looked down, and I ran right into the house and I told my mother we can’t stay here. You have to get me out.

Mengiste’s father, an executive with Ethiopian Airlines, was able to get his family out of the country with relative ease, and once they became US citizens, they could come and go as they wished, but the earliest visits in the 1980s weren’t always easy. Beyond the boundaries of her grandparents’ home, it would take Mengiste years to feel accepted.

Mengiste: At this point, Ethiopians in Ethiopia have become used to members of the diaspora coming back and visiting, even in these more remote areas. They see us as Ethiopian, but also foreign. Before there was that level of comfort, Ethiopians could be quite cruel. And it was almost saying, you’re not really Ethiopian was like an insult. And it did used to be painful when I was a teenager. And then once I started writing, I started understanding that my distance from Ethiopia was specifically the thing that enabled me to write. And I needed that space in order to be able to look at history and look at the culture from a vantage point.

Whatever your vantage point, Ethiopia is complicated. Landlocked, drought-ridden, largely Christian, twice the size of Texas. It now has a parliamentary government, but in her novels, Mengiste looks back to darker times of authoritarian rule, famine, civil war. As a graduate student, she wasn’t sure if she should or could turn such cataclysmic events into fiction, so she asked her professor, the renowned South African poet, Breyten Breytenbach, some big questions.

Mengiste: Do I have a right to turn it into fiction? You know this is a national tragedy, and what is fiction? Like, is a fictional book, is this the best form for this history that was devastating to so many people I know, and to my own family, and he said this thing to me: “Fiction tells a truth that history cannot.” And I grabbed onto that, and I had that on a sticky note on my computer for those moments when I wavered. But I understood what he meant by that is history gives us data. It gives us location. It gives us dates. But fiction gives us the human being, and that’s what I felt that I could do.

Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, is set in 1974 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. By then, Haile Selassie has become the messiah of the Rastafarian movement. Ras means chief, and his family name was Tafari. With revolution brewing, his six-decade long rule, marked by both triumph and tyranny, was nearing its end. Mengiste shows us an 82-year-old man, broken, under house arrest, with only a pet lion for company.

(Excerpt from Beneath the Lion’s Gaze):

“Soldiers were posted outside his door, which was locked in triplicate, and then chained. Their fear of him was heartbreaking, compounding his loneliness and the largeness of this empty space he was trapped inside. They walked backwards into the room whenever they escorted his old servant inside with his food, doubly armed and wearing sunglasses. They scurried out as quickly as they could, too afraid to glance his way. The mournful whimpers of his old lion, Tojo, lulled him to sleep, and he tried to make himself forget about the garden just outside his window, which he was no longer allowed to walk in. Under the weight of this solitude, all of the emperors’ hours, minutes, and seconds blurred and ran together like a slow, dying river.”

After Beneath the Lion’s Gaze came out in 2010, Mengiste and her parents began talking more candidly about what had happened to them in the 1970s. Until then, her mother had always dodged questions about the revolution and its aftermath.

Mengiste: My parents were in Washington, DC, for my book launch for the first book, and the book was done. I was using my own memory and research, and other people’s stories.

AJC: And it’s fiction, lest we forget.

Mengiste: And it’s fiction, right. So she read the book, and just before we were on our way to the reading, she said, “I’m ready to answer your questions now.”

AJC: Thanks, mom.

AJC: Did she fact-check it for you, then? Was she like, “That never happened!”

Mengiste: What she said, actually, was some of the things that I thought I had made up, she said “How did you get that? How did you know that person’s name?”

Though some of Mengiste’s writing has been intuitive or invented, much of it comes from intensive research. Her second novel, 2019’s The Shadow King, set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, was informed by countless hours spent reading at Italy’s state archives in Rome. But Mengiste’s first draft, all 800 painstakingly researched pages of it, went into the trash. The narrative was historically accurate, but she said it lacked feeling and focus.

Mengiste: There was a moment of sheer panic where I said this isn’t the book, I don’t even want to read this book. I don’t want to read it, but I’ve just written it, and I knew at some point, halfway in, that that moment when I’m writing, going “I hate this, I hate this, but I have to finish.” And I finished, and I sent a panicked message to my editor, and she said, “Why don’t you come in? Send me this draft.” And bless her for reading it. The first question she asked me was “Whose story is this?” And I started again from page one, and I realized that Hirut, this young servant girl, who would eventually become a soldier, she wants to tell the story, at least to begin it. And if I can do anything, what could I do? And I looked back at books I loved. The Greek tragedies, Il Dottore, Toni Morrison, a Croatian writer Dasa Drndic, and I said “Okay, let me just, they broke rules. Let me break some rules and see what happens.”

Mengiste takes us beyond grainy, vintage newsreels of famine and war, showing us her country’s kings and peasants, its heroes and scoundrels, through contemporary eyes. Now she’s bringing other Ethiopian writers together to look at their country through an unusual lens. Addis Ababa Noir, out August 2020, is an anthology of crime stories set in Ethiopia’s capital city.

Mengiste: The darkness in here I think is very different from what many Ethiopians are used to reading. I’ve heard from Ethiopians, well we want only things that entertain, and I think that’s been a sense about writing, writing should be entertainment, or it should be religious, or it should be educational. But these are inhabiting a space that’s wholly their own. Still incorporating Ethiopian metaphors.

Having helped put her birthplace on the contemporary literary map, Mengiste says she’s ready with her next novel to change direction. The setting is still a secret, but it’s certain that whatever the destination, Maaza Mengiste will lead us on another absorbing journey.

Dick Boak’s life has been defined by creativity, curiosity, and a commitment to craft. There was never really a plan, but when opportunity knocked he was always ready to answer. It was as a free-spirited 20 something that he first stumbled into a job at the world-renowned Martin Guitar Company, which for going on two centuries has been the instrument maker to the stars. An accomplished instrument maker himself, Boak spent 42 years with the company, defining his own legacy by helping shape theirs. He brought to life Martin’s iconic customer signature line, collaborating on designs with the likes of Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, and Paul Simon, among others.

Dick Boak: At some point, I stopped making guitars and I started causing guitars to be made.

Boak grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the 1960s, but he never quite fit in with three athletically gifted brothers. By his late teens, Dick Boak had turned to illustration and poetry to express himself, even self-publishing two books of his work while still in high school. At age 20, he dropped out of college to follow his creative instincts across the country, which would eventually lead him to a Utopian commune in northern California, the Morning Star Ranch.

Boak: I was a back-to-the-earth, bean sprouts, geodesic dome building, brown rice kind of hippie.

After a few years in California, Boak grew restless and headed back east. Upon returning home, he began spending his evenings obsessing over woodworking, making instruments or Boak-struments, with any material he could get his hands on. Then, one day he passed a billboard advertising tours of the Martin Guitar Factory a few miles away and decided to take a detour, hoping to discover what made their instruments so special.

Boak: I was just flabbergasted with what was going on there. I had no idea. So I asked the receptionist, I said: “Do you have any scrap woods?” And she sent me around to the side of the building and I hit the jackpot with the dumpster, and the dumpster was filled with chunks of rosewood and mahogany and ebony and spruce. I’d never even seen some of these woods. So I brought my mustang around, and I filled my mustang up with wood, and I came back an hour later, and I filled it up again. I bet I came back to the dumpster maybe 500 times and started to get better, especially having materials that were appropriate for instrument making, and one day I was in the dumpster, the foreman at the back door, he knew me. He called me the kid. He said, “What do you do with this stuff anyhow?” So I had some instruments in the car, and I handed them up to him, and he said: “Well, do you mind if I parade them around the shop once?” And off he went with my two instruments, and he ran into Mr. Martin, who was maybe 85 years old at the time, so Mr. Martin looked at my instruments, and they were crude, but he said, “Tell that kid to apply for a job.” So the foreman came back to the door and he says, “The old man says you should apply for a job.” And, you know, I brushed off and went around to the front of the building, and the receptionist, she was doing her nails, and I said, “I’d like to apply for a job,” and she looked at me, and she said, “I don’t think we have anything for you.” And I said, “Well any job openings?” She said, “One opening, for design drafting. And it’s very specific.” I said, “Well, I’ve been doing design drafting for 10 years, and I’ve been teaching design drafting for four years, and I have examples of my draftings in the car.” And she said, “Well, we’re really looking for somebody that has woodworking experience,” and I said, “Well, here’s some lathe turnings and jewelry boxes that I’ve made from your scrap materials. There’s more in the car, shall I bring them in?” She said, “We’re really looking for somebody that has experience with musical instruments.” And I said, “Well, here’s two instruments I made from your scraps, and the old man said I should apply for a job.” So, very reluctantly she called human resources up. They interviewed me, and they said, “Well, I guess we’d like to hire you. Can you start tomorrow?” I said, “No, I have to go to the Bob Dylan concert, but I could start on Wednesday.”

So, starting out as a draftsman in 1976, Boak steadily rose through the ranks until in 1992, he saw a new opportunity for the company, when Eric Clapton appeared on MTV’s Unplugged, playing a 1939 Martin OOO-42. Lots of people wanted one, so Boak spent three years working with Clapton, and in 1995, Martin released their first custom signature guitar, Martin 000-42 EC. Days later, it sold out.

Boak: The success of the Clapton project was so great that it became my job to do more of that. And so my collaborations with artists were really an opportunity to listen to what they had to say, what their needs or ideas were about a guitar, furnish my suggestions, blend the two together, create the specifications, make it a fun collaboration for them.

In 2017 after four decades at Martin Guitar, Boak felt it was time to move on. Once again, he found himself ready for a new challenge, a fresh embrace of the unknown. Today, he’s focused on illustration and a new role as archivist for Mario Andretti, one of the most successful racing drivers of all time.

Boak: Instead of clinging to what I was doing at any given time, I was quite willing to let it go and move on to the next thing, and the thing that ties everything together, for me, is the approach to tasks. It’s the conception of the idea and then the gradual execution and completion of an idea. That approach, that process, is what I have come to recognize as the real art.

In the years ahead, as in his past 70, one thing is certain, Dick Boak will remain driven by his desire to make things that last.